Jackson — Back in the early 1980s, the break up of AT&T created something of a “gold rush” in the industry. A stampede of new, small telecommunications companies poured onto the scene, many nearly breathless with visions of making a killing in the new, unregulated environment. Unfortunately, many of those companies exited about as fast as they arrived, proving the correlation between haste and waste.
One company that refused to get caught up in the sprint for market share was CommuniGroup, though it was the first alternative long distance provider following the AT&T divestiture. Nearly 25 years after its formation, the Jackson-based telecommunications firm remains standing and going strong, and is still utilizing a more cautious, market-driven approach. It is not original and certainly not “sexy,” but CommuniGroup prioritizes quality over quantity and concentrates on being the best, not the first.
“Here at CommuniGroup, it’s always been important to do the right thing,” said James N.C. “Red” Moffat III, executive vice president of CommuniGroup. “We preach it to all of our employees — do what’s right.”
CommuniGroup uses several yardsticks to gauge the effectiveness of its philosophy. One was a customer satisfaction survey conducted by Southern Research Group. The company aimed to identify why its customers have chosen and stayed with CommuniGroup.
More than 80% said they are CommuniGroup customers due to outstanding customer service.
Yet another factor CommuniGroup points out as a key to its success is its employees and their tenure. The company employs roughly 70 workers. Between 80%-85% of all the employees have been with CommuniGroup for more than five years, some much longer. (Perhaps this is not as surprising when considering that CommuniGroup is owned by the Bay Springs Telephone Company, a landmark telecommunications provider that traces its roots back to the 1920s.)
“I think a key to our employee retention is that we believe in them,” said Rob McKnight, vice president of operations, who came to the company straight out of college in 1988 and has been there ever since. “Our dial tone doesn’t sound any different from competitors’ dial tones. Our employees know that the differentiator is customer service. They are empowered to solve problems, which is really what CommuniGroup is all about, and they find great reward in outstanding customer service.”
If one is looking for quantifiable evidence of the success of CommuniGroup’s focus on quality, the numbers speak for themselves. Today, CommuniGroup has 10,000-15,000 billable customers. And, these customers are spread not only across Mississippi, but Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas, as well. Approximately 30% of CommuniGroup’s employees have offices outside the Jackson area.
Most all of this growth has been fueled by commercial sales. CommuniGroup does offer residential services, but they make up a small percentage of company revenue. However, CommuniGroup has found plenty of opportunities in the business-to-business sales arena. To give an idea of CommuniGroup’s market penetration, Moffat, who came to the company in 1994 from a banking and finance background, estimated that more than 40% of all banks operating in Mississippi are CommuniGroup customers. He added that CommuniGroup’s customer base is comprised of everything from large entities such as Southern Farm Bureau and Regions Financial Corporation to mom-and-pop businesses.
All sales are face to face. CommuniGroup uses telemarketers simply to set up appointments for the sales team. And, that strategy is used post-sale, as well. CommuniGroup has personnel dedicated exclusively to contacting customers to find out how they are doing and what unmet needs they might have.
“Personally, I don’t buy anything over the phone,” Moffat said. “CommuniGroup will continue to foster relationships. That’s what we do, and we aren’t going to change.”
McKnight pointed out that while CommuniGroup is loath to change its basic philosophy, flexibility is a big advantage. The company has grown, but it is still small enough to react quickly to customers’ needs. And, while CommuniGroup operates in other states, its core market remains Mississippi. Competitors may see the Magnolia State as just another market, and perhaps not that important of one. For CommuniGroup, Mississippi is not only where its employees work, it’s where they live, too.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.