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On March 30, 2020, President and Founder Richard Zheng was interviewed by Think Tech Hawaii about Servpac’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. See the full interview below:

[00:00:27.460] – Jay Fidell

OK. We’re back alive. I’m Jay Fidell. This is Think Tech talks on Think Tech. OK, and we’re talking about broadband. We’re talking about the broadband providers doing during the time of the virus, with somebody who knows. That somebody is the founder and CEO of Servpac. Servpac is a broadband provider, among other things. Richard Zheng. Hi Richard, thank you for joining us this morning.

[00:00:53.950] – Richard Zheng

Hey, good morning, Jay. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:57.020]

Absolutely. So here we are, we’re actually not that far into it. You know, when you start counting the days of the weeks. Hawaii hasn’t had more than about three weeks or so in a serious virus. I think our first case was disclosed on March 6, so not that long ago. And our world has completely changed since then. Not only the cases, but the way we greet each other and talk to each other. The way we do business, of course, and our lives in general have been seriously impacted over that very short period of time. So tell me how how is your life at Servpac been impacted in that short period of time?

[00:01:45.180] – Richard Zheng

Yes, This is definitely a challenging time for everyone. Nobody would expect this three weeks ago. After their first case in Hawaii, we made a lot of adjustments in the business and how to adapt to this because the customer demand is quite different from before.

[00:02:11.100] – Jay Fidell

Yeah. It’s certainly had that effect on every business I know, except, you know, we have distinction going on these days between essential services and non-essential services. Servpac and broadband providers  are clearly essential services. So how did this come to your attention as the CEO? And what reaction that you have and what steps are you taking now to deal with the extraordinary changes in our world?

[00:02:43.700] – Richard Zheng

Yeah, when this whole thing started, it was only some cases on the mainland and not a big deal in Hawaii. Then we started noticing people looking at ways to work from home because we provide the broadband Internet and phone services for businesses. Some of the customers start calling and asking, “hey, what can I do?” And I talked to other businesses and they already started with their contingency plan. And what you’re going to do in case that the office and business shuts down.

[00:03:20.360] – Richard Zheng

So, after a little bit, we realize this is going to hit us really quick, really fast. We saw this avalanche coming towards us. So basically we updated our business continuity plan. We do it every year with dry runs. So we just put the plan in place.

[00:03:54.770] – Richard Zheng

And initially we were thinking about having employees go home, have the home internet to make sure they can still access the system from home to answer phone calls.

[00:04:07.730] – Richard Zheng

So during the day, we have a plan to do it a week later. Then in the evening we realized, hey, this thing’s going to be hitting us really hard. So we’re like, OK, let’s accelerate the plan and do the casting the next day. So that it was a Friday about two weeks ago. Then that weekend, we just sent everybody an e-mail to say they can work from home.

[00:04:44.540] – Richard Zheng

That was one week before the city shut down. During that week, we saw our call volume doubled. We were swamped with phone calls and people needing to work from home, sending phone calls to voicemail, or play a different greeting. So it was lucky we had everyone working at home already. We don’t have to worry about our internal operations and freed up all of our resources to help customers.

[00:05:19.790] – Jay Fidell

You’re talking about changing the connection from the office to the home. Educating people and helping them reconnect from home, both on broadband and on Voice over IP, which is part of broadband. That would be reasonable to anticipate as soon as you find out that people work from home because they don’t have those connections at home and will be calling you because you offer telephone support. You knew you put this all together immediately and you knew you would have to be prepared for that kind of onslaught of telephone calls. I suppose people were slightly panicky and demanding?

[00:06:06.810]

Right. We always take pride of our customer service. So when people call, they can always get hold of engineers to talk to them. We or any business isn’t designed to have this double call volume, literally overnight coming in. We really struggled in the beginning getting back to the customer as soon as possible. And it is very challenging. The team really stepped up, worked long hours and over the weekend getting the tickets answered and problems resolved for customers.

[00:06:50.030]

How hard was it, Richard, to connect all your people at home? That sounds like for you it would have been pretty easy.

[00:06:56.770]

Yeah. You know that when people go home and access the internet, they need to access the resources from their office. So we need to make sure this is secure. For our managed network customers, this means having firewall and VPN in place.

