Bell Atlantic workers say service slipping

January 17, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Employees of Bell Atlantic Corp., the telephone giant that bills itself as "the Heart of Communications," are disheartened at how they're treating customers.

An internal Bell Atlantic survey shows that a majority of the Philadelphia-based company's employees, both management and rank-and-file, rate the company unfavorably on the quality of service it provides.

According to the telephone company's 1994 "Heartbeat" survey, only 43 percent of managers and 33 percent of nonmanagement workers say the company is doing a better job of meeting customer requirements than the year before, down from 57 percent and 41 percent respectively in 1991.

Bell Atlantic, parent of the former Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland, is the sole provider of local residential phone service in all of Maryland except the town of Rising Sun in Cecil County.

The Heartbeat survey, which was distributed to employees this month and obtained by The Sun, depicts a company rife with morale problems after years of layoffs and demands for increased employee productivity.

"The results show that employees are under stress and they aren't confident that we're providing quality customer service at this time," Debra Swann, the company's business research director, said in the introduction to the survey. "It's obvious that we have an ailing patient, but one that shows no sign of giving up."

Among rank-and-file employees, "associates" in company parlance, 44 percent rated their overall job satisfaction favorably.

That figure was down from 52 percent in 1991. Only 52 percent ranked Bell Atlantic favorably against other companies as a place to work, compared with 63 percent in 1991.

The falling morale was even more pronounced among managers, 82 percent of whom responded to the survey.

Only 48 percent rated their job satisfaction favorably, a 12-percentage-point drop from 1991. The plunge was even more precipitous when managers were asked to compare Bell Atlantic with other companies as a place to work. Again, only 48 percent rated the company favorably, a 24-percentage-point drop from 1991.

Judging by the survey responses, Bell Atlantic's internal morale problems might be spilling over to the point where they affect customers.

Only 45 percent of managers rated the company's products and services favorably compared with the previous year, down 10 points from the previous survey. Among associates, 54 percent of whom answered the survey, the figure was 32 percent, down 5 points from the 1991 survey.

And when asked whether Bell Atlantic was making the kind of changes necessary to compete, 50 percent of managers said yes, down from 61 percent in 1991. Among the rank and file, 37 percent said yes, a 20-point drop.

Eric Rabe, Bell Atlantic's executive director of corporate relations, said the results of the survey did not reflect any actual deterioration in service.

He said the survey was probably skewed by the fact that it was taken last September, one month after the corporation announced it would cut 5,600 jobs over the next 3 1/2 years.

"It's a snapshot of an organization at a particular moment of as much tension as an organization is likely to have," Mr. Rabe said.

He noted that Bell Atlantic is moving into an era of intense competition in an industry that has traditionally been a monopoly.

"What you're getting there is a picture of a company in transition," Mr. Rabe said.

Meanwhile, union leaders pointed to the results as a validation of their charges that layoffs are cutting into network maintenance and customer service at Bell Atlantic.

"It dispels the notion that this is just a bargaining ploy," said Richard C. Verlander Jr., president of Local 2201 of the Communications Workers of America in Richmond.

Mr. Verlander said customer service problems show up in the form of missed appointments, service calls that have to be repeated, long waits when calling for customer service and telephone outages.

Company spokesmen have dismissed such accusations, accusing the CWA of using them to put pressure on the company during negotiations on a new contract this year.

Charles Gerhardt, executive vice president of CWA Local 2100 in Baltimore, said the survey accurately reflects employee sentiment in Maryland.

"As a corporation, they have loaded their management people and to a lesser degree their bargaining-unit people with added responsibilities without giving them the tools or the authority to meet the challenge," he said.

Amid the gloom, the survey did produce some encouraging results for the company.

Both managers and front-line workers reported a high level of commitment to the company, 85 percent and 75 percent respectively. And both groups reported increasing levels of internal cooperation to deal with problems.

Asked what management would do to address the problems shown in the survey, Mr. Rabe said, "Being candid and honest with people about where we're headed. That's not necessarily the easy route."

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