woman talking with 2 men

What You’ll Learn

In partnership with Lead Tennessee Radio, WordSouth has four telco managers discussing how COVID-19 has impacted their operations. This episode includes Chris Townson, Lisa Cope, Charlie Boring, and James Garner.

Guest Speaker

Chris Townson, Lisa Cope, Charlie Boring & James Garner

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Andy Johns: How are other telcos adapting during this COVID-19 pandemic? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. This is part two of a three-part series that we’re doing on StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns with WordSouth. And this will be kind of something a little bit different. Hopefully, you enjoyed part one. This is part two of a series where we’ll be talking with telco managers about how their companies have adjusted to doing business during these unusual times. These interviews are segments of interviews done on the Lead Tennessee Radio podcast, which is a podcast produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association with help from WordSouth. You can find that podcast on your podcast platform of choice, and you can learn more about the Tennessee Broadband Association by visiting tennesseebroadband.com. On there, we’ll have the full episodes of all of the podcasts with Lead Tennessee Radio, so you can dig in a little deeper.

What we’ve done with this is pull out just the sections where the telco managers we’re talking about COVID-19, the coronavirus, and how it has impacted their business. The voice that you hear asking some of the questions throughout this episode will not be me or Stephen, as usual. It’s Levoy Knowles, who is the executive director of the Tennessee Broadband Association. And you may remember LeVoy from his long tenure at Ben Lomand Connect. I think this offers some good insight for everybody. I hope that you enjoy these and maybe learn something about how other companies are coping. Between the speakers, I’ll hop back on to introduce the other speakers so you’ll know who is going to next. The first episode here will feature Chris Townson, general manager and CEO of DTC. The next speaker will be Lisa Cope, who is CEO of Ben Lomand, next-door neighbors of DTC, so got a good middle Tennessee representation here. Charlie Boring, who is the CEO of BTC Fiber, also in middle Tennessee. And then closing this one out will be James Garner, vice president of operations for TEC. So we’ve got four great speakers here. Should offer some good insight. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll be back to introduce the next speaker.

Chris Townson: I’m pleased to say that we have been able to adjust just about every facet of our business to meet the expectations of our members and customers. We’ve seen an almost 300 percent increase in orders and truck rolls over the same period from last year. And that sounds like a big number, but it’s a real number. As we’re finding people needing to connect to telehealth, telemedicine, entertaining from home, educating from home, everyone needs, obviously, really good broadband connectivity. And we’re seeing everything from upgrades to new connects just coming in at a significantly increased number. And so we’ve adjusted just about everything that we do. We have allowed most employees to begin working from home to comply with the governor’s orders that are coming out and CDC guidelines and recommendations.

We are even having our guys that do have to go out in the field there, they’re now reporting from home so that we don’t bring them together on a daily basis to try to slow the spread of the disease. Our lobbies are closed to walk-in traffic. We are still open from the drive-thru perspective, but even they’re taking precautions on making sure that we’re handling payments and those type things through the drive-thru in a safe manner. Our techs do continue to enter homes and businesses for essential installs. We have slowed down on a few things, like adding a set-top box or things like that. We’ve tried not to go into homes for that. But to add broadband, add voice, those kinds of things, we’re still going into homes, but we’re wearing PPE in every home. We don’t enter a home without wearing that. So we’re communicating with customers more than we ever have where, you know, social media post. We’ve done letters. We’ve done bill notes. All of our customer experience representatives continue to answer the phone. And I’ll just give you an idea, LeVoy, with the two sets of storms that we had in March, plus the virus, we saw about a threefold increase in calls into the office as well. So needless to say, we’ve made lots of adjustments, and all of our people have been extremely committed to doing whatever it takes to get our members served.

Andy Johns: That was Chris Townson. He is the general manager of DTC there in Alexandria, Tennessee, where they’re headquartered. The next speaker up will be Lisa Cope, who is CEO of Ben Lomand Connect.

Lisa Cope: Some of the things that we have been doing is we’ve been asking new questions, and those questions aren’t really related to their broadband needs either. We’re asking you if they have been traveling lately. Or if they have been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Our technicians are wearing PPE on every single call now. And we have modified some of the services that we’re installing at this time, too. In some cases, we have been repairing troubles to the side of the house and then, if things were still operational on the inside, we’ve been walking our customers through the final fix as well.

