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Ask The Boss - The Answers

avollmer
Grafter
Posts: 28
Registered: ‎07-04-2009

Ask The Boss - The Answers

All,
Firstly I’d like to apologise for this post being so long coming. Hopefully the answers will still prove relevant, and I look forward to lots of healthy debate.
I know the team amalgamated some of the questions where topics overlapped, so hopefully all the points have been answered but happy to follow-up. I'd like to thank all of those who took the time to contribute to the Ask the boss thread. I've done my best to answer each of the questions honestly and comprehensively.
Some background on me which might or might not be interesting - I was appointed CEO last November taking over from Neil Laycock. I’m very excited to have been given the opportunity to lead such a strong company, one that has grown so much over the last 12 years. Plusnet is a strong and popular ISP, and the commitment and loyalty that I see in a lot of its customers is testament to the hard work and dedication of both its staff and the wider Community - which includes the moderators, the Usergroup and of course yourselves.
Plusnet has been around since 1997 and has undeniably been a success story - growing up with the Internet in an industry that has seen as many failures as it has triumphs. Over the years, Plusnet has built itself a great reputation for customer-focus, value and reliability of service. These are my top priorities.
As most of you know, I joined Plusnet from BT. I joined BT Retail’s Consumer division in 2005, and worked on broadband and telephony. My role prior to joining Plusnet was as General Manager of Voice (the residential landline business).
Before we dive in to the specific questions, I would like to emphasise that I’m really keen for Plusnet to maintain its open and honest culture and am 100% behind strengthening customer and community focus. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s much here for me to learn, but at the same time I am going to provide strong and clear direction to ensure that Plusnet continues to provide the excellence of service you rightly expect - and to provide the products our new customers want to buy.
I’m also very keen to make your experience as a customer better and your contribution in these forums is of incredible value to help us understand your view - and for you to highlight areas that we need to improve.
Look forward to your feedback on the questions and to your ongoing challenge and support.
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New Products and existing customers on older account types
Are Plusnet committed to keeping all their "legacy" products in their current form?
Will ADSL2+ be made available, at no extra charge, on all accounts - especially the so-called "legacy" accounts?
Are there any plans to force users on legacy products (e.g. PAYG) onto the newer products?
AxisBBYW / Carrot63

Yes, we’re committed to keeping all the legacy products in their current form, except when numbers of customers on any given product becomes so small it doesn’t make sense to support anymore. But please be assured there are no plans for withdrawing any legacy broadband products at the moment.
We definitely have no plans to force existing customers onto the newer products.  A lot of our previously launched broadband products catered very well to specific customer needs at the time that are still relevant today. There is no logic for us to force a migration.
On ADSL2+, it is still in trial and we haven’t finalised our plans on whether this will be offered across all accounts but I would certainly like to make it available on key legacy products providing the development work involved is manageable. If you are on an ADSL2+ enabled exchange and would like to trial the service on your current product, please visit http://trials.plus.net
As for ADSL2+ pricing, again no final decisions made, but I would like to think we will be in a position to offer on key legacy products for no extra charge. We’ll work through our plans in Q1 (April-June).
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Why the changes?
The present product refresh appears to be the most unpopular since I have been a customer and stinks of BT intervention. Why, when Plusnet has started to rebuild the high reputation that it had, have you taken the decision to launch such unpopular products? And why, if you are so sure the service you provide is so good, did you feel the need to lock customers into long contracts?
We have heard plenty of times from PN staff, over many years, something along the lines of "We are not the cheapest ISP because our products are ALL designed to be profitable".  So what was wrong with the BBYW product if the statement above is true that required such a change in product strategy to produce Value and Unlimited? Is it the pricing of WBC/IPSC connections?
- glloyd/Godsell4

