Why doesn’t Flow make people happy?

Since coming back to Jamaica just over three years ago, I’ve had reason to do business with all the cable and phone service providers on the island. As I also lived in Barbados, I’ve had to do similar there, too. My travels take me to The Bahamas, and some other Caribbean islands, and that has also given me the chance to interact with such service providers elsewhere in the region. I would like to think that I can be fair and objective, based on my own experience, but also because I want to approach things from a basis that tries to look for common practices. So, when I read on Twitter over the weekend another litany of complaints about Flow, I tried to think a bit more about what I have experienced. 

Now, first, Twitter is not the universe of public opinion, but it does offer a good set of experiences and opinions.

Second, my own experiences are mixed. 

  • My family needed cable TV and landline services when we first returned to Kingston in 2013, and Flow was the best option at that time (Digicel were not in the business, then). We made contact, and set up appointments for installation, and those were kept, service installed, billing set up, and off we went. 
  • My wife had business needs for mobile phone services, and those were handled smoothly with LIME, and she was good to go within a day (if I recall, correctly). I’m not part of her business affairs, but piggybacked on that to get my own mobile service. It was a little struggle because I did not want my account treated as a business line, but it was. (I tried over the years to get that changed, and thought I had succeeded last year, but read on.)
  • Because of some bad experiences with LIME service coverage as I travelled around the island, I decided to get another mobile line, with Digicel. I did all the negotiations with a representative by email, and only had to visit Digicel once to pick up a phone and thank the representative, personally. 
  • Over the years, I have had billing issues, with all of these service providers, but mainly over mobile phone services. In Barbados, I was very public about how LIME set limits on accounts but did not make those explicit with customers, who would then find their accounts suspended for exceeding those limits. That practice changed, and I think is now no longer a major issue. It was obvious that many business people, who travel, could run afoul of such practices and lose business badly when they could not use their phone lines (as one prominent lawyer made very clear in an exchange with the company, over a case she was pursuing).
  • I like to pay bills online and see little reason to stand in line in stores to do such transactions. I managed to set up such facilities for all services. I get my bills, I check them, and if I see problems I raise them with the provider before paying. That can take time. My biggest problems have been with LIME, now Flow, after them various mergers and changes of ownership. The most recent was resolved a few weeks ago, and involved my questioning the level of charges, which were several multiples of my normal use, and seemed odd, given that I am mainly a user of data via WiFi. 
  • I’ve raised issues using different mediums, and more recently have found that the best route differed with each provider. Flow (cable services) issues have been easily resolved by phone, and I have had nothing major to resolve over the past year. Digicel have been easy to deal with in store (when I happened to go to Liguanea to deal with Flow and ‘killed two birds with one stone’), and I have also resolved issues easily by email: responses were given within 24 hours, and my matter was dealt with directly or with one redirection. My mobile usage doesn’t vary much and my bills reflect that. With Flow mobile, however, I have had severe difficulties when I have tried to contact them by email. Responses seem robotic, and often get into a loop where the same information gets requested, and provided, and then are requested again, and so one, with no progress evident as one goes through the process. I often reverted to phone, and in the past, when representatives were not based in Jamaica, it could sometimes be a farce, where the lack of local knowledge could lead to silly responses. So, in recent times, I’ve reverted to using Twitter, contacting Flow’s main account there (NOT their help service). The response time has usually been fast, and it was not hard to get a little more response by point out that the promised follow-up had not been provided. That was typical of my last experience, that involved messages being exchanged over a six-week period. During that time, I had my phone line suspended, as the bill was unpaid, and the company doesn’t appear to have a system for continuing services while bills are in dispute (though this is not hard to arrange, but I can understand how it could be a problem if it became or had to be widespread). Things ended well, though. I got a call from a Flow representative, and over several days and a few exchanges of bills, we agreed to disagree, but Flow agreed to chop a chunk off my bill, resume my service, convert my account to personal not business, changed the name on the account to mine not my wife’s (which I thought had been done over a year ago), and changed the address to our residence not my wife’s office. So, by resolving a lot of long-standing matters in one fell swoop, I did not think that I had done badly. I’m up and running and would say that this shows that the company can do what it needs to keep customers satisfied.

