For chief executive officer George Cope, one of the most important achievements in BCE Inc.'s first quarter had little to do with its financial position.
BCE, he said, is making great strides in fixing its customer service, although he acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to do to earn the love of clients.
“Maybe most important … in the quarter was the dramatic improvement in customer satisfaction,” he told analysts on a conference call following the release of the financial results, which showed a boost in first-quarter earnings of 8.7 per cent. “We continue to see call volumes drop into all of our call centres and we saw a reduction in churn across all of Bell services and improvement in customer loyalty.”
Mr. Cope repeated that message a few minutes later at the company’s annual meeting, held in Ottawa this year, where he told shareholders that the focus on service is “paramount.”
BCE has invested $600-million in service enhancements since 2008, he said, and has built online service applications, improved its performance with in-home installations, and opened three call centres in Ontario and Quebec.
“We are far from perfect,” he acknowledged, adding that the company’s efforts have reduced customer turnover in all its home and wireless services.
Some shareholders are still not satisfied. Service “still needs a lot of work,” one shareholder told the executives in the question period, complaining that too many of the company’s call centres are located outside the country.
At the meeting, Mr. Cope insisted there is sufficient competition in the mobile phone business in Canada, despite the failure of smaller companies to gain a foothold and the government’s failure to attract a large foreign player. “It couldn’t be more competitive,” he said.
Indeed, the intense competition is why BCE has boosted the number of its kiosks to sell Bell phones, he said, and why it made sure its The Source retail outlets emphasize marketing of the company’s own handsets. BCE had fallen behind in wireless distribution, Mr. Cope said, but those moves have helped it catch up.
He suggested Canadian wireless prices are not out of whack with those in other countries. He acknowledged that there was one area of customer concern over pricing – roaming rates – that was justified, and said BCE has addressed that by cutting those fees. U.S. roaming rates have fallen as much as 50 per cent, he said.
Mr. Cope said BCE was “absolutely thrilled” with the outcome of the recent spectrum auctions, which gave the company the capacity to expand its geographic coverage, services and products.
Strong growth in the wireless division, and contributions to the media business from last year’s acquisition of Astral Media, helped BCE boost its first quarter net earnings to $615-million or 79 cents a share, from $566-million or 73 cents a year earlier.
On an adjusted basis, net profit was $626-million or 81 cents a share compared with 77 cents.
The returns beat analysts’ consensus estimate of 76 cents a share for the quarter.
In the key wireless business, operating revenue was up 4.5 per cent to $1.5-billion.
“Bell continues to gain wireless market share and is showing continued improvement in customer quality and lower churn, which should continue to support the company going forward,” Desjardins Securities analyst Maher Yaghi said in a research note.
Bell Mobile TV had 1.33-million subscribers, up from about 800,000 at the same time last year. Bell Fibe TV’s net new customers in the quarter reached 54,680, up 15.2 per cent. The company now has more than half a million Fibe customers, and it is “truly taking market share” from the cable companies, Mr. Cope told shareholders.
He said the “one soft spot” for BCE was in its sales to business customers, which declined in the quarter. That won’t turn around until economic and job growth recovers, he said.
BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.