I would of course dispute that the new refresh has been unpopular – we have seen significant growth in sign-ups and also a reduction in the number of customers leaving us. Plusnet’s reputation needs to be built on great value broadband and award winning customer service – these are both priorities I am passionate about (see my answer on service and call wait times further on).
Like any business, Plusnet needs to keep growing. In order to grow, it’s very important we can compete effectively in the mainstream broadband market as well as to more specific customer needs. This requires us to be very competitive on price, which in turn means we have to align our contracts with many of our competitors to ensure commercial viability. As you all know, broadband is extremely competitive, and even if our service was excellent all of the time, customers still leave us for deals offered by our competitors. So, we have made the judgement that more customers than not will be happy to sign up for 18 months to get a good price, and that seems to be the case (although also note my answer on 1 month contract products below).
Important to note there was nothing wrong with the BBYW product set from an economics point of view. The issue was that 2 years after launch the market has moved on and there was very little growth opportunity left for us if we didn’t refresh our products.
But I do want to reassure everyone that I am committed to looking at how we can replicate the popular elements of the BBYW products in our products soon – look forward to getting input on this from you all on what you’d like to see there. And in the meantime as many of you know, can still change within BBYW products.
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Lack of monthly contract option
Why has Plusnet stopped offering new customers products on a monthly basis to products that are only available on 12 month or 18 month contracts?
I'd appreciate hearing an answer to this that is isn't just the 'it's the way the products have been designed' standard company line. If it's the way the products have been designed, then what is it about the products' design that prevents you from offering us monthly contracts, and why can't Plusnet 'redesign' them so that you can offer existing customers such contracts?
Why are you padding the Balance sheet by taking every opportunity to lock us into long contracts?  Is the reason for the lock in to a long contract the amortisation of costs incurred by Plusnet at the start of the contract? Why can't we have the option of a 30 Day contract if we elect to pay any such costs in advance?
- Santiago / Be3G / Wheel_nut

As per the answer above I’m very happy to look at reintroducing 1 month contracts for new customers. You’re right the products would need to be redesigned (mainly a bit of a higher price either in up front costs or higher monthly fee than the “value” range). But I’m very open to this.
However, my priority with the “Value” refresh was to make sure we had broadband pricing launched which would enable the business to get back to growth. Given we need to prioritise what we work on, I decided to put 1 month contracts for new customers on hold for a period while we launched the value range.
I’m very happy to work with the community to build new, flexible broadband products that are both competitive and versatile
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Vision
Could we have a brief outline for where Anthony sees Plusnet in 18 months time?  Obviously with many customers now joining up for 18 month contracts, it's nice to get word "from, the top" of how the Boss sees the company developing itself in that period.
What is PN going to do to differentiate itself from its competitors?
- Barry Zubel / Godsell4

Yes of course – the most important priorities for me are:

  • Healthy growth of Plusnet’s customer base (residential and business), by offering very attractive broadband and home phone products (that include new services and features e.g. ADSL2+)

  • Market leading customer service providing excellent customer satisfaction all of the time to all our customers

  • Creating the opportunity for everyone in the company to help drive growth and keep improving our standards of customer service

  • Continue to build on the successful model of a high level of engagement with our customers to inform every decision that we make


If we’re successful in these goals, then 18 months from now Plusnet will be viewed as a renewed growth player in the broadband market, with an ever increasing following, and widely known for the highest possible standards of customer service. We will therefore differentiate on being the best value and best quality standalone broadband provider in the UK.
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Investment
Does Plusnet intend to maintain the current level of investment on equipment, to keep up with the growing customer numbers, so as to not become over congested?
Dieselglider

Definitely. As you may have seen from the recent blog posts from the team, we’re adding new capacity as soon as our forecast indicates it’s needed. We’re also spending a lot of time as a company making sure we have the good quality forecasts in place across the business to make sure our investment is optimised to maintain, and in some cases improve, quality of service (in the broadest sense) to all our customers.
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Market areas & perceived value
Why have prices for Market1 customers increased? Is that 20% of people you do not want as customers?
Godsell4

