Liars on the Line

While US West delayed service for months, the company stockpiled millions.

The extent of this deception may be far greater than anyone has realized. In 1997 the company reported 3,656 held orders, but a February 1998 memo cited in the lawsuit quotes a manager admitting that US West "disappoints a quarter of a million customers due to held orders."

Many US West employees genuinely want to provide decent service to their customers, but the documents in the lawsuit portray a workforce that's been consistently undermined by executives at the highest level. While employees in the field continually told management they needed more funding to meet the demand for phone lines, their requests were ignored, according to the consultant's report. The company even calculated the number of held orders that would result from specific funding levels, allowing it to forecast its own failures.

One source in the company who works with the technicians who hook up new telephone customers says US West's anemic investment in service has taken a terrible toll on the technicians, who regularly face angry customers and have even been pelted with rocks as they drive down the streets of new subdivisions.

False front: For years US West claimed that there was nothing it could do about service problems.
False front: For years US West claimed that there was nothing it could do about service problems.
False front: For years US West claimed that there was nothing it could do about service problems.
Jonathan Castner
False front: For years US West claimed that there was nothing it could do about service problems.

Details


Previous Westword article

"Bells Are Ringing,"
August 12, 1999
US West put service on the line so it could make the deal.

"Disconnected,"
April 8, 1999
As US West pulls strings at the legislature, it could cut the lines to competition.

"Calling to Collect,"
October 23, 1997
The City of Denver declares war on the state legislature over a telephone bill.

"Circling the Wagons,"
November 7, 1996
Consumer groups are banding together to fight off US West's rate hikes.

"Hide and Seek,"
October 3, 1996.
US West's game: keep its service record hidden from public view while charging the public more money.

"Dial 'M' for Monopoly,"
July 7, 1996
In the brave new world of telecommunications, US West has an ace up its sleeve: the residential phone customer.

"The technicians are dropping like flies from heart attacks and stress," says the source. "The customers are beyond livid, and the poor technicians bear the brunt of it." (Apparently, turnover has become a problem for the company: A 24-page advertising supplement that ran in the Denver Rocky Mountain News two weeks ago was filled with glowing stories about what a great employer US West is.)

In September 1995, US West once again turned to an outside consulting firm -- at a cost of $2.1 million -- to tell it what it was doing wrong. The consultant spent six months investigating, and in early 1996 warned the company that it was not spending enough money to meet the demand for new lines and that a "massive" number of held orders would be the inevitable result; the firm also forecast that demand would grow by 37 percent, rather than the 7 percent US West had budgeted for. The consultant found that the wait for a new line in Colorado was longer than in any other US West state -- it took an average of 61 days to clear a held order in most of 1995 -- and that the number of held orders was growing by 26 percent per year.

The company hired yet another consultant that same year to analyze its re-engineering program. That consultant found that US West held no one accountable for poor customer service and that "US West managers tended to look for silver-bullet solutions for complex problems."

At the same time that US West execs were telling the public and the PUC that they were surprised by the level of growth in Colorado, it was boasting to investors that "seven of the ten fastest growing states are in our region." Colorado has been consistently ranked as one of the fastest-growing states for much of the past decade.

But not all Coloradans would share the pain of poor service equally. The company ranked each of its 1,231 wire centers -- equipment stations that cover a given part of the state -- according to profits and told its employees to give priority to the high-income areas. Each area was ranked either "gold," "platinum" or "bronze," and investment decisions were made based on these categories. Not only were wealthy customers more likely to cause trouble if they ran into service delays, but they were also much more likely to order profitable services like call waiting and voice messaging.

A form letter the company sent a customer in Conifer earlier this year makes it clear just what US West's priorities were:

"Due to the high cost of this project [to provide telephone service], it is not in our 1999 Business Plans and will most likely not be worked this year. We will consider this work for our 2000 program, however, it may prove too costly for that as well.

When service demands in this area support our investment, we will proceed with the work required to provide the service."

Apparently, US West had bigger things on its agenda than irate customers in Conifer. In early 1996, US West CEO Sol Trujillo told a meeting of company managers that he wanted to increase profits by $1 billion over the next two years. "I'm on a mission to generate cash," Trujillo said.

Trujillo made it clear that money would be invested in profit-making ventures all over the world, and he proved to be a man of his word. The company began a campaign to bolster its financial interests in projects far from home, putting together an exotic portfolio that included wireless service in India, cable systems in Belgium and cellular telephones in Russia. Huge amounts of money flowed into these ventures, just as the number of held orders in Colorado reached crisis levels. US West invested $681 million in foreign operations in 1995 and another $420 million the following year.

While all of this international cherry-picking was going on, US West was routinely ranked as the worst local telephone company in the country on national surveys. But this reputation for bad service didn't seem to affect the compensation levels of the company's top executives.

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