Cable Operators

Cable Sees the Need For a Personal Touch

8/11/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

As the stakes in customer service get higher, cable operators are getting touchier.

From the look and feel of customer Web sites to the signage in payment lobbies and the language used by in-home technicians, cable providers are devoting more resources than ever to managing a multitude of “touchpoints” that influence customer perceptions.

Once defined narrowly as the interaction between telephone agents, installers and subscribers, customer service now is construed by most operators in a more holistic way.

HEARING A HUMAN VOICE

The modern view encompasses everything from the tone of a human voice at the end of a phone call to a growing range of automated self-care technologies. Some think that even the logo-decorated vans driven by service technicians contribute toward perceptions that can influence product sales and make or break customer loyalty.

“The critical experience for the customer is their overall experience with the company,” says Suzanne Foy, director of customer care strategy and support for Cox Communications Inc.

A broadening definition of what determines the customer relationship represents a step forward for an industry that once struggled merely to tell customers what time a technician would stop by to fix a problem. Faced with competition from wireline telecommunications providers and satellite TV rivals, cable operators are now trying to hold on to customers the old-fashioned way: by treating them well in every interaction.

For Insight Communications Co., that means not only resolving service requests on the first try — the so-called “first-contact resolution” goal of many providers — but making sure that messages and behaviors are consistent across a wide range of customer touchpoints: at home, in bill-payment lobbies, over the phone, and online.

Achieving a tightly integrated service offering demands “knowledge management” systems that are an increasing focus of the integrated customer-care approach, says Insight vice president Dave Seibold. “Knowledge management comes down to: Are we saying the right things every single time, and is it easy for people to find the answers.”

CALL-CENTER INTEGRATION

An expanded view of customer service also demands closer links between call-center agents and cable marketing departments.

Customer-segmentation databases that were once used mainly for direct-marketing campaigns are increasingly valuable to call-center agents who are being asked to support ancillary product sales and make product recommendations while they’re on the phone, says Tom Brooksher, president of Denver-based industry training firm NCTI.

Brooksher says new knowledge-management tools can assist CSRs in making appropriate recommendations depending on who’s calling. But they demand rethinking of traditional roles. “This takes a deepening of the relationship between the call center management people and the marketing staff,” Brooksher says.

Links between cable industry marketing and customer-service disciplines also are emerging nationally.

The Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, historically devoted to marketing and communications practices, launched a customer care initiative in 2002 and has staged national conferences featuring industry heavyweights like Cox CEO James Robbins and Comcast Corp. chief operating officer Steve Burke.

BIG PART OF MARKETING

CTAM says the customer care focus is a natural evolution. “Marketing is all aspects of interaction with a customer,” says association senior vice president Seth Morrison. “If you don’t provide the right level of service, what good are all the bells and whistles and great [advertising] creative?”

An appreciation for the wider view has even influenced the language behind the job. When Insight hired Seibold in April, it discarded the old “customer service” title in favor of vice president of “customer experience.”

Seibold, a cable industry operations veteran, says the title change was deliberate: “When you say 'customer care’ people automatically gravitate towards the call center — period. And to me and to Insight, it involves all the ways that we touch a prospective customer or an actual customer.”

In addition to overseeing Insight’s 20 call-center facilities, Seibold reviews the language Insight uses in its marketing and ad campaigns to ensure consistency with what CSRs are telling customers over the phone, and works with operations teams to promote consistency and first-contact resolution in the work that service technicians perform.

Measuring the impact of cable’s increasingly integrated customer-care approach is difficult.

One ongoing study, from the University of Michigan, shows a longstanding customer satisfaction gap between cable companies and satellite TV providers has narrowed slightly over the past year.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the top four U.S. MSOs either maintained or raised their overall satisfaction scores from 2004, while scores of both DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network fell by more than 4%.

COMPETITION MOTIVATION

The ACSI study spotlights the big motivation for better cable service: competition.

“Twenty years ago I was in the industry in Columbus, Ohio, with QUBE, and people were chasing trucks down the street,” says Seibold. “Twenty percent growth a year was commonplace, and there was next to no focus applied to the people, time or money spent on the quality of interactions or the failure rates at each step of that process.”

Today, demand for certain products remains high, but cable providers now must contend with a growing number of competitors with largely similar offerings. That leaves fewer differentiating factors for consumers to weigh.

Customer care — on all levels — is one area where operators can produce favorable impressions without resorting to a price war.

“Customers have to feel good,” Seibold says. “Because if they don’t they’re going to pay attention to the next deeply discounted offer that comes from our competitor.”

September