Madonna King: What has Optus learnt about treating customers properly? Seemingly nothing

Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin has had a tough week. Indeed, it’s mirrored the same week she had immediately after millions of Australians had their private details leaked in a security breach involving the telco only 13 months ago.

Back then, Bayer Rosmarin was attacked for her response, which looked as though it lacked transparency as much as empathy.

So what has the former Commonwealth Bank executive,who took over the top job at the nation’s second-biggest telco in April 2020, learnt since then?

Based on any judgement, nothing. A mass outage at a big telco, involving complex technology, should be on its risk register. And it should have a Plan B and Plan C when that happens.

But so should a step-by-step public relations crisis guide on how to handle it – and it’s the latter, not the former, which might send Bayer Rosmarin packing.

Here’s five lessons she might keep in mind if she’s lucky enough to keep her job.

Firstly, early, open and transparent communication is the very least customers should expect when something goes wrong. That was the lesson delivered to Optus 13 months ago when valuable customer data was hacked.

Hours of frustration

So why wasn’t it implemented this time? Why did it take Bayer Rosmarin hours and hours before she used WhatsApp to be interviewed over the outage, which was affecting 10 million Australians? What was she doing in that time – because the government couldn’t get hold of her either?

The 10.2 million Australians, who pay for the service, deserved to wake up knowing they were unable to make calls or send texts or access the internet, and that Optus was working overtime to address the issue.

Instead, hours passed and frustration built as businesses were unable to open, patients cancelled Telehealth appointments, and families could not contact loved ones in hospital.

Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin defended the way the company communicated the outage.

That meant the damage to Optus’ reputation was fast and furious. And potentially avoidable.

Secondly, any communication has to be simple and straightforward.

Instead, this is what we heard from Bayer Rosmarin: “In common with major global telecommunications networks, the Optus network is designed with multiple layers of fall back and redundancy. At the heart of this is modern intelligent router network developed with the world’s leading vendors.’’ It didn’t stop there.

“Despite this, a network event yesterday triggered a cascading failure which resulted in the shutdown of services to our customers.’’

While that might be a step up from her earlier pronouncement that she would reveal the cause if it was “relevant’’, it was nothing short of gobbledygook.

Sincerity deficit

“We don’t know, but we are working at breakneck speed to find out,’’ would have taken less airtime, and been more to the point.

Thirdly, when you say ‘sorry’, you should mean it. And the perceived lack of empathy towards the 400,000 businesses affected by the outage is nothing short of an outrage.

One story, from a Sydney barber, who lost money when customers didn’t pay, couldn’t take appointments and had to shut his business early, were ridiculed by the CEO in a way that made her look elitist and uncaring. “I’m disappointed that a barber couldn’t do haircuts today,” Bayer Rosmarin told 9 News.

“That seems like one of the few things you can do without connectivity.”

The story of that one North Sydney barber was also unfolding in Melbourne and Adelaide and Perth and Cairns and everywhere in-between. Her response showed no understanding of how her business customers rely on the service she promises to provide.

Fourthly, even a hint of self-reflection might work wonders, but an interview with Bayer Rosmarin on 3AW showed how the Optus boss views her relationship with customers.

“I believe at Optus that we are a customer champion and we go to great lengths to give our customers great value for money, excellent service and coverage and unique features … Nobody works harder to make sure our customers are looked after and trusted.’’

Set for a grilling

I wonder if that’s how Singtel directors, including chair Lee Theng Kiat, in Australia for the telco’s financial results saw it? Thirteen months ago, Optus claimed to be the victim in the ransomware attack, and asked for our understanding. Even a hint of self-analysis would have meant the Optus CEO would have addressed this second crisis in wholly different way.

Finally, Optus will now be subject to a Senate inquiry, a government review and an investigation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Perhaps it would be wise for Bayer Rosmarin to consider doing an ‘Alan Joyce’ and pick her time to visit overseas relatives.

Because if her response to this second crisis allows her to keep the top job – which should remain an outside bet – a similar third performance, in front a committee of angry politicians, will almost definitely end it.

Topics: Optus
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