Staying connected is crucial for Melanie McBride, owner of McBride Communications, a three-person public-relations company in Scottsdale, Ariz. In 2004, fed up with her phone company's lousy service, she switched her voice and data service to her cable provider, Cox Communications. McBride now pays about $200 a month for two phone lines, a fax line, a broadband Internet connection, and cable-TV service.
She couldn't be happier. Before the switch, McBride felt she was getting lost in the shuffle. The flurry of telecom mergers didn't increase her confidence, either. Now she feels she's getting the white-glove treatment with Cox. "They come out on Saturdays or Sundays, and they don't charge extra for weekend hours," she says.
McBride is not the only one giving cable providers high marks. Atlanta-based Cox and Time Warner Cable, based in Stamford, Conn., took the top two spots in a J.D. Power & Associates survey of small and midsize business owners' satisfaction with telecommunications data services. The top-ranked telephone company, BellSouth, came in third, with Verizon in fourth. "We've always had a huge focus on small business, and we continue to," says BellSouth spokesperson Nadine Randall, adding that BellSouth added a record 48,000 small business lines in the first quarter of 2006. Cox also came in first in a survey of voice services by American Customer Satisfaction Index, which monitors customer evaluations of products and services.
The Bells' declining popularity may well be the result of the industry's frenetic consolidation. At the same time that the larger companies were merging, many competitively priced phone providers that catered to smaller companies went out of business. "The telephone companies have pursued mergers to improve their presence in [the largest] accounts, but what's left out are the small and medium-size businesses," says Michael Smith, managing director for research at Stratecast Partners, a division of Palo Alto (Calif.) consultants Frost & Sullivan.
David Reichle, owner of consultants Integrated Network Systems in Hamilton, Ohio, is sending his clients to Time Warner Cable, instead of the numerous DSL providers in the greater Cincinnati area. "Support is less than satisfactory with DSL providers," says Reichle. "When we call in a problem with Time Warner Cable, the issue is resolved that day." The phone companies' ears must be burning.
By Rachael King