Our offices are closed, but our drive-thrus have been extremely busy at all locations. And also new software is being utilized in our NSC, which is basically an interactive video experience where our network support center technicians can send a URL or have our customers click on a link and so there’s a two-way video feed. It’s very interactive, and they can actually highlight things from their side, which will be highlighted on what the customer will see, which aids them in a repair, or a fix, or just as an education process. So that has been a really positive thing as well.

Another thing is our employees have really embraced working from home and cultivating some new skills. And our technicians are driving their trucks home, and they leave from home in the mornings and they begin work. But also, I have to say that in this time of not gathering together, we have realized how much we really miss and appreciate the face time. And just that opportunity to come together and know how much it really means to us. And so in that regard, we really appreciate Microsoft teams and other platforms that give us the opportunity to actually see one another and just have that immediate feedback. And so where we’ve been missing each of this, that has really helped fill that void.

Also, I will say, as far as Ben Lomand is concerned, by this point in time, we’ve already had our annual meeting and just other things. And so we’re feeling a little adrift there. We normally have that behind us, and we’re firmly in the current year. So we’re still partially in 2019 and also in 2020 as well.

Andy Johns: I hope you enjoyed that good insight from Lisa Cope, general manager at Ben Lomand Connect. The next speaker that we have from the Lead Tennessee Radio interviews will be Charlie Boring, who is the CEO/general manager of BTC Fiber, formerly Bledsoe Telephone in Middle Tennessee.

Charlie Boring: Well, we’ve had to make several. Of course, one of the biggest things is protecting our customers and our employees. One of our bigger things is making sure that all of them are using their personal protection equipment. We have also reduced the amount of employees at the office. We have sent several home to work. Everyone is still working, but we’ve sent several home to be able to do what they could. Of course, you have a bunch that can’t. So we’ve just made sure that they are using their personal protection equipment, and we have bought about more hand sanitizer in the past year than I ever thought we would. We have 40 gallons of it, and we go through it pretty quickly.

So, those are the major things that we have done, which our work has increased totally. I mean, it’s almost doubled due to this, which is just evidence of how much broadband is needed. So just doing everything we can; using personal protection and keeping your social distance.

Levoy Knowles: What does this do to the urgency that you see that we have to connect all Tennesseeans to a reliable broadband network?

Charlie Boring: I think it’s imperative. You know, where we’re at now, I have talked with both of our major school systems that we serve in our area. And that’s talking with them about setting up some type of program that we can work through in case something like this ever happens. And there’s also those people in our area — you know, we’re probably one of the poorest counties in the state — so, you know, we have some folks that just can’t afford to do what needs to be done. And I don’t want those kids to be left out. So what we’re going to try to do is work some type of program out with the school systems that we can aid them in being able to get some broadband and things like that. And we’ve also put up some hotspots throughout our communities, free hotspots, that people can go to now and use that don’t have broadband to do their schoolwork, online classes and such as that. So those are things that we’re going to try to continue to do over the next few years and work some programs through the school system that maybe we can aid those students that aren’t financially able to do what they need to do.

Andy Johns: You’ve been listening to Charlie Boring, CEO of BTC Fiber, headquartered in Pikeville, Tennessee. Our next speaker is James Garner, who is a vice president of operations for TEC.

James Garner: Well, obviously, our first objective is to protect our employees and at the same time continue to serve our customers. We have had to make some adjustments, but fortunately, we had in place prior to the shelter-in-place initiatives, a public health emergencies policy. Our first actions were focused on keeping our employees and customers safe. We sent many employees to work from home, and we locked off our lobbies from the public. We informed customers of alternate means of communicating and paying bills. We relied on our online web support, drop boxes at each location, and local office presence for customers to call or to come in for bill payments. We also armed our technicians with increased PPE to offer better protection while performing installations or maintenance at customer premises. We did try to minimize our time spent at customer locations or interacting directly with customers and practice social distancing. Our technicians were trained on our policy, and we provided questions that they were to ask prior to entering the customer’s home or business. It’s very important to TEC that we maintain our network and continue connecting new customers while we simultaneously strive to keep our employees and customers healthy. This has been a delicate balance, but so far we’ve been able to handle our day-to-day activities.

Andy Johns: I hope you have enjoyed part two of our series here with Lead Tennessee Radio’s interviews with the general managers and other staff at telcos around the state of Tennessee. Hopefully, that was some good insight for you. You’ve learned how other companies are coping with the coronavirus pandemic, and hopefully, that helps everybody figure out what to do in this unusual time. I’m your host, Andy Johns, with WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.