In some of Australia’s most remote communities, a small band of dedicated employees is battling to bring clear communications – and honest conversations – to people who really need them.

Providing communications in some of the most remote and wide-open spaces on the planet presents major physical and technical challenges. But – like a mobile call itself – there are few things that are as important to remote customers as a clear, candid, easy-to-understand conversation.

“Ultimately people love talking to someone face to face, even if it is to complain about phone coverage or to check their bills,” laughs Priscilla West, the ebullient Townsville woman who since April 2021 has worked as Telstra’s first dedicated Cultural Compliance Officer.

Priscilla has the challenge of being the officer appointed to monitor the remediation actions ordered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, following the exposure of unethical sales practices to First Nations customers at five Telstra-licensed stores.

One might expect Priscilla to be weighed down by policy regulations and potential conflicts – but in fact, she’s nothing of the sort. Amid a heavy schedule of compliance monitoring, Board reports and stakeholder meetings, this proud Kalkadoon/Djaku-nde woman is finding time for a growing number of “community check-ins” – visits to the farthest-flung communities, where good mobile signals are a prized possession. She says nothing gives her greater pleasure.

“I’ve been out with the pink bus in Far North Queensland, and I’m hoping to go on many more trips with the Regional Australia teams,” says Priscilla, referring to the striking Telstra van that since late 2019 has visited more than 140 remote communities, advising customers, addressing faults, and cancelling ‘bad debts’.

“Our goal is to make sure every customer understands what they’ve paid for and is able to get in touch with us after we leave,” says Priscilla. “No matter where we go, everyone’s so welcoming and so grateful to have someone to ask questions to. When we went to Bamaga recently, I understood the local language, which made the customers much more relaxed to come and have a yarn and ask us questions directly.”

A dedicated hotline

In March last year, Telstra set up its First Nations Connect Hotline – a contact centre in Darwin staffed exclusively by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team members. By mid-2022, there will be 16 agents at the centre.

Thecla Brogan, the team leader, says her first year in the job has been hard work but incredibly rewarding. “We’ve had significant challenges with COVID, but most of our agents have stepped up to the challenge,” she says. “We’re targeting remote communities, so there’s a wide range of enquiries – billing, NBN connections, a lot of pre-paid recharges… People need to be educated about their bills, because in the past they haven’t been properly told how they work. It’s all about understanding – and trust.”

Every year, Telstra receives an estimated 25,000 calls from First Nations communities, relating to everything from billing and faults, to enquiries about specific products and services. According to Thecla, having a friendly voice on the end of the line – a voice that understands you – is critical.

“Over the phone, people can immediately hear that we’re Aboriginal and they get real comfort from that. They are mostly calls in Broken English, we can help to make complex subjects simpler and easier to understand. With faults and connectivity issues, we’ll also help customers make reports to the faults team.”

As well as proactive reporting, the check-in services are ramping up their visits – aiming to reach another 200 communities over the next financial year. The pink van is a lesson in consistency. Nearly three years on, it’s still run by Telstra’s NT area manager, Nic Danks, who goes on 90% of the tours himself.

“Since our first trip to Hermannsburg, we’ve covered more than 35,000 kilometres, from the APY Lands to the top of Far North Queensland, the Kimberley and all across the NT,” says Nic. “This year, for the first time, we’ll be visiting Kalgoorlie and central WA.”

Support where it counts

The tours are not sales trips, but a chance to reach out and support Telstra’s most remote customers – 11,200 of them to date. “We make sure they don’t have any bad debts (and remove them if they do), and they’re on the most appropriate plans. We also make sure they can use the Telstra app and have contacts for the First Nations Hotline, so they can get in touch if they need to.” To break the ice, everyone who visits the van gets a $50 pre-paid credit applied to their mobile, and often something to eat.

“We’ve cooked 38 kilos of sausages in the past four days,” laughs Nic. In towns where there are reports of poor connectivity, the team will also check the local tower and signals and report any faults. “It’s not the Telstra circus coming to town,” says Nic. “It’s about looking after people as well as we can, and providing the greatest value we can in a limited time.”

Ultimately, says Priscilla West, it’s about sensitivity – to the local people, their customs, their land. “Whether it’s a local check-in or a poster promotion, we have to make sure that everything’s appropriate – the language, the content, the imagery – not just for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience, but for each individual group where that marketing will be used.

“We have to make sure we’re speaking to the right people, asking the right questions, making sure we really understand the local issues – so we can pass people’s feedback directly to the right managers, and make sure it’s really being used to improve the customer experience. We can only advocate for our mob if we really listen to them.”

More information

The Telstra First Nations Connect Hotline is based at our Darwin offices and operates from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. You can reach them by telephone on 1800 444 403.

Find out more about our First Nations programs here.