Last week, my BT Phone Book was delivered. Well, I say “delivered”. In fact, it was left leaning against a tree at the end of the lane, two hundred metres from the house. I assume that BT subcontracts the deliveries to local agents or casual workers. That was pretty casual.
Anyway, as usual, I ripped off the plastic bag before dumping the directory straight into the green recycling bin. That’s how useful it is. That is to say, not useful at all.
I worked for BT for twenty-four years, and in that time I saw a lot of business fads and fashions come and go. Big businesses are run almost entirely on the basis of the prevailing fashion. That’s not necessarily because the directors and CEOs can’t think for themselves, although I’m sure that’s a factor. It’s because not following the current ideas of the market can adversely affect the share price. Now, that effect definitely exists because investors can’t think for themselves. They’re herd animals.
So, at one time there was “diversification”, but at another, it was divesting “non-core” activities. It was during a phase of the latter that BT spun off Yellow Pages as a subsidiary, and then sold it. As “Yell” (yes, I know) the new owners floated it on the stock exchange in 2003. You might have missed this, but the company has just changed its name to Hibü, pronounced “high-boo” (yes, I know).
Part of the agreement when BT sold YP was that BT should not compete in providing business directories for one year, but as soon as that expired, BT launched a classified section in the BT Phone Book, where all but the basic line entries are charged for. You might question the logic of selling off a business that was already doing that quite successfully, before starting off from scratch again, but as I said, fashions come and fashions go.
In Northern Ireland, BT faced the problem that there was one old, unclassified directory covering the entire country, and it was already quite fat. It would be impractical to separate out and include a second, classified section, which would be much larger by reason of the advertising content. (In fact, because of my privileged position, I happen to know that an unusually high proportion of Northern Ireland phones were ex-directory — more than 40% — which means that, potentially, the directory could have been even thicker.)
There was no option then, but to split the directory into volumes, and BT chose to do it regionally. This was instantly unpopular with customers, and for good reason: it ignored geography and actual demographics. In fact, you might say that it ignored reality, never a good business strategy. Neither is pissing off your customers (although it seems to work for Ryanair) but in spite of many complaints, BT has stuck with the multiple-book solution. Each customer is (more or less) delivered one volume, but can buy any of the other three at ten pounds each.
My own case is a perfect example of the uselessness of the directories, particularly the classified, businesses part. There are three small towns which are conveniently near to me (all about seven miles away) and where I might shop or do business. Only one of them is included in BT’s idea of my local area. At the next-larger level of commercial centre, there are two roughly equidistant. Both are roughly 15 miles away, but neither is in my BT Phone Book. In fact, Belfast is the only city large enough in Northern Ireland to host many types of business and services. I don’t get Belfast numbers in my BT Phone Book.
Actually, when companies pay BT for an entry in the classified directory, they can choose to pay more and have their listing in multiple books; and I’m sure that the larger businesses in Northern Ireland do exactly that. But from the customer’s point of view, looking for a particular type of service or shop, you simply can’t know if the ones in your BT Phone Book are the best for your needs.
For us, as customer, there are two solutions. You either use the (High-Boo, remember?) Yellow Pages directory, one volume covering all of Northern Ireland; or you use the internet, like a normal person. Either way, the BT Phone Book goes in the bin.