Cable Operators

Making Customer Care The Top Priority

2/17/2006 7:00 PM Eastern

If Bright House Networks can stave off competition from DirecTV Inc., Dish Network and Knology Holdings Inc., and generate 10% phone penetration within one year of service, it must be doing something right with customer care.

The secret, said vice president of customer care Bill Futch, is hiring good employees, giving them the tools to do their jobs as efficiently as possible, and creating good experiences when customers call.

“It boils down to having the right people in place,” he said. “You have to have effective training and knowledge management.”

For Bright House the keys to accomplishing that include:

  • Creating an internal Internet-protocol-based communications platform between offices and employees so any customer service representative in any field office can handle any phone call from any subscriber;

  • Directing employees to screen recruits as part of the job interview process;

  • Providing free service calls for problems inside the home;

  • Contacting subscribers after installations or recent service calls to see if their problem had been resolved; and

  • Calling subscribers on their fifth-year anniversary to thank them for their business.

The current customer service push started nearly four years ago. “We sat down with the executive team in March 2002 and discussed where we wanted to be with customer care,” Futch said.

The systems had launched high-speed data, the phone business was on the horizon and video, with digital TV, digital video recorders and video on demand, was growing more complex.

Job one was internal, Futch said. “We were geographically dispersed across seven counties, 35 physical locations and five call centers. None were connected to one another,” he said.

“We saw the opportunity to unite the operations and employees on a single, state-of-art IP platform,” Futch said. “We connected all the locations with a common voice-over-Internet protocol data platform.” That eliminated the 15 different phone switches from five different vendors.

“We could standardize the way we went to subscribers and improve our capabilities in serving subscribers,” he said. Customers weren’t transferred from one CSR to another if the call was about video or data or voice.

Centralization was critical to launching digital phone. “We could deploy it from a central point of management, and we didn’t have to redesign the infrastructure. We have enhanced data sharing and reporting capability. With operational data, I know right now how well we’re doing throughout division. Before, information was all over the place.”

Over the past year, Bright House has rolled out a computer telephony integration software system that provides intelligent routing capabilities for customer phone calls. “We can route on 23 different data points and route calls to the right agent,” he said.

The new setup allows any customer service agent in any of the five operations centers to access the central database of stored customer information. “We’re able to route calls throughout the division. All four call centers are virtual.” Initial calls are routed to the nearest call center, but calls will automatically roll over to other call centers if all agents are busy at the local call center, he said.

The system’s main repair group is housed in Bright House’s new Pinellas County building, which is also home to Bay News 9, and the corporate and ad sales offices.

Service calls are free, said Steve Colafrancesco, vice president of marketing, a costly endeavor if operations aren’t in sync. “When you don’t have a lot, making it free doesn’t break the bank,” he said. “We look at service calls as an opportunity to get into the home again.”

Coming from the theme park business, Colafrancesco said cable should cherish in-home contact. Coca-Cola Inc. “never has access inside a person’s home to shake hands and gain confidence for [its] company.”

Customer service also means getting the right employees, training them and giving them the tools to do their jobs, Futch said

“The employees interview recruits and that helps raise the level of employee coming through the door,” Futch said. “We have to attract people who can absorb a lot of information.” The job gets tougher because Florida has relatively low unemployment, he added.

“Every employee has a set of goals and meets with their supervisor to see progress,” Futch said. Bright House also shares metrics on how the company is doing with the front-line employees, so they take more ownership of their jobs. “We want to have business owners on that phone.”

Launching digital phone to 1 million subscribers took a lot of work, Futch said. “It was a lot of planning. We had a huge project team. Every functional group was involved. We created a concierge level of customer care,” where customers could call 611 to get immediate help on phone issues.

Overall, “our objective is to answer 90% of the calls within 30 seconds. Thirty percent of the time the issue is resolved before they get to a representative” because of automated response units that help subscribers with problems, he said.

Usually, cable systems want to have as few customer service calls as possible. But every call gives Bright House an opportunity to solve a problem, add a new service or create a better impression of the cable company in the consumer’s mind, Futch said.

Call volume can be driven by questions about new services, like HDTV, DTV or VoIP, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“We do a lot of surveys internally, and those subscribers that have more interaction with us are more satisfied,” Futch said. “It’s an opportunity to enhance the relationship with our customers.”

Although Futch believes Bright House has improved on customer service, “we still have the opportunity to drive those metrics higher.” For instance, he wants to de-emphasize the three-minute average call-time metric. Urging customer care representatives to solve all calls in three minutes can lead to frustrated subscribers. “We need to create a good experience for them. With high-speed data issues, don’t speak technical jargon to them. We try to help the customer solve their problem.”

Futch said one new effort in 2006 will be to increase the number of outbound calls, above the 1 million made in 2005. Those calls will go to homes with recent installation, recent service problems or to subscribers who have passed their fifth anniversary with Bright House.

March