[00:07:15.940]

So it’s just a matter of assurance they can put in a VPN connection at home so they can access the company resources securely from their home office. And the same thing the Voice over IP phone. We need to set it up, give them credentials, and get everything ready. The biggest challenges is the resource it takes. We need to get engineers set things up and talk to customers. Everybody’s home connection is different and we make sure if there are any issues with their phone connection or home computer set up, then we need to walk them through the different scenarios and get things running for them. So that said, the hardest challenge is how to get resources on our side to help people in a timely manner?

[00:08:13.510]

Yeah, so disclosure, you’re our broadband provider and central to our operations. We like you and you have always been good on support. So this is part of your brand. And I know that all customers want to be able to call you. And that’s an important thing. Other companies, you can’t get through. You can never get through even on a good day. You can always find an engineer, a technical support person at Servpac. I guess the question I have is it goes beyond just the broadband. It goes beyond just broadband and the VoIP phone, because when people go home, they’re using their computers. And now your engineers, they’re not only have to answer questions about the basic provisions for the broadband and the basic provision for the phone. But there’s going to be all these leak over questions about how I set my computer up, am I right?

[00:09:20.680]

Yeah, definitely. We have to go above and beyond to help people on the issues we normally don’t have to resolve. But now, you know, before the phone in the office, we set up the connection, the network in the office. When they go home, it’s a totally different setup. So we had to really work through the different issues and have different solutions. We had really nailed down to this.

[00:09:46.780]

So one thing we were really lucky with was when we were slaughtered by customer phone calls, one of my friends came in and he owns a business that does reservations for Luau. When this thing blew up, there was nobody wanting to come to those. So he’s like, “I have a few people here. They are really good in at call centers and talking to customers. Can you use them?”

[00:10:20.290]

First off, I thought this is pretty technical and we cannot use them. But then, you know, we have a huge volume phone call coming in and can probably train these people very quickly. They can get the customer information and get all the tickets created.

[00:10:38.000]

So I can use all my engineers time to solve technical problems. But in terms of communication and getting information, these people handle it. Within a couple of hours, we get like three call center people up and running and set up VoIP phones to work from home. We had one engineer train these people. We transcribe all the phone calls so we can review it to find problems. These people, within two days, came to full speed and were able to answer phone calls. That is a huge thing for us because that frees up resources for the engineer, so we can really handle the technical problems.

[00:11:41.410] – Jay Fidell

That’s a win win. They still have jobs.

[00:11:47.570] – Richard Zheng

Exactly. They have jobs and the owner doesn’t have to worry about furloughing these people. These people have a job, help our customer service, and our engineers solve the problem. This company wins, we win, and the customer wins.

[00:12:05.900] – Jay Fidell

Yeah, absolutely. And there’s many lessons in there, not only for broadband providers, but for others. I mean, it’s a service to the community.

[00:12:14.970] – Jay Fidell

What you’ve done is you’re taking them off the streets and repurposed them for things they can do to keep them in the workforce. You’ve helped to modify the shock the business community would otherwise have on this. So what do you do with a company that calls you Richard and says we can’t operate anymore. We’re not an essential service and our employees have to go home. Our business model does not permit them to work from home and there’s no way they can be helpful at all. So we’re going to have to have to shut down on this, Richard. Do you have that experience and what do you do?

[00:12:59.250] – Richard Zheng

Yeah, we have customers sending emails and a cost for, you know, for the basic of their businesses, either running or even they run but they couldn’t pay us. For us, we are essential and will always be available for customers. But I worry so much that our customer won’t pay us and then are we going to have trouble paying my employees or vendors. What if my vendors cut off my service? As the CEO of the company, that’s definitely a major concern for us.

[00:13:45.090] – Jay Fidell

There’ve been articles in both New York Times and the Wall Street Journal about April 1st, which is coming two days from now. April 1st is the first of the month since it’s bill payment day. It’s paying the rent, all kinds of suppliers, and mortgages. Answer is always happens on the first in both of these articles that appeared. And I noticed they’re concerned about what happens to the country just like Y2K. If you remember Y2K, it all on the same day and nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen. So, April 1st, all these bills come due. You may get a flood of calls and letters and emails telling you they can’t pay or maybe not. I don’t know. And same thing with the banks, mortgage companies, and so forth. We’re going to find out soon.

[00:14:47.350] – Jay Fidell

And one of the things that you mentioned before we started was that this is not the kind of thing where you make a plan. And then something happens like coronavirus and adapt your plan. This is not a monthly change in plan or even weekly change in plan. You review your plan every day. Tell me about how that works.