Definitely not, and I’m very glad we’re still seeing lots of sign-ups from customers in market 1 and 2 areas. The prices have increased slightly but the usage limit also increased from 2GB to 10GB and we judged that on balance customers would be prepared to pay a bit more for all the extra usage.
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Why does Plusnet feel the need to hide the price structure for the new products?
First by only giving an introductory price as the "headline" price, then by basing this on the cheaper Market 3 exchanges, then making it apparently impossible to find a page which clearly outlines the different monthly charges for the different product combinations, on the different exchanges.
I failed to find it, and when I posted a question here - no-one else has been able to point me at it either. As things stand, I am unable to advise a potential referral what they would pay on an ongoing basis for the package they would want. Needless to say - they are looking elsewhere.
Please don't think that hiding the prices behind the "buy now" button is acceptable. Would you go into a shop and say "I'll take that please" with absolutely no idea what you will pay?
- tonycollinet

I take the feedback and we’ll look at what we can do here especially for referrals. When we decided to vary our pricing depending on exchange areas, we worked hard to make the pricing as simple as possible. Hence if you’re in a market 3 exchange area (use the line checker to find out) you will pay £5.99 per month every month. If you’re in market 1 & 2, then its £5.99 for first 3 months, then £11.99. That’s it. Unlimited works on the same principle, just with higher pricing.
Its critical that anyone who is interested can find out how much they would pay before they sign-up which is how the currently online journey is organised (via the check availability button).
For market 1&2 potential customers, we do make very clear in the line checker results what the ongoing price will be. On balance, customers do respond to introductory pricing deals – which is why the whole industry use them – but I do accept that clarity is key and we’ll keep working to make the pricing as transparent as we can.
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Cost of Support calls
Why have PN now reverted to money making 0845 numbers for the CSC? I am an Anytime+ customer too, so are 0845 numbers now free to call?
Do Plusnet have any plans to start charging for calls to Customer service/tech support through 0870 or premium rate numbers?
Might we see a number in the 03 range to replace the soon-to-be-canned geographical number?
Godsell4 / Carrot63 / 4candles

We certainly have no plans to use 0870 or premium rate lines. In fact, we’re doing the opposite - we will shortly be announcing that we will offer inclusive calls to our call centres on the 0845 support number on our Plusnet telephone service plans all day, every day. Given this, we’re not looking at an 03 number range as well.
Key reason behind moving away from the 0114 number was operational – I would have like to have kept it if it wasn’t for this. The reason was that Plusnet’s IVR system (which allows to us route calls between our Sheffield and Durban call centres) will not support the 0114 number. So in order to make sure we can balance the load across the 2 call centres and answer the phones, we took the decision to stop publicising the 0114 number. This has helped us significantly to improve our call answer rate.
James blogged about the IVR here:
http://community.plus.net/blog/2008/11/25/the-plusnet-csc-telephone-system/
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Usergroup’s involvement in Product design and feedback
Why were PUG given so little advance notice of the new products? Has PN decided to stop using PUG in the product planning process?  PUG raised concerns/questions but PN went ahead anyway.
Godsell4

I’m committed to involving PUG in the product planning process (see points above on developing some specific 1 month flexible products) and arguably we should have involved PUG slightly earlier in the launch of the new products. Valuable input was given when we did for which I and the team are grateful and we made changes accordingly. My overall expectation is that the Plusnet team should lead product development and then consult on our proposal. That is the opportunity for PUG to contribute and we can make final decisions, and as a result,  the product launches should be stronger for it.
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Customer Support Centre
Are there any plans to outsource more Customer Support in the foreseeable future? Is the South African support operation likely to grow substantially?
Does PN have an positive commitment to maintain and grow the size of the Sheffield operation if the company grows
AxisBBYW / Carrot63 / Mal0z