But, why is that last experience not the norm? 

My own view is that management must be poor. At the top of the new-looking Flow, we have an energetic and innovative executive, in Garry Sinclair, its Managing Director. He has tried to go out and face publicly a lot of criticism of his entity, especially since its various recent mergers. Many feel that the mergers are the root of the problem, but he denies that, and it’s not right because problems pre-date the merger by years, and across countries. The merger put a strain on services, because the cultures of old-Flow and old-LIME were different. I’m not going to go into the family trees of Cable & Wireless (and its many vestiges of a Colonial-era mentality) and Columbus Communication (with its cutting edge approaches and management) and why that ‘marriage’ was always bound to cause a rift. 

But, what is management about with Flow? I try to stress that it is NOT a Jamaican company, and that its philosophy should reflect that its ownership and operation is international. So, it’s too easy to see its problems as the same as may appear with a true-Jamaican company. Multinational companies like Pepsi, BMW, Marriott and others or their affiliates, should be guided by some overarching company principles and practices. If that is not the case, we have a bull running amok. If local management is just ‘doing its thing’, we have one sort of problem. If local management has been trained in the general principles and they apply those, are those principles the problem, or are local managers incapable of applying those, and under little pressure to revert to good practices? 

I’ve watched and listed to Mr. Sinclair deal with questions and complaints live during a series of ‘#AskGarry’ PR exercises. Having participated in those, I wondered what they were really all about. It was hosted by someone me who was not really familiar with the company but offered a bright face. It also selected a few of the many questions, to air live, but never seemed to deal with all the queries (judging by the relative quietness on the timelines after the hour-long sessions were over). I don’t recall seeing a series of FAQs to which people could be directed, because many of the questions were not hard to deal with and the answers seemed credible, eg the problems caused by the stealing of copper cables, or that some users were being excessive in their data demands and needed to understand how that ‘selfish’ behaviour compromised service quality for others. That latter point also reflected a lack of infrastructure that was apparently being corrected, but meantime was a problem. Flow seemed to know the guilty users and areas of data access. 

Flow also seems to have a problem being what it is. It is a telecommunications company, but it has tried to be other things. These may be good things, but I wonder how focusing on those other things draws resources away from core activities. Some aspects of this are reflected on Twitter. We are thankful for their financial and other support of athletes and sports in general. But, for instance, when I see a string of complaints about service, I’m not cheered to see Flow tweeting updates about sporting events and being mute about those service issues. It just looks bad. It also smells of disjointedness, which is a management issues. Another example of that came a couple of weeks ago. Jamaicans had been told to cancel outdoor activities on our national holiday because of an approaching major tropical storm or wave. Yet, after this public announcement was made by Minister McKenzie, there was Flow boosting a gospel event in Portmore. Were they ignorant or were they deliberately ignoring the advice, and did they put the event above the safety of those who were attending the event. Eventfully, Flow announced that the the event would end early to allow people to get home safely. It seems implausible that, with all of the presence online, and it’s being in telecoms, that the company did not know what the government had said. Did they deal with it publicly? No. Is that a surprise? In the context of the way that Caribbean entities tend to deal with things, not really. Should they have made a public statement? I think so.

I know that Flow is not immune to criticism in other markets in the Caribbean, but I can’t speak to those as readily from what I see in Jamaica. But, they should know what customers really think and feel. In Jamaica, if memory serves well, Flow have had to respond to an upsurge in complaints, and deal with that formally with our Office of Utility Regulations (OUR). The last I saw on this was last October. Is the OUR satisfied? What remedies have been promised and which delivered? Do consumers need to raise their voices in other places? 

Flow does not exist in a vacuum. The volume of complaints ought to drive better service because Flow has serious local completion for both mobile and cable services. If that isn’t driving improvements, then what is really going on?

Why did Flow persist with this event despite government advice to cancel?