Teh Strategy Interview-David Lewis

David Lewis, Unitel Communications vice-president of consumer services, joined the long-distance carrier in July, 1993. Before joining Unitel, Lewis was president of Reebok Canada. He has also worked for such companies as Campbell Soup, Labatt Breweries of Canada and Primo Foods....

David Lewis, Unitel Communications vice-president of consumer services, joined the long-distance carrier in July, 1993. Before joining Unitel, Lewis was president of Reebok Canada. He has also worked for such companies as Campbell Soup, Labatt Breweries of Canada and Primo Foods. Lewis is a commerce graduate of Royal Military College.

Q. How successful has Unitel’s advertising been in establishing Unitel’s position in the market and what its products are?

A. We consider it to be very successful. We’ve had a range of creative that started with a kind of intro awareness with the very visual ‘loonies’ spot that introduced the services of Unitel to the consumer back in the spring. Subsequent to that, we moved to the introduction of the Close Connections feature of our service with a commercial that we called ‘Faces,’ introduced in May and June and which ran through the summer. Those two spots have been instrumental in getting Unitel established.

The commercials were direct response, so they have 1-800 numbers that are regionally focussed. We know daily, and by the week, how effective those commercials are in terms of driving in-bound call volumes to our telemarketing centres. Independent research that was done on our ‘loonies’ commercial in May indicated unaided awareness of Unitel branding in the marketplace was ranked second out of all the other creative that was on television, and significantly ahead of the Bell creative that was running at that time.

Q. As well as attracting new customers, how successful have you been getting your first customers to upgrade, to buy additional services?

A. That’s an interesting question. To date, every customer that we get because we’re fledgling, shall we say, every customer that we get is, in essence, a new one. But we’ve found, generally, the folks using our service, those who like us, like us a lot. They find the quality of our network very good; they like our savings claim, and they also see it reflected monthly in their bill.

The other thing [they like] from Unitel is the formatting of our bill, which clearly identifies for them monthly what their savings have been and [compares it] to what we claimed we would be giving to them when they signed up for their service. The other thing that’s important is we’re finding, generally, the consumer base that we have now is a higher spender than the market average.

Q. Are there any other areas where you might expand? Does the nature of your business dictate that at some point there will be a plateau, and then you move to maintenance?

A. Not in the foreseeable future. Our offering in the marketplace right now is what we call a very basic service. We look at the market as in-home, long-distance service. And then there’s another piece of the market which is the away-from-home.

To date, what we’ve offered is just in-home: simple, block-of-time plans such as our basic service, our Call Regional service. There’s no frills on the program and they’re very focussed in the savings message. As we announced this week [end of December,] we’re starting to take our basic programs and make them cleaner and simpler and more consumer-friendly because our research indicated that was what our consumers were looking for.

Then, if you look at the other out-of-home services that Bell have been offering for years. We view, and the consumers tell us, that they are what they call part of the basic menu that they expect from a long-distance company. Naturally, we’re looking at those kinds of market areas as the phase two of where we’re going. And we have a lot of things on the drawing boards.

Q. Your main competitor is immense, and, no doubt, a formidable opponent. How daunting was it to counter-market against such competition?

A. There’s good news and bad news here. The good news, we feel, is when someone has almost 100% of the market, there is opportunity for us. So ‘share steal’ is clearly our basic strategy and to sign up folks to our service and then out-service our competitors in keeping people happy. We don’t want to be misdirected or taken off our focus, which is the Bell and Stentor group, by the reseller activity.

That is not to say our major competitor is not a very formidable competitor. They’re sharp marketers, they have been focussing their activities back against us quite well and it’s going to be an interesting battle. We certainly are not interested in taking 50% of the market. We are after our fair share.

The other major initiative next year, which is a significant event in the life of our company and the industry, is ease of equal access, which starts to happen in July. A lot of consumers don’t know about that. It is an event which will require consumers to choose their long-distance carrier. The beauty of ease of equal access for us is the requirement of the 17-digit personal identification number [which Unitel subscribers now need] will disappear because the intelligent network of the telephone system will be identifying callers by their home phone number.

Q. Will equal access help drive service up and price down?

A. I think equal access will provide an opportunity for a bunch of things to happen. It will provide consumers with a stimulating thought process that says ‘you’ve been serviced by a monopoly for years and years and years. Is it time [for] you to make a change?’ I think, definitely, consumers are going to win in the long-term because everybody’s going to have to be sharper and more consumer-oriented.

As for what happens with rates and prices, there has been a savings element that has come to the long-distance business, that’s natural when you move away from a monopolistic environment. How far [down] prices are going to go remains to be seen.

Q. Do you anticipate any change in the regulatory environment?

A. The regulatory environment will continue to change, that’s a given.