[00:15:07.860] – Richard Zheng

Yeah. So you mention Y2K. People know Y2K will come on January 1st. People have years to plan for this. And Coronavirus, even though you know it’s in China for a few months, honestly nobody took it seriously. Yeah. So what really helps us is we do have business continuity planning for the last four years. Every year, we look at our plan to see is there something happening? Typically people don’t plan for pandemics. People plan for local disasters like hurricanes and other things.

[00:16:02.520] – Richard Zheng

But those plans, although it doesn’t apply to here directly, helps us to understand what are we going to do when this thing happens? So one thing you mentioned, this seems that be changing so fast. We need to send everybody home. But we’re a week ahead of time. We think, OK, we have a few days. We have one engineer go home, then the next day another engineer, so after a week, we have everything ready and send everyone home. Then we had a plan on Thursday evening, we see this thing’s is coming really hard on the news. We can’t wait for a week. So Friday morning, everyone comes in and we have a company meeting and after lunch, everyone goes home. They take the computer, their own monitor and phones.

[00:17:02.540] – Richard Zheng

Now we test and this thing works, which is good because we found some problems. Some people didn’t have good internet at home, or someone’s router wasn’t working. That helps us really address these issues and get those problems resolved before we get huge amount of phone calls coming in. So you got this thing, need to look at the situation, review the plan -probably multiple times.

[00:17:39.940] – Richard Zheng

That’s the only way to survive in this pandemic. In this whole process, we really communicate with employees. You know, most of the workforce staying at home now. Before, you know, there were water cooler meetings where we can address people with concerns. With people working from home, we have zoom meetings to see how the company doing and what we face in the future. Talk about concerns from a customer who can’t pay us to what are we going to do? I communicate that very clearly with all the employees. The company has enough reserves. We’re going to survive even for a few months. If we don’t have customer payment, we can still survive. It’s not a problem. But, if this goes even longer, then we might have a problem. We communicate very clearly with all the employees. It’s a very difficult situation.

[00:18:57.260] – Jay Fidell

Yeah, we we live in strange and threatening times. You know, one thing is, have you been thinking about what happens at the end of the crisis? Hopefully at some point, it’s going to end. We don’t have to figure that out right here and now, when it’s going to end. Nobody knows when it’s going to end. But let’s say it’s going to end in the space of a year or year and a half. That’s a long time. Do you have an idea about how you will reorganize yourself? Maybe it’s gradual or all of a sudden. How are you going to bring everybody back, you know, to your office premises? Are you can do it gradually? How are you going to get back to normal?

[00:19:44.090] – Richard Zheng

Yeah, I don’t know. This is going to be a really hard question because, you know, after several months or a year, everything will get to the normal. But I can guarantee you one thing – the normal is going to be a different normal.

[00:20:08.370] – Jay Fidell

How would be different? Do you have an idea about how it will be different?

[00:20:14.330] – Richard Zheng

 Well, there’s lots of things that will change. One thing is people will get it used to working from home. Business owners will see working from home is not a bad thing. Maybe more people can work from home. We will adapt to this. Our business has adapted all these years. We started in 2004 and keep adding new services. I’m pretty sure we’re going to be different a year from now in terms of the services we provide. But how is it going to happen? What’s it going to be? It’s everybody’s guess and still little too early to tell.

[00:21:00.310] – Jay Fidell

One thing you said that sounds interesting is you bring in additional staff to do triage, get a general idea of what people are calling about, and then refer them to the engineers. You know that two level kind of triage. Seems to me that’s something that sounds so good, useful and helpful. It’s one possibility where you might you might continue that after things return to normal now.

[00:21:30.380] – Richard Zheng

Yeah, when when we get hit by this thing, lots of businesses tried their best to adapt. Even the restaurants. In the first week or weekend, I wanted to support the local business. I have the means, so I want to do take out for some of my favorite restaurants, I don’t them to shut down and I couldn’t enjoy the food I like. So I could called a week ago to get some food. No problem. The line went so very quickly. This weekend, I called several restaurants. They’re so busy they couldn’t even take my calls.

[00:22:08.610] – Richard Zheng

You know, everything is changing so fast. It really is hard to predict. One thing I can say from this example is if you’re doing well and service your customers, people will come back. Right. people will take your services. They will love you. That’s why in the last few weeks we tried so hard to answer every phone calls. We try out not to send people to a voicemail or wait long hours. You know, that’s our job. We spend all the resources on some people’s calls and take care of them.

