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Criticism over customer service rings in GTE's ears

Fresh from failing a customer service test, Tampa Bay's local telephone company assured state regulators Tuesday that everything was fine and the problems would be solved.

But GTE Florida's critics showed up to dispute that.

Consumer advocates and union representatives said the state's local telephone providers have taken advantage of deregulation and are saving money by reducing the size of their workforces. That hurts consumers, who are captive to the local telephone monopolies.

And the regulators themselves warned GTE executives not to ignore customer service.

"We want to be sure you aren't starting to downsize in a way that will be detrimental to customers before the competition's there," PSC Chairwoman Julia Johnson told GTE executives.

The PSC held a special session late Tuesday to hear from the state's five biggest local telephone companies, including GTE, about why four of the companies failed the agency's customer service test.

Only BellSouth, the state's biggest local phone company, passed.

GTE, Florida's second largest local phone company and the main provider in Tampa Bay, had its lowest score ever on the annual test and suffered a severe drop from previous years. The company scored 31.9 points. The passing grade was 75.

The company's biggest problem, according to the test, was a failure to answer repair calls from customers in a timely manner. GTE also was slow in answering customers' calls to its business office.

PSC analysts criticized GTE for an automated system that forced people to wait for long periods without getting a live customer service representative. They also found fault with the company's directory assistance, concluding that many times the service could not supply numbers that should have been available.

When the report was released earlier this year, regulators worried aloud that local companies could get away with cutting back customer service without losing customers, thanks to the 1995 state telecommunications law that deregulated the industry. Despite the law, there still is no competition and consumers are left with no alternatives.

Tuesday, company officials tried to assuage regulators' concerns.

Beverly Menard, GTE's regulatory affairs director, blamed the problem on increasing demand, as more customers in the Tampa Bay area request additional lines for computer modems. She said the company had added employees in its customer service departments, but that hiring new people and training them takes time.

"When a problem starts happening, you can't just snap your fingers and make it better," she said.

Menard told the commissioners that some aspects of the test were flawed. The test assigns greater significance to some standards, so if a company fails at a task that is emphasized, its grade can suffer greatly.

Menard said that's what happened to GTE.

But Commissioner Susan Clark said she thought the company would be more concerned with improving its service, specifically its ability to answer customers' calls quickly.

"I would imagine you're unhappy with your results," Clark said.

"You're going to have competitors," she added later. "If you can't get there fast enough, somebody will."

Joining in the criticism were union representatives.

"Our company has been downsizing since 1994," said Gail Marie Perry, a BellSouth worker who represents the Communications Workers of America. "They have continued to downsize, but not replace (workers).

"This is not what the consumer expects, to get busy signals, to get a voice mail."

GTE's union representative declined to speak, but said Perry's comments applied to his company as well.

Monte Belote, executive director of the Tampa-based Consumer Action Network, said he was disappointed with GTE's explanation.

"It sounds an awful lot like more rationalization," Belote said. "The real problem is the Legislature and the Public Service Commission allowed Florida consumers to be forced into deregulation before there's really competition."