Network: BT denies `poach' claims

Oftel to investigate Internet sales.
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The Independent Culture
IT IS A classic tale of the giant crushing the mouse in its enormous fists. BT, one of Britain's largest companies and, increasingly, a leading player in the Internet business, plays the giant. The mouse is CIX, a long-established but small Internet service provider used mostly by computer enthusiasts.

Last week, following reports in industry journal IT Week, BT admitted one of its telesales operators spotted calls to a CIX modem on a customer's list of discounted "friends and family" numbers. She then offered to send the customer a CD-Rom for BT's new pay-as-you-go Internet service, Click. BT concedes that the sales operator was wrong to do this, and she has been reprimanded.

However, the accusation is a serious one. BT could have a real advantage over rival Internet service providers if its Internet arm uses information from the phone business to market products and services.

"We are not allowed to do it and we know that and we don't make a practice of it," said David Pincott, public relations officer for BT Internet and Multimedia. "In this case, there clearly was an error, and one of our telesales people did mention the new Internet product, Click."

Mr Pincott believes the case is an isolated incident, the result of one member of staff overstepping the mark. "It doesn't happen very often and the procedures [to deal with it] are very robust," he says. "We investigated very, very quickly and we have briefed our telesales advisers that this sort of thing must not go on."

Oftel, the industry regulator, is investigating the case, but the Internet industry as a whole appears prepared to accept BT's stance - and its promises to prevent a repetition - at face value. "You have to accept the fact that sales staff are enthusiastic," said Richard Woods, public relations manager at the ISP UUNet. "If this is not their policy, it is good news."

The question is whether this was an isolated incident, as BT maintains, or part of a wider campaign. It is not the first time that the company has been accused of using customer information to steal a march on its competitors. Rupert Goodwins, the IT Week journalist who broke the story, says other readers have contacted the publication with similar experiences in the last week. "We have had four responses," he explains. "As far as we can tell, they're different salespeople."

Whether it is official policy or not, BT's rivals believe that cases of poaching and other dubious practices will come up when one company is so dominant in the marketplace. "As long as the dominant telecommunications company can provide these integrated applications, you will always be open to this type of abuse" said a spokeswoman for AOL. If it does, customers will be the losers, as smaller ISPs are squeezed from the marketplace.