The new Ma Bell: a flabby or scrappy competitor?

About 18 months ago, American Telephone & Telegraph Company began putting its sales force through what it called a ''certification'' process. This involved proving to a small management coterie that the individual both knew the industry he or she was selling to, and that he was an effective salesperson.

As a result of the certification process, the telephone company says, a number of people were moved to ''more appropriate'' jobs. What the certification also represented, telephone company observers say, is the company's attempt to turn some of its flabby parts into muscle, to become competitive.

Exactly how successful this program will be is hard to tell. In its new form, however, there is little doubt the telephone company will have to compete. Exactly how successful it will be is open to question.

Some of Ma Bell's competitors openly scoff at the company. William McGowan, for example, the chairman of MCI Communications, a competitor of Bell's for the long distance market, says Bell is ''fat, expensive, and highly inefficient.''

Another executive in the phone business says the sales force of Bell's competitors has an ''aggressive, alert profile''; the phone company's sales force, she maintains, lacks this drive. She says her company, which is in the call accounting business - systems that list phone numbers, dates, times, charges, etc., on all calls - is not concerned about competition from Ma Bell, even though the telephone company recently began to market a competitive system.

Others, however, disagree.

Charles Wohlstetter, the chairman of Continental Telephone Corporation, the nation's third-largest independent telephone company, asks, ''What kind of competitor would a brontosaurus maximus be?'' He answers, ''About three times as good as anyone thinks it will be.''

AT&T, he points out, ''will be rid of all the capital-intensive business as well as the least profitable aspects of its operations.'' Now, he says, it can take advantage of such assets as Bell Telephone Laboratories, its research and development arm which invented the transistor and the laser. In the past, AT&T could not fully utilize Bell Lab's discoveries. He concludes, ''I know I would not like to compete with them.'' Competitors who denigrate the telephone company , he says, ''have their fingers crossed.''

Paul Daubitz, a communications consultant and president of Associated Telemanagement, a Boston-based company, agrees with Mr. Wohlstetter, adding that AT&T will be ''a very, very active and aggressive competitor in the information industries.'' He adds that, with its money, organization, and recognition, the Bell System ''should be quite successful.''

And Harry Newton, president of Telecom Library Inc., a New York publishing house specializing in telecommunications, likewise believes the new Bell, emerging like a caterpillar in 18 months, will be a lot more competitive.

''The 22 operating companies and one AT&T are going to be a lot more competitive, aggressive, innovative, and flexible than one gargantuan behemoth, '' he predicts. AT&T, he adds, had ''long ago reached the point of management of diminishing returns. This is a fabulous step to bring some excitement.''

Still, there is no doubt the Bell System will have to do some tightening up. For example, Mr. McGowan points out that MCI's revenues per employee amount to $ 165,000, compared with $90,000 per person in AT&T's long-lines division. An official with another competitor, RCA Service Company, which produces telephone systems for hotels, motels, and businesses, says the local operating companies may get so involved in the dismemberment of the Bell System that this could present some opportunities for RCA over the short term. Also, any increase in local telephone equipment rates, says Ray Sokolowski, division vice-president for consumer and commercial services, would aid RCA's business, which is growing 40 to 50 percent a year. The whole interconnect industry is growing 15 to 17 percent a year, which is higher than Bell's growth rate.

Another problem Bell will have, competitors feel, relates to its personnel. Mr. Sokolowski says he understands AT&T has sales-management recruiting problems , ''due to its long history as a regulated company.''

Currently, says Mr. Newton, the publisher, the Bell System faces a morale problem with employees. ''People are more concerned with whether they have jobs, '' he says, since the phone company has been ''firing and hiring a lot over the past year.'' However, Wohlstetter of Continental Telephone says the phone company's managers are improving as the company streamlines. ''Charlie Brown (AT&T's chairman) went in there and got rid of the old-school-tie boys, toughening up the whole system,'' he says.

Executives in the computer business are remaining aloof until they can assess AT&T's strategy. But one executive with a major computer company says, ''They may be terrible competitors when they are unregulated.'' He adds, ''They have so much technology to use to their advantage if they are allowed to by law.''

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