Friday, June 24, 2011

Customer (dis-)service: BT

DSC04791Broadband service from British Telecom (BT) switched off without warning three days ago and shows no signs of returning.  My communications are down, impacting the business, but I can still drive to a Starbucks or the public library to get online for brief periods.  It’s harder for others: The local grocer can’t accept card payments, and elderly neighbors can’t use their emergency notifier buttons.

I suspect that thieves have cut a section out of the copper cables again, leaving the village without telephone, television, or internet.  I understand the frustration and expense that BT suffers repairing the system.  But they are absolutely their own worst enemy.

I called this morning to check on the outage, and spent forever navigating phone trees and options while they tried to route me around speaking with a live person.  Some tactics (pausing before giving the operator option, using unusual response numbers to signify “I want to speak with a person.”) are just childish and time-consuming.  And, all the while, the charges mount at 0/.10 p per minute.

The advisor, once I had them on the line, insisted that I connect my computer to the modem with a cable, and that I go through a 3-minute shutdown/reboot of my modem before running a test and conceding that the village has been out for days.  He promised a 24-hour service restoration before conceding that it could take until Thursday.  He sent me a text message threatening a 130 GBP fee if a technician had to enter my home.

All I needed to know was that 1) they were aware of the outage, 2) Could they tell me what the problem was, and 2) Could they estimate when it might be fixed.  A refund for time that I couldn’t use the service and a temporary work-around would have been nice, but not expected.

Instead, there was only evasion and misinformation.

This is a perfect example of where Cloud-based computing is worry some; if everything was stored online, I wouldn’t’ have access to anything.  I use the cloud for backups and file exchanges, but never as my virtual hard drive.

It also argues the risks of eliminating land-line based telecom systems.  Mobile phone coverage is spotty in the rolling East Anglian countryside, and people get cut off when the broadband fails.  BT should establish a call point at the village hall for emergencies and to relay medical and emergency calls.

It should also be an argument for upgrading the network.  If the nodes were more densely connected, single-point outages couldn’t happen.  And if they dug up the copper and replaced it with glass fiber, then thieves would be less interested and BT could sell the copper themselves.

Finally, it proves again the observation that telecom operators and banks in Europe are absolutely the worst service people to deal with.  It’s endlessly difficult and expensive to sort an issue, and the go to extremes to make conversations uninformative.  But as long as there’s no competition and they operate like monopolies, it won’t improve.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A day out with the Board

Directors2My UK company, CamStent, is moving through three major milestones this month: the feasibility results that determine our technology viability, the formal close of our fundraising round, and the change in governance.  The latter one is the focus this week: we are adopting new Articles, appointing new Board members, and moving forward as an investor-run company rather than a founder-run company.

It’s a big, and welcome change.  Granted, I’ve loved establishing the company, acquiring technology, identifying the market, and recruiting staff and service providers.  But the questions are covering more areas that are outside of my experience at the same time that the answers become more consequential, leading to commitment of resources that can’t be undone.

A typical problem is the “deep vs. broad’ choice.  We have two possible customers for our anti-microbial products; medical device vendors like Bard or Medtronic, and medical material vendors like Dow or BASF.  If we want to appeal to the first , we need a focused portfolio of results that will lead to regulatory approval for an investigational clinical trial. In the second case, we need to complete a spectrum of physical tests and demonstrate resistance to a range of organisms.

This is a situation that requires” time by the river”: my thesis advisor said that there were problems that couldn’t be solved by searching the Internet.  They required a block of uncommitted time for *thinking*.  Bill Gates famously takes a yearly sabbatical just to read and think; astronomer Kip Thorne keeps a cabin in Oregon for solitude and reflection.

However, that can also become an exercise in naval gazing, yielding only solipsistic homilies.  To be effective, you need to add a social component, discussing ideas with experienced peers.

The Dutch were really good at this: our management team would take a day off-site every month, sometimes to discuss strategy, sometimes to “fix the plumbing”: always to communicate, clarify, share, and decide.  And to have a great lunch.

DirectorsAnd so it was with my Board (mijn raad van bestuur).  We spent a couple of hours going through the chemistry and microbiology results, discussing what is known for sure and only assumed, speculating as to how this might affect market opportunities.  They challenged my thinking about where the line was between being a device or a drug (or both: a Combination Device).  I think I’m on the right side of being a device (with a simplified regulatory pathway), but it was an insightful discussion.

I almost succumbed to my old vice of arguing with a recommendation when I needed to take a note and investigate it: it’s a  fine line between clarifying and arguing an issue.  I need to remember to listen and to take time to react.  And I need to follow-up on promises to get information or to make a contact.

But overall I found the experience very worthwhile and enlightening.  We have these scheduled monthly and I’m looking forward to seeing how the dynamic and teamwork grows.