A Tale of Two Telcos

Last week I reported that, in spite of requests for information, neither TVL nor Digicel had responded in time for publication. I’m glad to say that in the days following, both of them contacted me. The way in which they did so was quite interesting to me, so this week I’ll share a few details, mixing them liberally with anecdote and observation of my own.

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Last week I reported that, in spite of requests for information, neither TVL nor Digicel had responded in time for publication. I’m glad to say that in the days following, both of them contacted me. The way in which they did so was quite interesting to me, so this week I’ll share a few details, mixing them liberally with anecdote and observation of my own.

As with all such gossipy pieces, it’s possible the end result will tell you more about the author than the subjects.

Tanya Menzies, CEO of Digicel Vanuatu, was first to respond. She apologised that she hadn’t answered in the time I requested, but was quick to suggest we meet for coffee and a chat.

The ‘chat’, when it happened, lasted over two hours.

Tanya, a Jamaican ‘to the heart’, as she proudly told me, has a remarkable personal history. Hired in Digicel Jamaica’s first month of operation as a customer service agent, she quickly rose through the ranks and was gained national attention in her homeland when she was named CEO of Digicel’s Tongan operation at the tender age of 31.

With an academic background in early childhood education, it should come as no surprise that this fresh-faced, composed young woman takes a caring approach to management. She insists that all her staff address her by her first name, and maintains an open door policy in the office.

She was quick to credit what she characterised as a very flat, non-hierarchical organisational structure for her – and others’ – success. She adds that she hopes to see ni-Vanuatu employees follow the same path to international success. Local staff report that the pace and corporate culture at Digicel takes getting used to. It’s fast-paced and tightly focused on results. Such observations notwithstanding, Digicel’s retention rate is high, and nobody I’ve spoken with has voiced regret about working there.

Menzies’ presence is one of quiet confidence. She dresses with understated classiness; her only touch of overt flair when we met was a stunning wedding ring, testament to the importance family has for her.

Her manner melds seamlessly with her appearance. She speaks softly, but with little hesitation and much assurance. Unafraid to expose the limits of her knowledge, she freely indulges her curiousity, devouring new information. I was amused to note that she asked more questions than I did during our extended talk.

Menzies doesn’t hesitate to admit that, despite her pride and very close identification to the Digicel brand, the operation here has its faults. But she quickly follows with a list of steps she’s taken to improve the service in the eyes of her customers. This includes dozens of new customer service staff, extensive training, and the quick localisation of all but a few positions.

“There’s a difference between rolling a service out and running an operation,” she told me when I observed that the honeymoon period for Digicel in Vanuatu appeared to be over. “We invest a lot of time training our staff, and that means some of the changes take a while to appear.”

Customer service is clearly close to her heart, not least because that’s where she got her start. She told me how she enjoys driving around Efate and stopping to talk to people about the service. The proof in the pudding is in the tasting, of course, but if Tanya’s character and calm leadership is any indication, the future augurs well both for her and for Digicel in Vanuatu.

I didn’t get the opportunity to meet with Ian Kyle, Managing Director of Telecom Vanuatu and Regional Manager of Cable & Wireless. But the fault was entirely my own. I wasn’t able to take him up on the offer of a coffee and a chat before this week’s deadline caught up with me.

Kyle represents, in his own way, a breath of fresh air for TVL. He too comes to us via management positions in the Caribean, where he oversaw preparations among Cable & Wireless franchises there for market liberalisation. In his public appearances here and in the long, chatty response he sent to me concerning last week’s column, he too demonstrates a friendly, frank and pragmatic manner.

In strong contrast to the staid, sometimes downright dogmatic approach that TVL management has shown in the past, Kyle’s influence has always been professional, strongly ethical and realistic. He’s overseen very touchy negotiations in several markets, and his handling of them was the subject of more than a little pleasant bemusement from participants in the liberalisation process. Some seemed almost perplexed when the intransigence to which they had become accustomed disappeared.

On more than one occasion, those with a view of the proceedings expressed surprise and relief over Ian’s determination to fight things out in the market place, rather than in the courts. Had it not been for his presence at the negotiating table, things might have gone much worse than they did for all concerned.

His approach is admittedly something of a departure for TVL. While he’s quick to decry what he characterises as the tendency for some commentators to attribute some kind of a dark personality to the incumbent, he states frankly that, ‘there’s no doubt that TVL, like any protected licensee needed a kick in the backside to [pick] up its game.’

He continues:

‘I’m a firm believer that competition is necessary for forcing that improvement on any incumbent. The new management team and myself have been spending much time, money and energy encouraging this honest internal awareness and service improvement.’

Kyle goes on to credit TVL with playing a ‘pretty decent game’ with regards to the whole process and observes – rightly, in my view – that ‘[n]ot many countries across the world, let alone the Pacific, have achieved as smooth a transition.’

While it’s always dangerous to lay all credit or blame at the feet of our leaders, it does seem fair to say that much of the flexibility and robustness that Telecom’s shown since the market opened is due to a fundamental change in attitude. And cultural changes like these often begin at the top.

Our situation here in Vanuatu bears a passing resemblance to the recently concluded US presidential campaign. Except that we have two ‘change’ candidates, both of whom have a demonstrated record of pragmatic dynamism and success.

Happily, we don’t have to pick only one.

Neither Digicel nor TVL are unique in choosing to play their cards close to their respective vests. Asked to prognosticate about upcoming developments, both Tanya Menzies and Ian Kyle chose to answer only obliquely, if at all. Nonetheless, they were open about their reasons for doing so.

I still maintain that openness bears sweeter fruit than reticence, and if nothing else, both Menzies and Kyle have clearly demonstrated their willingness to listen and to embrace change as an integral part of how they do business.