We’ve had a support centre over in South Africa for a while now which we took over at the time we started looking after the Madasafish, Greenbee and Waitrose services. You can see what’s going on with the customer support centre on the blogs here http://community.plus.net/blog/category/customer-services/
We don't anticipate the South African CSC operation to grow substantially in the short term, but as our customer base grows, we are looking at options for where to increase our staff levels to make sure we can provide a very high standard of service. Recently, we have been hiring new staff in Sheffield to support the growth in demand, but clearly there is also the option to grow South Africa further down the line.
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Degree of ‘independence’ from BT parent
What issues does you have control over, and on which issues is it necessary to gain BT's "advice" as to your decisions?
Due to BT's disastrous business performance over the last financial year, has a decision been taken that all business units must provide maximum returns in the near future?
AxisBBYW

Plusnet is wholly owned by BT Retail, and I report to senior management in BT Retail. Our strategy needs to be aligned and agreed with BT Retail, and I and the team are working increasingly closely with the BT Consumer and BT Business teams in a number of areas to look for opportunities for growth, to share expertise and so on. Day to day we have a lot of autonomy to run our own affairs, but key decisions are of course agreed with BT (as they have been since the acquisition in 2007 so nothing new here). As regards our performance plans, we’ve not designed our strategy to maximise returns in the short term – we are instead investing for growth.
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Referrals
Does Plusnet intend to continue using referrals as a cost-effective means of getting new business, if so how? What other means will be used and what will their relative importance and targets be?
- HPSauce

Yes, absolutely. Referrals have always been a big part of Plusnet and will continue to be so.  I’d like to revitalise our referral model – this is a priority for the marketing team to look at.
More broadly as you’ll know, Plusnet uses affiliate sites, word of mouth and some one-off marketing campaigns (online advertising, direct mailing, etc). We need to get the right balance across all these activities and lot of work is underway at the moment to evaluate what the best options are.
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Is Plusnet going more mainstream?
Plusnet has traditionally built its business on catering to "the more discerning broadband user", the type of person who does not simply look at headline prices but also weighs other pros and cons. The latest PN offerings suggest an attempt to be "more mainstream" by offering high-quota packages and removing the frills. Does the traditional model of loyal customers and business through referrals no longer form a key part of the PN future roadmap?
Laser

Referrals will still form a key part of what we do, and I absolutely want Plusnet to be known as a logical choice for the more discerning user. We’ll do this by continuing to invest in service standards and our offering a range of attractive products.
But I also want Plusnet to grow strongly, which means appealing to the more mainstream market – so we will be doing this as well.
Ultimately I think they lead to the same place – a group of loyal customers driving business through referrals. The reality prior to the recent refresh was that we were losing some customers and struggling to attract new ones, which we have now successfully reversed.
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Why have you removed the ‘frills’?
I can see that 'no-frills' broadband might be interesting to some but Plusnet hasn't been aimed primarily at that group. With this in mind why isn't the BBYW range still kept as a choice?
Why remove all the nice (free) 'value-added' features - domain hosting & webspace for example? These provide a nice facility for people who have a small, low traffic, non-commercial site and can't justify commercial hosting.
Will an alternative be offered? Or is stuff like this no longer seen as part of Plusnet's business?  - hop
Laser / The 10th

I’m very happy to look at offering BBYW similar products with some features so long as a reasonable level demand is there.
The new products were simplified to make the sales, product, and signup pages much less complicated and easier to navigate. The number of customers using many of our value-added services (such as webspace or CGI) is low, and we wanted to take the opportunity to review what we're offering, and make sure these services really do add value to our product range, and to our brand.
But I am very open minded on this and am happy to consider how we make available a service for new and existing customers with these features and short contracts so long as there is demand.
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When are we likely to see new Business products?
When will the business refresh now take place? Will there be business packages suitable for low volume business users?
Is it Plusnet’s long term aim to drop out of (or reduce) the business sector of the market and concentrate on the residential aspects instead?
Mal0z / Spider

