News

DBS Firms Eye Customer-Service Fixes

8/29/1999 8:00 PM Eastern

Faced with recent spikes in customer-call volume,
direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. are
taking steps to add more customer-service representatives at their call centers in time
for the all-important holiday selling season.

Builders were expected to break ground today (Aug. 30) in
El Paso, Texas, on EchoStar's fourth call center, which is set to open late this year. The
company held a job fair there last week, and more than 2,500 people showed up to apply for
the 75 open managerial positions.

According to senior vice president of sales, customer
service and human resources Soraya Hesabi-Cartwright, EchoStar will hire 300 CSRs for the
El Paso call center this fall, ultimately increasing the staff there to 2,000.

And last Friday, DirecTV president Eddy Hartenstein was
scheduled to appear at a dedication ceremony for the company's first owned-and-operated
call center, in Boise, Idaho.

Purchased earlier this year along with other assets
controlled by PrimeStar Inc., the Boise call center currently employs 1,100 CSRs who
handle calls from PrimeStar by DirecTV customers.

DirecTV senior director of customer service Jere Burch --
who has run the Boise call center since it was opened by Tele-Communications Inc. in
December 1996 -- said DirecTV plans to train its Boise CSRs to take calls from high-power

DirecTV customers by the end of the year.

The Boise facility is one of two DirecTV-owned call
centers, along with one in Englewood, Colo., which is also devoted to medium-power
PrimeStar customers. DirecTV outsources most of its call-center operations, including two
East Coast facilities that also take PrimeStar calls.

Over the next two years, DirecTV plans to convert its
PrimeStar subscriber base to its high-power platform.

According to analysts,

DirecTV's recent deal closings with PrimeStar and U.S.
Satellite Broadcasting have contributed to an unusually high call volume for the DBS
provider.

Other factors include a channel-number revamp, new
programming packages, heavy subscriber growth and controversy surrounding
distant-network-signal shut-offs for thousands of DirecTV subscribers in July.

EchoStar has not been left untouched by call-volume spikes.
In addition to significant subscriber acquisitions of its own, the company has also
introduced a number of new products -- including its "DISHPlayer" unit, with a
built-in WebTV Networks Internet-over-television system -- that drive both new and
potential customers to their phones.

As the products and promotional offers become more complex,
call volume goes up, Alpert & Associates president Mickey Alpert said. Alpert foresees
another spike in consumer calls once local-into-local legislation passes and after
EchoStar and DirecTV launch new satellites.

Burch said DirecTV executives will look closely at the
success of the Boise call center in determining whether to open more of its own call
centers. "Our employees are very committed to the company and the product," she
said, explaining some of the advantages of company-owned facilities.

"You have control over your own destiny when you
handle customer service yourself," Hesabi-Cartwright added.

When EchoStar used outside customer-service vendors in the
past, "They wanted 21 days' advance notice for training," Hesabi-Cartwright
said. "I can't go to [EchoStar chairman] Charlie [Ergen] and say I need a whole
month" before he can implement a new promotion.

EchoStar is already investigating sites for a fifth call
center, which may open early next year.

DirecTV's customer-service vendors are adding 200 new CSRs
for the company each week, a DirecTV spokesman said. By Sept. 1, billing-services provider
Convergys Corp. plans to open a call center in Pocatello, Idaho, which will staff 500
people.

Both companies are also looking to other technologies --
such as on-air channels, Web sites and automated dial-in numbers -- to help take the
pressure off the call centers.

Earlier this month, DirecTV set up a new toll-free number
dedicated to customers who wanted to change their programming packages, and it promotes
the phone number on a 24-hour channel.

Also this month, EchoStar rolled out its impulse
pay-per-view feature for special events, as well as an automated dial-up number that
allows customers to phone in PPV requests without the aid of live operators.

The company also plans to offer interactive customer
service through OpenTV Inc. technology, which is available in some of Dish Network's newer
receivers.

But no matter how many other channels are available to
answer customer questions, both Burch and Hesabi-Cartwright said there will always be
subscribers who want to speak with a live voice on the other end of the phone.

At its worst point several weeks ago, many DirecTV
subscribers calling the customer hot line were disconnected, rather than being put on
hold, and some frustrated customers unsuccessfully attempted to reach live operators into
the small hours of the morning.

"My graveyard team got tons of calls,"
Hesabi-Cartwright said, adding that she was happy to help DirecTV's customers if it meant
helping them to switch to Dish. MCN

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