Face2Face with ENI (Entrepreneurs Network International) |
by Tilak S. Fernando in London
Telecommunication has become a big business today, which has opened up many associated avenues to private entrepreneurs. Since the de-regulation of the telecommunication industry in the UK, British Telecom which used to enjoy the supreme share of the telecommunication industry has received a sledgehammer blow, especially on their International marketing sector. The result was the emergence of many private entrepreneurs opening high street kiosks to provide a similar service with much cheaper rates. These cheap phone cards as well as mushroom companies who marketed such cards through every corner shop, news agents and at times by individuals operating from soap boxes from street pavements, have appeared at a tremendous rate and many have disappeared at the same or double the speed they have sprung up!
Although there is a Regulatory Authority for the telecom industry in the UK to monitor any fraudulent operations, how are they to protect and safeguard consumer interests when most of these phone cards do not even disclose the name of their company or address except a customer services number, which costs the customer money even to contact them at times of difficulty!
Frustrated and irritated customers have always become the victims of such cheap phone cards because of the very conditioning effect of their minds with the vast amount of minutes they advertise customers could get. One does not need to have a PhD in economics to work the simple equation as to how for example; a £5 card could be sold by a high street vendor for £3.50 and still make a profit to him as well as the company that issues the card
The flaws behind such cards are many. E.g. they have expiry dates, cannot use customer's residue money (to the last penny) and such leftovers go to the card companies as an extra bonus to them. Other problems are telephone lines have distortions, voice echoing and most irritating factor being unable to access easily in an emergency all because majority of these services are internet related and call termination takes via the internet rather than going through official channels of countries via their telecommunication switches, for which of course the call carriers have to pay official charges on a minutes used basis.
Also in the market today is Home and Business Accounts where customers get a permanent account and a pin number under their name. With these services customers can sign up or top up their accounts on the telephone, by post or even on line through the Internet. But how does one decide which is a best-suited package of one's own need? Naturally cost per minute becomes a priority with clarity, quality and competitiveness becoming vital factors to influence a potential customer. If the same service could be had through mobile telephones as much as from land phones with CLI (Customer Line Identity) facilities thrown in free of charge, naturally that service provider becomes a winner.
During my recent research into the area of international telephone communication I came across a Public Limited Company (Plc), run by a group of Sri Lankan entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurs Network International (ENI) who is well experienced and capable of delivering a quality service and committed to work with the community towards a mutual advantage. In my fact-finding mission I was privileged to interview three of the front-runners of the ENI Plc, Bobby, (Senior Vice President Finance), Roy (Senior Vice President Operations) and Mahen (Vice President Administration) who spelt out the company structure, aim and their future plans. The following are excerpts of the interview:
TF: Today there is multitude of choices for the public to use international telephone services with the help of home accounts and phone cards. How does your product differ from the others and become competitive?
Roy: We are not new to this business at all. In fact some of us have been the pioneers of International Network telephone marketing from the very inception, going back a few years. What really happened then was that most of our team members did promote main agents who were in the business behind the scenes, and did not reach the customers direct. Having recognised our past mistakes, we decided to give the product or the service direct to customers now, thus eliminating the middleman, which enables us to pass all such benefits to the customer.
TF: Obviously you did not operate then under the name of ENI Plc?
Roy: Yes, of course not. We were under a different banner. However, our parent company was Pan European Ltd, who specialised in many other products and services. Those who were directly involved with promoting telecommunication products wanted to isolate themselves and operate on their own name. Hence the birth of Link On & ENI Plc.
TF: What is Link On? I have seen this name in one of your advertisements recently.
Bobby: Link On is the architect of ENI. They are the marketing company for Pan European Telecommunications. Following a recent merger with Routers Group, our own network marketing section decided to open up a network marketing office separately. Pan European Ltd is our parent company.
TF: I would still like to know the difference in service between ENI and your competitors, especially with regard to cheap phone cards which to my mind are waging a psychological warfare on customers by conditioning their minds to realise they all are getting a bargain out of such cards.
