Dragging Cable Into CRM Camp

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Joe Rooney will be on a mission this week in Seattle. If he ends up sleepless when it's over, better that than leave his company — or other cable operators — clueless over how to maximize the consumer information they possess.

One way or another, as part of Rooney's duties as co-chair of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing's annual Summit conference, Cox Communications Inc.'s senior vice president of marketing will argue on behalf of the industry adopting customer-relationship management techniques.

Common and central to many industries, from banking to telecommunications — but an infant arena for cable — customer-relationship management (CRM) is part information retrieval, part technology software and infrastructure, part strategy and all about marketing additional services to the people who most desire them.

As cable further deploys video, voice and data products of the digital, high-speed, on-demand, interactive or home-networked kind, operators must take their customer-care and field operations to the next level, with CRM as the foundation, Rooney said.

Heightened competition from direct-broadcast satellite, telephone companies and overbuilders won't leave operators much time to ponder things.

"This is about leveraging what we know about our customers to treat them better, serve them better and sell them more stuff," he said. "If you feel the competitive landscape heating up, and I do, you'd better know which customers you want to spend more money to retain, and which customers will value which products. I'm trying to move the industry this way."

In Rooney's scenario, all customer service, call center, back-office and field personnel would be attached to a CRM system, accessed through their PCs or hand-held terminals.

The system would be a repository for all operator information, taken from customer records, a data warehouse, or set-top box activity in the home — all with the customer's permission, to avoid privacy issues.

When someone calls an employee, data on the person's media status and favorite cable products would instantly flash on the PC or hand-held screen.

The system would then go two steps further, by flashing recommended products or services the employee could try marketing the to consumer before the call ends, and telling how such an appeal could be presented.

This process — which Rooney dubbed a "recommendation engine" — will increase the odds for sales.

Say a caller's inquiry is about tonight's lineup on A&E Network. As the service rep searches for the lineup, the screen portrays him as someone with three sets at home — two of which are HDTVs — and as a taker of video-on-demand and high-speed Web access.

Bravo's new HD network, bundled with special high-speed concert clips from America Online and an interactive TV ticketing channel, might be a winning choice for $2 extra per month, the screen would say.

Rooney acknowledged that the path for CRM becoming widespread among operators will take a few years. But now's the time for operators to take the first steps, he said.

For Cox, that initial phase is under way. The industry's fourth-largest system owner has requested CRM proposals from technology vendors with a track record in other industries.

By mid-fall, one or two companies will be selected to trial their products in two markets. One of the market trials will involve Cox's noted "triple play" bundle of digital video, high-speed and telephony.

Teradata, NCR Inc.'s data-software subsidiary, believes it has the inside track on Cox's request for proposals. For the last year, Rooney has served on Teradata's board of media and telecommunications advisers.

"He's the first cable person on our board, and hopefully, he's picked up some learning on the way," said Sherri Carswell, Teradata's director of media and entertainment business.

In Seattle this week, Teradata will display its CRM wares at the CTAM Summit's New Media Lab. The display also will show off a recommendation engine model prepared by OmniChoice, one of the company's third-party tech partners.

Besides displaying what operators could offer in reaction to specific situations, the engine offers information on whether DBS and other multichannel vendors can offer the same thing in their area — and recommendations on what to do in that circumstance.

CRM "has to be innocuous, part of a company's DNA, in order to succeed," Carswell said. "Cable must communicate the value of what it does to their subs on a need-based model. There's upsell opportunities with this."

Another vendor sure to be in the hunt for operator business is Accenture, the worldwide multi-industry consultancy.

Cable interest in CRM is on the move. A number of the operators with whom Accenture has discussed the topic will move forward with vendor trials over the next 18 months.

Robert Clauser, a partner in Accenture's media and entertainment practice, would not name names.

"We are seeing a movement toward this kind of product, either for call centers or sales teams," he said. "They have to address customers better to be more competitive."

Nevertheless, Clauser doesn't foresee the industry fully engaged with CRM until 2006 at the earliest, when VOD and ITV reach critical mass and operators can pull lots of subscriber information from set-top converters.

"All that information will force operators to work in CRM," he noted. "On the other hand, if widespread VOD or ITV is delayed because of business setbacks, that could slow things down."

Carswell believes cable will have a quicker CRM adoption curve.

"Cable companies are a brotherhood. Once one or two industry leaders move forward, the rest of the dominoes will fall pretty quickly," he said. "That's why we're engaging heavily here."

It's unclear which big MSO will join Cox in moving the dominoes, or when.

One big concern is integrating the CRM with billing software. Because all Cox systems use Convergys Corp.'s Icoms format, that's no problem for Rooney.

Other operators use more than one billing vendor, or multiple formats from one or more suppliers, so the integration effort takes on greater complexity.

Comcast Corp., the No. 1 U.S. MSO, maintained that a CRM system is already available to thousands of its customer account executives nationwide. But the system Comcast is talking about is not exactly what Cox is going for.

The process serves up more detailed consumer records, with some anecdotal media information thrown in. And the system is not used for marketing purposes.

"We're also looking at future CRM enhancements that will further improve the customer experience," a Comcast spokeswoman said. The company passed on an executive interview for this story.

Rooney thinks Comcast will zero in on CRM development next year, after the former AT&T Broadband systems are upgraded and integrated.

In contrast, Charter Communications Inc. has brought some CRM functionality into its back-office practices over the last year, with a mix of self-crafted integration and inexpensive software buys, such as Screen Pops, a program from former Lucent Technologies subsidiary Avaya.

Screen Pops gives CSRs a broad overview of a customer's media lifestyle as soon as a call is taken.

"We're not looking at CRM as one big huge software application that fits all over the other systems we've invested in," explained Doyle Minton, Charter's vice president of customer care. "It's key applications we need to do that don't take multimillion dollar software to use. We also want to maximize the current tech we have."

Vendors with pricey integrated solutions need not apply to Minton, whose long MSO career includes runs with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision Systems Corp. He is willing to consider companies who can set up a recommendation engine at a reasonable cost.

Minton's major 2004 priority is to get that engine running within Charter's call centers.

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