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Eir CEO says it was a 'mistake' to locate customer care centre in Sligo

Carolan Lennon has since clarified her remarks and said Eir is “committed to Sligo”.

Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated Nov 25th 2020, 6:36 PM

EIR’S CHIEF EXECUTIVE has told an Oireachtas committee that the company made a “mistake” locating their customer care centre in Sligo.

Carolan Lennon told the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications Networks that it took “longer” to train employees in the county because they were not familiar with working in a call centre.

“There was no history of contact centres in Sligo before we got there, which meant that when we were hiring local staff, and people travelling from the environs, local staff, many of them came in from retail or hospitality.

“That was a challenge, it took us longer to train them,” she added.

Lennon made similar comments about the location of the call centre in Sligo on RTÉ’s PrimeTime last night.

Minister of State Frank Feighan, who represents Sligo-Leitrim, said he has received phone calls today “from irate staff at Eir and from the business community in Sligo who are concerned about the consequences of such comments on future investment from call centre companies” in the region.

“I will be writing to the CEO today as after speaking with local stakeholders on the ground in Sligo, I don’t believe the comments made about Sligo to be accurate,” Feighan said in a statement.

He said other call centres that operate from Sligo or Leitrim have not experienced the same “issues” as Eir.

Feighan’s remarks were echoed by Fianna Fáil Sligo TD Marc MacSharry who said the Eir management team “need to front up admit when they’re wrong, admit when service is poor, and support their staff”.

“And I think frankly their staff in Sligo require an apology from the management team,” he said.

What the committee heard today from the Eir boss was “fluffy window dressing” which blamed the staff, “rather than admitting their own failings of national level”, said Mac Sharry.

When questioned about saying it was a mistake to locate in Sligo, Lennon told the committee she not mean to offend people living in the county.

‘Committed to Sligo’

Eir released a statament after the meeting to clarify Lennon’s position.

Lennon said Eir is “committed to Sligo” and its Rathedmond care centre, and all its employees throughout Ireland.

“When I spoke of mistakes made in relation to Sligo, I wish to clarify that I was referring to mistakes I, and my management team made in underestimating the complexities of building a care centre on a greenfield site.

“We have a talented team in Sligo and we also have every support we could ask for from the IDA and regional authorities, which we are grateful for.”

Lennon added that, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the centre was “meeting every target set for care”.

“We are steadily progressing on our plan to return to an acceptable level of care and I wish to apologise to any customer who has faced long wait times in recent months and thank all of our colleagues for their ongoing commitment and hard work throughout the pandemic.”

During the committee meeting Lennon also apologised “unreservedly” for Eir’s poor customer service since the onset of the pandemic, acknowledging that customers have faced “unacceptable wait times”.

She blamed remote working, a reduction in staff numbers and IT issues for the disruption to Eir’s customer service operations.

Lennon told the committee that the company’s challenge had been providing a quality care service to customers at a time when their retail stores were closed, they had moved hundreds of care agents to remote working, had an effective freeze on new hiring and training because of Covid-19 restrictions and saw a 30% increase in call volume versus the same time last year.

“The result was longer than acceptable wait times for our customers and I apologise unreservedly for that,” she said.

Low salaries

Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley said he was “shocked” that 80 people gave up their jobs at Eir between March and July in the midst of the pandemic and when so many other people were losing their jobs.

Dooley said it was “bizarre” to him but when Lennon told the committee that call staff were being paid a salary of between €21,000 and €23,000 plus bonus per annum, Dooley said he “shouldn’t be surprised then if the wages are that low”.

“If you pitch what you’re offering to such a low level then you’re going to get people that are less skilled and less committed to your company, Dooley said.

“I would argue, with respect, that if you’re serious about doing what you’re talking about, and putting in place permanent pensionable jobs, then you’re going to have to pay more.”

In response Lennon said: “We will have to agree to disagree, I don’t believe that’s the issue.”

Lennon said once the first lockdown restrictions had been lifted the company started hiring again.

“We’ve hired 120 people. We’re not done yet, we continue to hire,” she said.

‘Left out in the cold’

ComReg commissioner Robert Mourik told Prime Time last night that Eir’s problems were “so deep and so problematic” that customers had been “left out in the cold”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Communications Minister Eamon Ryan met representatives from Eir and Vodafone Ireland last week to express their frustration about the poor customer service.

The committee heard that of the 5,354 complaints between July and September to ComReg, two-thirds of those alone related to Eir. ComReg the statutory body responsible for the regulation of the electronic communications sector.

Lennon told the committee she was “surprised” to hear Mourik’s remarks and that she disagreed with the telecom watchdog.

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“I don’t believe that Eir customers have been left out of the cold,” she said.

But she said she was not surprised by the high level of complaints.

“If a repair goes wrong or a member in here wants access to broadband for a constituent, they do not contact the head of Sky or Vodafone. They contact the head of Eir. We do all the repairs, all the installations, so as a result we are likely to get more complaints,” Lennon said.

“That’s not to excuse it. I’m not saying that the service over the summer was acceptable or even where we are now is acceptable, it isn’t.”

Lennon told the committee that Eir had lost up to 80 staff during the pandemic, that the number of calls other staff had been able to deal with had decreased and that the volume of calls had also increased.

She also said customers who called the company had an average wait time of 30 minutes during the early stages of the pandemic, but that had now dropped to below 10 minutes today.

However, committee chairman Kieran O’Donnell said he had contacted customer service on Wednesday and he had waited 29 minutes to be connected to a staff member.

The Fine Gael TD “took exception” to Lennon’s excuse that Eir is a bigger company so therefore it had more problems.

“It’s unacceptable, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” he said. “It is a lame excuse.”

In her opening statement, Lennon said Eir had completed the rollout of its rural fibre broadband programme during the summer of 2019, delivering to a total of 340,000 rural homes and businesses.

She also said she was aware that TDs and senators were getting representations from constituents who have homes close to Eir’s rural fibre network who wanted to be connected but that she could not connect them because Eir had already handed over the baton to National Broadband Ireland.

She said the company had connected 150,000 new customers to fibre broadband and repaired 200,000 faults since April this year.

In a statement released after the committee meeting, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on Communications, Darren O’Rourke, said it was unfair fo Eir to “blame Covid for their own failings”.

“Eir has a dreadful reputation in relation to the service it provides, and that well predates the pandemic this year.

“The CEO apologised to the committee today, but there is no point apologising in Leinster House, they need to apologise to the customers they have let down.”

O’Rourke said he has “no confidence that the problems raised today at the committee will be addressed by Eir” and called for ComReg to be “given the powers of enforcement they need to resolve the problems in this sector”.

With reporting by Christina Finn, Órla Ryan and Press Association

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