Telstra will move to reclaim ownership of all of 270 franchisee-owned Telstra retail stores in a move to improve consistency and avoid a repeat of COVID business disruption, the company said in announcing softer revenues during the second half of 2020.

The move “gives us the flexibility to better serve you if things change quickly,” Michael Ackland, Telstra group executive for Consumer & Small Business, wrote in noting that the company had called on staff at its 67 self-owned retail stores to reinforce its pandemic-hit contact centre numbers.

Major changes proved crucial last year, as telcos were forced to compensate after their heavy reliance on overseas contact-centre outsourcers proved problematic when COVID lockdowns took overseas workers offline.

With 65 per cent of inbound calls now answered in Australia and the company recently confirming that it will bring all of its contact centres back home, the company said its Net Promoter Score (NPS) figures had improved, with episode NPS scores up 3 points in the last half months and strategic NPS up by 5 points during the same period.

The industry response earned a thumbs-up from the TIO but presaged major structural change that Telstra – positioning its results as “building momentum towards growth in its underlying business” – now delivered in announcing that it would assume ownership of all of its retail stores “to deliver a more consistent offering”.

“It gives us flexibility,” Ackland said, “and means we can further embed our responsible business practices by having more direct engagement with employees.”

Restoring customer faith

Australian telecommunications companies have clawed back customer goodwill in the wake of COVID-19’s disruption, with fewer complaints during the second half of 2020 than the first – although recent financial results were a mixed bag.

Complaints about Internet services dropped by 20.7 per cent in the second quarter of fiscal 2021 compared with the previous quarter, new Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) figures confirmed, with all of the top 10 most complained-about issues declining compared to the previous quarter.

Complaints about Dodo and TPG dropped by 23 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively, compared with the July to September period when Australia’s COVID-19 lockdowns were at their strictest.

Although the figures were 5.7 per cent higher than the same quarter in 2019, in the context of COVID-19’s massive disruption the across-the-board improvements are “a significant accomplishment”, telecommunications industry ombudsman Judi Jones said.

“The industry, government, regulators, advocates, and Ombudsman have demonstrated a commitment over the past year to ensure continuity of service for consumers in the face of great change,” she added.

Yet despite the overall reduction in complaints, small-business customers represented the highest proportion of all complaints – 17 per cent – out of the past five quarters.

Although that rise “isn’t yet cause for concern,” Jones said, “the impact of phone and internet problems can be significant for small business owners who don’t have a back-up plan.”

What COVID giveth, NBN Co taketh away

Telecommunications industry group Communications Alliance Ltd welcomed the TIO figures – which, it calculated, translated to 1 complaint per 1430 services in operation for the period.

Southern Phone, Commander, MyRepublic and Telstra were the most frequently complained-about telcos during the quarter, according to the group’s analysis, while amaysim, Dodo, Vodafone, Exetel, and TPG were the least complained-about.

Yet satisfied customers didn’t necessarily translate to buoyant financials: despite the surge in remote-working bandwidth demand, Telstra half-year income was down by 10.4 per cent – led by a 12 per cent drop in mobile revenues that mirrored Australians’ reduced movement during lockdowns and office closures from July to December.

Telstra’s results were also hit by 16.5 per cent growth in payments to NBN Co, to $960m, as growing customer usage forced it to buy more wholesale bandwidth to support increasingly digital customers.

That growth – which CEO Andy Penn termed “the financial headwinds created by the NBN”, translated into revenue growth for NBN Co, which recently reported that half-yearly revenues grew 25 per cent – to $2.26b – between the first half of 2020 and the second.

Recognising early on that the pandemic would both test and validate its existence, NBN Co last year moved quickly to avoid congestion issues – offering retail service providers (RSPs) additional bandwidth for free, providing subsidies for low-income households, and stepping up its efforts to deliver 1Gbps services to homebound customers and businesses.

NBN Co added over 660,000 new customers during the six-month period, during which it shifted into a new operational mode as its network was declared complete.

This week, the company also announced it will deliver fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) to another 100,000 premises.