We are absolutely not planning to drop out of the business market or reduce our business sector plans. Our Plusnet Partner product is continuing to grow in strength and we’re finalising our plans for a competitive Business Product Refresh, which should be in place before the end of June. We’re looking to grow as a business in both Consumer and Business products.  I do fully expect us to have an entry level business broadband product as part of that refresh.
I appreciate that many customers have been waiting a while for the Business Product Refresh to come around, but I hope you’ll be pleased when we do offer the new products.
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What numbers can you give us to demonstrate that the new products are working?
How does the take up of the new products by new customers compare to expectations?
Has there been any significant change in the number of referrals since 17 Feb?
Has there been any significant change in the number of new sign-ups since 17 Feb?
How many Plusnet customers are there currently, and what figure do you expect/hope for a year from now?
How does the take up of the new products compare from existing customers before and after the reduction on contract length from 18 months to 12 months?
- 4candles  / Spider

I’m pleased with the sales performance of the new products though there is definitely more still to do. We're looking at a range of initiatives to continue to grow sales.
Referrals have continued to perform as they did prior to the Residential Product Refresh – and I think there is much more potential here.
Between October and December of last year we barely grew. Since the launch of the new products, signups have increased by 67% and we’ve seen a steady flow of existing customers moving to the new products.
We now have in excess of 300,000 customers across all our brands. I hope you’ll understand that I can’t comment on what our actual signup targets are for the next financial year.
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Long call waiting times
Which? Computing found that the average wait to speak to someone on an ISP technical support line is 1 minute 33 seconds. Plusnet customers have the longest average wait of nearly eight minutes. Are any plans in hand to improve on this dire statistic?
- 4candles

Definitely – I was very disappointed with this result. We’ve brought on new staff to support the refresh, and I’m working with the operational team on a new forecasting and resource planning approach which will mean that we are able to offer a consistently high standard of call answer rate, which is what I know you all expect of Plusnet. This is a priority for me and our call wait times since the last week of March have been back at the levels I expect.
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Phorm / Webwise
Are there any plans to use Phorm (Webwise) or any other kind of advertising revenue money maker technology to the Plusnet network? And if so would some of the profit be used to offer lower monthly bills to PN broadband customers?
Asbodog (also asked by AxisBBYW & Carrot63)

Currently we have no plans to implement Webwise or any similar technology.
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Do you read the forums?
Does the boss think that he will have time to read the forums in the future or will he be more likely to receive communications from customers in the form of a letter?
- TheLegend

Yes – I always learn a lot. I will post more going forward; I hope you all understand that I wanted some settling in time. But recognise I’ve not been as visible as some of you would like so happy to change this.
I also hope you’re getting the answers you need from our comms team and you can be sure that I and the Leadership team are briefed every week by them. I know a lot of what is read is used to determine decisions in the company.
Please don’t start sending me letters as then I know I will have failed!
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Future Improvements
Please can we have a schedule for the release of Phase 2 (and subsequent releases) of the Product Refresh.

A lot of items which were identified as part of the initial product definition are currently going through our development process (minor improvements largely, along with internal improvements and problem fixes). We are continuing to look at next steps in the product design, and discussing these with PUG, before scheduling these as we do with any upcoming project work.
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Resilience
Do you see the billing system in its current form to offer a necessary level of resiliency?

We have made some major changes to the way that our systems work, and to the billing process as a whole, which will ensure the platform remains resilient. There have been some issues recently, which we're very aware of, and have worked to resolve. Most of these have related to legacy code issues, which were to be expected to some extent with the amount of changes we have made.
The processes themselves are now very stable and successful, and can be configured and changed a lot more easily than our previous ones could. This should stand us in good stead for the future, and ensure we don't have as many issues next time we want to make major changes across the board.
But we’re not complacent on this issue (and others like it). I have asked the team to conduct an audit of all our key platforms and systems to make sure we know where our vulnerabilities lie so we can plan investment accordingly.
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Community Veteran
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Re: Ask The Boss - The Answers

Please direct all discussion in the thread available here
B.