BTC’s Existential Crisis: The Writing’s On The Wall

It’s difficult and incredibly painful to witness the current state of affairs over at the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC).

The company, which once sat atop the utility food chain, has been dying a slow death ever since it lost its mobile monopoly. The move paved the way for BTC’s competitor, Aliv to enter the market in 2016.

In less than three years, BTC has lost $110 million in annual revenue and in 2018, the company reported that it had lost 60,000 mobile customers in a little over a year as a result of competition. Ouch.

Defections from BTC to Aliv are only now starting to bottom out. But, it’s still not business as usual. BTC admits it has had to adjust its business operating model due to the steep decline in revenues.

The company believes it can withstand the competitive threat that Aliv poses. But, there are caveats. This week, the company’s CEO, Garfield Sinclair noted that the trade unions that represent BTC workers are making things worse by insisting on fighting at every step. He said both the line staff and management unions must “resist the temptation to fall back into ancient habits and practices from the monopoly days.” He’s right.

The unions are sowing seeds of discord and ultimately, it will be their undoing. They have rejected Sinclair’s leadership and said they will continue to do so until he resigns. The unions have also urged staff not to work with him.

The tactics and demands that the unions were able to make in a monopolistic environment will not fly today. BTC has been privatized and has competition. Real competition. So, adjustment is necessary. And for the record, BTC had a string of challenges long before Sinclair et al. arrived.

The union’s job is to protect its employees’ interests at all costs. But, sometimes, they go to extremes and do so to the employees’ detriment.

Let me be clear, I’m no fan of cutting benefits, slashing jobs or working employees into the ground in order for a company to be competitive. Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes when a company is struggling. Until the unions and the workers realize that things have to change drastically so that they can continue to eat, they will starve to death.

 

A Fractured Relationship

 

BTC’s top brass and the unions have been at odds for some time now. Things have only worsened in the past week following a top executive’s inflammatory comments.

Balan Nair, the president of Liberty Latin American (LiLAC) – BTC’s parent company – was widely rebuked after his distasteful comments about The Bahamas’ prime minister and BTC went viral.

Nair, who was speaking at an internal staff meeting in Jamaica, noted that Jamaica is his company’s best performing country. He said the difference in performance between BTC and its Jamaican counterpart, Flow was “night and day.” Ok, no objection there. Facts are facts.

But, he went a step further and mockingly told the small crowd that Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis could not even look LiLAC officials in the eye as he called on the company to hire Bahamians.

“It is so funny. I’ll tell you a story. Gary and I and a few others was [sic] meeting with the prime minister of The Bahamas on Monday and you can see him standing there and his crown jewel, BTC, is run by a Jamaican who’s sitting right across from him and he’s like, he brought up more than once, we need Bahamians and he’s not trying to make eye contact with Gary,” he said.

Nair’s comments resulted in swift condemnation from all quarters of the country and even saw Opposition Leader, Philip ‘Brave’ Davis speaking out in defence of the prime minister.

The relationship between BTC and its workers has deteriorated further following those comments.

Nair Was Wrong, But He Was Also Right

 

Nair has since apologized publicly and offered up a formal letter of apology to the Office of the Prime Minister, as he should. While it was clearly politically incorrect of him to make such pronouncements publicly, we cannot and should not ignore what he said because he is correct.

It is hard to validate employing more Bahamians at a company that is struggling. In fact, no serious company would hire more workers and inflate its salary bill if the company is not performing well.

BTC employees have been well-fed for a very long time. So, they don’t know what it feels like to be hungry. In fact, many of them don’t even act hungry.

For years, consumers have complained about the levels of service rendered at BTC.

Reports of unmotivated, unknowledgeable staff, poor attitudes and extraordinary wait times to resolve simple matters have driven customers away and kept them away. Couple that with unreliable service and it’s easy to see why a competitor was able to edge BTC out in the mobile division.

The noticeable defection to Aliv has led many critics to claim that Bahamians left BTC because they weren’t loyal. It wasn’t so much that Bahamian consumers weren’t loyal. It’s that many of them had been subjected to an entity that had treated them like subjects rather than customers.

In a monopolistic environment, companies don’t have to give great customer service. They don’t have to give the best prices either. They don’t even have to be nice. You either accept what they have to offer or you leave. You couldn’t take your business elsewhere. Elsewhere didn’t exist.

So, by the time a new entrant stepped on the scene, people were ready to cut the cord.

Unreliability has also been an issue for BTC – from dropped calls to system failures.

Last week, Chief Aliv Officer, Damian Blackburn called for greater cooperation from BTC following a major service disruption that affected both carriers’ customers.

The outage, which took place over the June 29-30thweekend affected fixed-line and mobile customers. The critical fault affected police control room and emergency calls and could have proved deadly.

As someone who has a personal connection to and affection for BTC, it’s difficult to witness the current state of affairs. My mother worked for the company for nearly 30 years back when it was known as BaTelCo. So, I’ve seen the company in all its shining glory. The company was good to my family and so many other families.

There are many Bahamians whose livelihoods depend heavily on its success. But, in order for BTC to turn things around, attitudes from top to bottom have to change. The unions have to cooperate with senior executives and work towards a common goal. Executives have to respect the workers who are making them money and treat them with respect. The workers also have to fight to keep customers like their jobs depend on it because, well, their jobs depend on it.