Mahen: ENI aim is to make telephone connections as simple as possible to customer needs. We do not believe in phone cards, as it is not up to us to comment or criticize how this so-called cheap phone cards work.
Bobby: We, as a Group, are the manufacture as well as market many products, including telecommunication. This means that if there is any problem within our operation, lets say on distribution, manufacturing or communication, we will be able to resolve it within ourselves.
TF: Looking at your price tariff, I find that the rates applicable for some countries are unbelievably cheap!
Roy: Yes, that's the idea and it all come from our years of past experience and lessons we have learnt in this business. For example, look at some of our rates to other countries, Bulgaria 0.03p, and Czech Rep 0.3p. Denmark 0.2p, Greece 0.3p, Germany 0.2p. We have even introduced cheap services from mobile phones too, e.g. Czech. 0.5, Bulgaria 0.15p
TF: How about African and Asian countries?
Mahen: Well, as you can see, we offer Sri Lanka at 13p a minute with an added bonus of 10% discount on £50 top ups and new accounts opened with £50. Unlike in other services in the market we maintain the same tariff charge to Sri Lanka for land phones as well mobile phones. Pakistan at 17p, Ghana (Accra) we offer at 0.6p. India from 0.10p (mobile 0.14p) even we have a mobile phone rate within the UK at 14p from our service to any other network any time.
TF: What is your present capacity of handling calls to Sri Lanka?
Roy: Six Million minutes.
TF. How do you terminate calls? Do you use the Internet or respective telecommunication switches of individual countries?
Roy: We use only PSTN line termination for residential and business accounts. This simply means that we use each country's official carriers.
TF: Talking about Sri Lanka ?
Bobby. If we are talking about Sri Lanka, no one can officially terminate a single call via the Internet simply because according to Sri Lankan regulations it is grossly illegal. The Law states that any illegal operations are subjected to heavy penalties including jail sentences and equipment being confiscated. We work legitimately with the Sri Lanka Telecom by paying their dues for their service.
TF: Do you mean to say that all business houses that terminate calls to Sri Lanka go through SLT switches only…? If so, how come some services and prominent cards have voice echoing, vibrating effects and conversations are muffled as a consequence? In your service, which I have tested, calls are crystal clear and I am rather confused about this altogether!
Bobby: Laughter..! I beg your pardon!! I don't know! Please don't ask me about the technicalities and other operations. I can only talk about our service to customers and our commitment with the Sri Lanka Telecom.
TF: Because of the very fact that there are so many mushroom companies involved in this game of international telecommunication, and many are said to be on the brink of bankruptcy, it is natural that a prospective customer might be cautious when approached by your company to open an account. What are your comments and advice to such fears?
Roy: First of all we can say we are a Plc, which means we are not a cowboy company. A Plc means we are governed by all the laid down rules and regulations in this country. We believe in our company and have trust in our product. That's why we offer to the public and say that they can even test our service with initially a £2.00 free voucher before committing to an account. If satisfied, they are welcome to top up their account. Ours is a straightforward business with no hidden charges.
TF There are some who are reluctant to give their credit card details because of the fear of fraudulent activities. How do you re-assure such customers?
Roy: First of all we send customers a copy of their credit card transaction along with our official credit voucher by post when a credit card transaction is made - whether it is for £5 to £100. We also have several security measures and procedures before we use a card to ensure that it is a safe transaction - before signing up for a new account or topping up an account. I have to re-emphasise the fact that we are a Public Limited Company with a Consumer Credit Licence, which means we are bound by all Govt and Banking regulations and we are responsible and accountable for any credit card transaction. Unlike in the case of some competitors customers can see our ENI name against any debit on their bank statements and credit card statements end of the month or on e-banking systems.
TF. Has anyone posed this question to you before?
