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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 6, 2006

HawTel still keeps many on hold

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

HAVING PROBLEMS?

Hawaiian Telcom customers with problems or complaints can contact:

State Public Utilities Commission at 586-2020

State Division of Consumer Advocacy at 586-2800

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Hawaiian Telcom recently confirmed what many callers knew firsthand response time to customer calls has worsened dramatically since a new owner took over the state's main phone company in April.

The state requires Hawaiian Telcom to answer 85 percent of customer calls with a live voice within 20 seconds. The telephone company is meeting that obligation when it comes to calls to operators and directory assistance but is falling far short of the goal when customers call with billing or installation questions.

In August, Hawaiian Telcom answered only 25 percent of billing or installation calls from residential customers within 20 seconds, and that was a huge improvement over the 11 percent it clocked in July, according to a report the company filed with the Public Utilities Commission last week.

"I'm so ticked off by the whole thing," said customer Brad White, a musician in Waikiki who has been put on hold for 15 to 30 minutes when calling with questions about his bill. "What business does the Carlyle Group have taking over a company if they can't run it properly?"

The Washington D.C.-based Carlyle Group bought Hawai'i's main telephone service provider from Verizon Communications Inc. for $1.6 billion in May 2005. Carlyle changed the name from Verizon to Hawaiian Telcom and took over all customer service responsibilities on April 1.

Verizon was much better at answering customer calls quickly. Last year, when Verizon was phasing out its involvement, 87 percent of residential customer calls about billing questions got a live voice within 20 seconds. The rate was 88 percent for business customers.

So far this month, the hold times for residential customers have averaged about 5 minutes, according to Hawaiian Telcom. While that's still longer than state requirements, it is a vast improvement from early May when hold times peaked at 28 minutes.

Leonard Bouzijin, a real estate broker in Kailua, said he has waited as much as 30 minutes on the phone when calling the company with billing problems.

"I finally gave up," Bouzijin said. "I never did get anybody on the phone.

"With the old company you could get ahold of someone quickly. They need to copy what the old company did," Bouzijin said.

Hawaiian Telcom spokeswoman Ann Nishida said the company regrets the frustration the transition has caused for customers.

"There might still be some hangovers (since the change from Verizon), but the situation overall has improved significantly, especially in recent weeks," she said. "Hawaiian Telcom will continue working on every issue until our customer service is better than ever before."

Hawaiian Telcom's customer service woes began following unusually heavy spring rains, which interrupted a lot of service. Call volumes were then driven up when Hawaiian Telcom Internet customers needed help switching e-mail addresses from verizon.net to hawaiiantel.net. Then the company suffered billing gaffes that led to even more calls to customer service.

In an attempt to improve customer service Hawaiian Telcom said it has:

  • Hired more than 200 temporary workers to handle repair, technical support and customer service.

  • Created an option for callers to leave a message after holding for four minutes.

  • Used a third-party call center when needed.

  • Required mandatory employee overtime, among other things.

    While the company has suffered major customer service issues, network reliability has not suffered during the transition, Hawaiian Telcom said.

    The transition also does not appear to have had much impact on Hawaiian Telcom's ability to provide operated-assisted toll calls and directory assistance. The company exceeded the state customer service standard for those services in July. August numbers for those services were not immediately available.

    Still some customers, including White, the Waikiki musician who said he waited more than 15 minutes for help with his bill, are considering dropping Hawaiian Telcom.

    In addition to costing the company customers, the slow response times could result in penalties or fines. In October the PUC plans to investigate customer service issues at Hawaiian Telcom.

    "We are very concerned about all of these problems that the company has been having since the cut-over occurred" in April, said Lisa Kikuta, a spokeswoman for the PUC. "The commission will be considering these customer service issues even further in the upcoming proceeding in October."

    Kikuta added that the commission is seeing signs of improvement.

    Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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