[00:22:50.690] – Jay Fidell

Sure it’ll pay off. When we spoke last, Richard, it was January 10th. I don’t know if you remember, but I Think Tech always covers the Pacific Telecommunications Conference. We were there and took some footage of you. You talked at some length with some great interest and excitement about your new data center. I wonder, you know, how your data center has has been going in the throes of the crisis. Tell me about the status of it.

[00:23:24.790] – Richard Zheng

 Yeah, it’s great. You know, I’m I’m working out of Mililani today. I still travel between the two offices and can tell you the project at full speed. I guess a lot of contractors and the subcontractors, their other work has slowed down.

[00:23:46.210] – Richard Zheng

But our work is classified as an essential services as data center telecommunications. All the contractors have been working and we didn’t slow a little bit. In some cases we actually accelerated the projects, and then there’ll be more resources. We do have to make some adjustments. So when people work in the data center construction area, we all have to wear masks.

[00:24:24.810] – Richard Zheng

It is good because, you know, our understanding is these masks are hard to get. They may not be able to prevent the virus, but at least if I’m sick for whatever reason, I don’t even know this from the block spreading the virus to other people. So we basically made a policy overnight and enforced it. Everyone on-site needs to wear these masks.

[00:24:55.480] – Jay Fidell

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I want to talk about one other thing. We have a few minutes left and that is where broadband fits, from your point of view, in the community. I mean, everybody is trying to reach kind of refigure the economy now. You know, as the economy declines, what’s going to be problematic. What’s going to stop first and second, and if business stops, what is it going to be?

[00:25:23.120] – Jay Fidell

What’s it going to be on business B and C and D? And how are they all connected? And where does broadband fit in all of that? Where do you fit in all of that? What happens? And this is my big question. What happens to the ghost of Christmas future if you can’t do broadband, if we don’t have broadband? What what is life like here in these islands and here in our community? Can you talk about it?

[00:25:48.180] – Richard Zheng

Yeah, definitely. Internet and broadband is critical. Now, people realize how important this is because they need to work from home. My kids, in two days, are going to start school and learning, so they need broadband services. People had been building the Internet, but lots of times we are not ready for this.

[00:26:19.140] – Richard Zheng

You know, the bandwidth usage has been skyrocketing. I heard that in Europe, the government has asked Netflix to drop the video quality from high definition to low resolution because then that it will it just couldn’t handle it. So now everybody knows the Internet is super important, and we need to invest. The private companies and government needs to invest in broadband. The whole Internet infrastructure needs to adapt to this new reality since lots of people will be working from home.

[00:27:03.460] – Jay Fidell

You think we could be in a situation where we we have to give up resolution on our Internet and broadband. Such as in Europe with Netflix.

[00:27:15.440] – Richard Zheng

Yeah, I don’t know. I think some some nights we’re watching Netflix, the quality was not that great. Maybe it’s automatic dropped already.

[00:27:21.950] – Jay Fidell

It’s happening already.

[00:27:27.550] – Richard Zheng

Well, I’m starting to hope this an opportunity for people to realize the problem. You know, if I up the effort just like we need to produce the masks and other medical supplies, so same thing. Toilet paper.

[00:27:43.820] – Jay Fidell

Well, let me add this last thought. It’s really necessary, in my view, that we have broadband and the availability of the Internet in these dark times when we’re all shuttered and sheltered in because life would be very tough without those things. But the other element, and I think it’s worth mentioning, is that when we get out of this, when we see the light at the end of the tunnel, when we try to get back to normal, we’re going to need broadband more to knit the community and economy back up together. We cannot afford to lose it because if we lose it, then it’d be really hard to bring back our economy. Don’t you agree?

[00:28:30.020] – Richard Zheng

Yeah, definitely. The broadband Internet is not just for entertainment. It’s become essential for workforce. And people have been talking about telemedicine due to the pandemic. I heard of some machine where you can take blood pressure and do some basic testing. So those things can not only make us more efficient, but save people’s lives.

[00:28:58.290] – Jay Fidell

Yeah. Well, thank you to Richard Zheng, CEO of Servpac, a great company. I can tell you from personal experience, thank you so much for coming on our show and talking about these things. Well, all the best to you. Stay safe and all your people stay safe, Richard. Aloha.

[00:29:13.670] – Richard Zheng

Thank you.