Roy: How strange you asked this question? Only this morning a Law student who wanted to open an account with us put the same question to me. After having explained to her I am pleased to say that she is one of our prominent customers now.
Bobby: Tilak, there's another way of looking at your question. You see, when a credit card payment is done on the phone we, as a company, too run the risk to a certain extent. For instance, say a customer after giving the credit card details to us complains and denies such transaction to the credit card company they will credit the customer and debit us. So who is loser then? Actually in such instances we take the risk.
TF: How about topping up of customer accounts?
Mahen: It can be done on-line through the Internet or by phone with a credit card or by sending a cheque by post to us. Our customer service is open from 8 am to 8 pm at present, 7 days a week and soon it will be 24 hours with auto topping-up facilities when we shift to our new offices next month.
TF I understand that you are recruiting distributors at present. Would you like to discuss about it so that any reader of this article may be interested to contact you. Do you charge a fee like some companies do from Distributors?
Mahen: Our company policy is to give any one who is enthusiastic, energetic and has the drive, potential and spare time with personal contacts a chance to be a part of our team. First of all, there is a distributor loyalty discount straightaway, which means a customer becoming a distributor can enjoy that discount out of his personal calls. If a distributor wants to make extra money he/she can give a referral to his friends, relations and colleagues. By this way a keen distributor can grow with the company as part of a major Plc. Company will invest on such distributors with training programmes etc., to maximise their achievements. This means he/she will not only simply selling telephone accounts but as part of our Plc team he/she will have access to promote various other products and services which are already in the pipe line at present. No doubt, it costs to maintain a database, training, give all of them all literature and stationery free of charge and also to record distributor details, but we absorb all such expenses and have no inclination whatsoever to levy a fee from distributors.
Bobby: In 18 months time we have decided to allocate shares of the company to all our distributors. We have already allocated shares to our 1st ten distributors and they have become shareholders of the company.
Roy: Our aim is to build a community based network so that everyone can benefit mutually. For that purpose we are committed to care for our distributors and share our profits with them, thus not only benefiting ourselves but also creating a group of separate entrepreneurs.
TF. During the Sinhala and Tamil New year celebrations this year your company went into great lengths in sponsoring New Year celebrations held at Feltham Assembly Hall and Park organised by the Heathrow Sri Lanka Community Centre . It became a unique occasion because your company being the main sponsors had additionally helped them in getting other sponsors from the Tamil business community who supplied free food etc., and to make the whole day event a free-of-charge function in the midst of various other organisations charged money as entrance fee to their dos.
Roy: Well, this was a last minute decision by the ENI Plc Management when the organisers approached us having let them down by another sponsor. It was a coincidence and timely too, considering in Sri Lanka a peace process is taking shape. We want to show the world that Sinhalese and Tamils consist of one nation and we are brothers and sisters of a single mother- Sri Lanka. I think we achieved our goal there as it was the first time ever in London that Sinhala and Tamil community got together, worked together and performed together on one platform. The show which was shown on Sri Lankan television for one hour was compered by a veteran Sinhala journalist Mr. Dharmasiri Gamage, assisted by Terrance Lowe and Ramanan of TBC Radio. I would also like to add that because of the good business relations we have with the Royal Bank of Scotland and Natwest Group, the two banks, organised a Sinhala and Tamil New Year on our behalf for the Sri Lankan community( most of whom were our own introduced customers to the banks) where H.E. the Sri Lankan High Commissioner was the chief guest with Aravinda de Silva as a special guest from Sri Lanka.
TF Do you have any other future planned events like that in the pipe line?
Bobby: Our company policy is to help everyone irrespective of any discrimination. Of course such exercises help us all mutually. Whenever there is a need for such participation we are open to consider and extend our assistance. On the 26 April we are sponsoring another Sinhala programme organised by Lilani Pereira's band and also in Victoria Australia.
TF. Would you like to name the power behind your Organisation?
Roy: Mr.T.Patnaban, MD.United Networks Ltd,