My Biggest Mistake: Mike Bett

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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake was underestimating how quickly public opinion can change. In 1987 I was managing director of British Telecom's UK operations. It was a grim year.

All the engineering workers went on strike at the end of February. They were rebelling against proposed changes in working practices suggested as part of a pay deal we had offered. We ran the network with BT management, and public opinion was really behind us. But it was a honeymoon period and it all went sour very quickly.

People who had approved of management running the system without engineers soon became impatient after the strike was over - because certain work had not been carried out.

They wanted to know why their phones had not been installed, or why the call box at the end of the road was still out of order. The problem was that we hadn't had any engineers working for about four weeks - and when you have 110,000 engineers, that's a lot of work that had not been done.

The management had been concentrating on running the network. We just didn't have the resources to carry out maintenance and installation work as well.

We found that after the strike, the tide turned against us. In July, BT was heavily criticised by consumer associations and in the press for the levels of its service. BT was talked about as the most reviled public institution in Britain. Not for the first time, you might think - but the attacks this time were particularly stinging.

In our defence, we had lost 6,000 man years of engineering time and it does take a while to recover from that sort of thing. But the public didn't seem to appreciate that at the time.

In retrospect I think that some of the decisions I made just after the strike had been resolved might have been a bit too tough. We put a ceiling on the amount of overtime the engineers were allowed to work and we kept a lid on recruitment.

What I should have done was allow them to work as many hours of overtime as was practicable, to ensure that we caught up all the lost ground. But at the time I felt that doing that would have been like paying for the industrial dispute.

What we did first was set about a programme of refurbishing the payphones across the country and we went on to raise quality levels in all our services. We pledged to get 90 per cent of the payphones working within a year - which we did. It was a very high profile programme and a problem that needed addressing. Public opinion quickly started to turn round again.

The hurricane in October of the same year cost us another 2,000 man-years, but ironically was something of a blessing in disguise for us.

The winds ripped down two thirds of the network in the South-east of England and we piled our resources from across the country into that area to put the situation right. It may have helped that many of the nation's opinion formers are in that region, because our public image rose quite substantially after that. It was clearly visible that we were working very hard at having the network restored as soon as possible.

Now I find that I can go to cocktail parties and pubs without being berated about BT's standard of service.

(Photograph omitted)

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