“We did get things wrong,” Harding tells us
London-based TalkTalk generated the highest proportion of landline telephone complaints in the first three months of 2013, with 0.39 complaints per 1,000 customers, according to Ofcom’s most recent figures.
That’s not a first for TalkTalk. It was the most complained-about landline and broadband provider in 2011 and in 2012, according to Ofcom’s records.
But CEO Dido Harding has taken all the criticism on the chin.
She’s vowed to not give up till TalkTalk “gets it right” and is excited about the company’s foray into TV.
She’s managed to make TalkTalk’s YouView the fastest-growing TV provider in the UK, with 50,000 customers signing up within a year of launch.
Harding, who is married to John Penrose, the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare, is famous for giving her piece of mind to the big dogs in the telecoms sector.
Back in April, she wrote an open letter in The Telegraph branding BT’s £2.5bn fibre roll-out uncompetitive. She claimed that BT was overcharging customers for wholesale access to its national fibre broadband network.
But can she sort out TalkTalk? We interviewed her at the recent Tech London Advocates event at Level 39 to find out.
Q. Why has TalkTalk been branded the most complained-about telecoms service three years in a row?
We’re a classic example of a business that grew incredibly fast. We went from no customers to four million customers in the space of four years. That caused a lot of growing pains and unfortunately we did get things wrong for our customers.
We spent the last three years trying to fix that. One of my chairman Sir Charles Dunstone’s favourite saying is that “we’re the snake that ate the goat”. And we spent a few years digesting the goat.
We’re not going to give up ‘til we make TalkTalk a better experience for customers. However, customers seem to like our TV service. Which? readers voted YouView the best TV service recently. You wouldn’t have thought that of TalkTalk two years ago.
So I think entrepreneurial businesses need to be very persistent. You have to accept the fact that you’re bound to make some mistakes and you have no choice but to learn from those mistakes.
If you do fix those mistakes, customers over time absolutely forgive you, if you give them a better product in the end.
Q. How are you going to achieve that?
We have a slightly mad culture at TalkTalk. Our chairman’s other big saying is: “We want to zig when the world zags.”
Very successful and innovative companies do things that other companies think is nuts. The secret of every successful idea is that not only is it right, but also that no one else has had it.
A year ago, no one would have thought that we would have a TV business that would be the third-largest TV business in the UK within six months.
We try to encourage people to do things differently. We don’t always get the balance right and it comes with some mistakes. If you see some of our history, we’ve not got things right for our customers. We try to be agile and bolder than the bigger companies out there that we compete with.
Q. How’s YouView going?
Customers really love it and having 50,000 customers in 11 month is proof of that. As it’s the fastest-growing TV service in the UK, YouView is a fun place to be.
Q. You’ve always campaigned against BT’s fibre broadband monopoly, but you take fibre broadband from them and are one of their biggest customers. What’s the thinking there?
BT is our largest competitor, largest supplier and, in many ways, our reason for being. We wouldn’t exist if BT was better.
But equally, BT would always expect the regulator to set higher prices, and I would always want the regulator to set lower prices.
I think BT is a very impressive British business but they should behave like an entirely rational and impressive monopoly. It’s my job to keep pointing that out.
Q. What the most challenging part of your job?
I think it’s really exciting to be part of a growing business. My first few years were all about fixing problems, stablising the business, doing a better job for our existing customers. All very challenging, yet very rewarding.
Q. What do you think can be done to make London a better place for UK entrepreneurs?
London could genuinely be the world centre for tech entrepreneurs. That won’t happen by accident, so all of us who are involved with tech companies in the UK need to play a part.
Q. How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Badly [laughs]. I have a wonderful husband who shares the load. If you have a family and you work, it’s a team sport. We juggle things badly but we juggle things together.
Any parent feels that you’re not getting it right and you’ve got to accept that that’s how you’re going to feel anyway, and carry on with your jobs.
Q. Have you ever thought of joining John in politics?
Not at all – I think one politician in the household is quite enough.