Customer-service representatives at Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable operator, receive about 175 million phone calls from subscribers and potential customers every year.
No matter the reason for the call — be it for a technical problem or a billing question — chances are the CSR will pitch the subscriber or potential customer on new Comcast services by the end of the transaction.
"There's no question that every call is an opportunity," said Comcast executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service Dave Watson. "There's a huge number of calls that we have that are service-related that we think are a great opportunity for us, and so we look at a number of different opportunities to educate the customer and offer them an opportunity, whether it's digital cable or high-speed Internet."
While cable marketers are the ones who develop media campaigns touting products such as digital cable, high-speed data or on-demand programming, Watson and executives at other cable MSOs say they rely on customer-service representatives — located in local and regional call centers — to push these products to subscribers.
The key incentive cable companies use to motivate CSRs to drive new-subscription sales is money, usually in the form of a bounty for each product sold.
In addition to a base salary, CSRs at Mediacom Communications Corp. receive commissions for selling digital cable and high-speed data products to customers who call in.
"They could make several dollars more per hour on top of their base salary, and their base salary is not at all predicated on commissions," Mediacom senior vice president of customer operations Charlie Bartolotta said.
"Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask," is the key message that Mediacom stresses to its CSRs when it comes to pitching new products to customers, Bartolotta said.
"The philosophy we're trying to impart on people is don't think of it as a burden," he said. "If they can't afford it, that's not your issue. Don't predetermine anything about [the subscriber]."
Watson said most of the 175 million calls Comcast receives each year are from consumers looking to order new service or from existing customers calling with service-related issues.
SELL-INS ARE UP
Comcast CSRs sell a digital cable package to half the consumers who call for new service, and they're able to sell high-speed Internet service to 30% of those callers.
"Two years ago, the number in high-speed Internet was zero, and four years ago the number for digital cable was half of that, 25%," Watson said. "We've made extraordinary progress in a relatively short period of time."
Comcast usually routes calls from consumers who inquire about new service to CSRs who specialize in selling digital cable and high-speed Internet services. Individual incentives are offered to CSRs who meet sales goals, and group incentives for each call center are based on meeting overall quality and sales objectives.
Charter Communications Inc. also gives CSRs financial incentives to drive increased sales, vice president of customer care JoAnn Cavallaro said. "We view all of our CSRs as salespeople. Our philosophy going forward is when you talk about customer care, customer care is a very broad term that includes sales and service."
SPECIALISTS IN HOUSE
Several operators direct calls from new customers to CSRs who specialize in sales.
Adelphia Communications Corp. is building a new call center in Orlando, Fla., dedicated to selling products to potential and existing customers.
Senior vice president of customer care Ellen Filipiak said all of the MSO's call centers will forward calls from subscribers who respond to local direct mail campaigns and newspaper ads touting new services to the Orlando operation, scheduled to open in April.
Filipiak said CSRs would pitch various Adelphia cable and high-speed Internet packages to consumers based on feedback obtained by the CSR.
For example, a consumer who says he travels frequently will be offered a digital video recorder. A caller who works at home will be pitched an Adelphia cable modem.
"I can educate you on the products you have and how they fit your needs and lifestyles," Filipiak added.
Last year, Time Warner Cable systems began revamping the pricing and branding of digital programming packages, with the hope of simplifying the sales process for both CSRs and subscribers.
The DIGIPiC 100 package contains standard basic, digital channels, Music Choice and VOD programming; DIGIPiC 2000 offers two premium multiplexes and SVOD content; and DIGIPiC 4000 contains four premium multiplexes.
DIGIPiC packages also can be bundled with Road Runner HSI.
Time Warner Cable chief marketing officer Chuck Ellis said CSRs have financial incentives to sell digital cable and HSI packages — and will have incentives to sell Digital Phone service as systems begin marketing the upcoming Internet-based telephony service.
Cable programmers invest heavily on marketing their networks to top cable executives, but in the end they rely on individual CSRs to sell their networks to subscribers.
Some programmers assign employees to work full time on training CSRs to pitch their services.
Starz Encore Group employs 43 trainers that visit cable call centers throughout the year to coach CSRs about the content on the company's premium networks and its new services, such as Starz HD and Starz On Demand, senior vice president of sales and sales operations Debbie Egner said.
The programmer has also looked to simplify the selling process with initiatives such as its "Like movies, say Starz!," campaign, aimed at getting CSRs to recommend the premium service to customers who say they are movie fans.
Last fall, Starz Encore gave a Jeep to an Insight Communications Co. CSR who won a contest tied to selling subscriptions to Starz On Demand. Egner said the programmer also offers other incentives to CSRs for selling its premium networks in the form of cash or gift certificates for Target stores.
Executives at Cox Communications Inc., Time Warner Cable and Comcast said they are looking to introduce voice recognition systems with the goal of allowing subscribers to check on their account balance or the status of a service call without having to talk to the CSR.
These interactive voice response systems, which are in use today at airlines and in other industries, could also reduce hold times for customers and cut the workload for CSRs, cable executives said.
"We're in the process of updating all of our call centers with computer telephony integration work which will eventually include voice recognition software," said Time Warner Cable senior vice president of customer relations Dave Temlak.
Cox interim vice president of customer care Bob Hattori said the MSO is "looking heavily" at voice recognition systems and that it expects to trial a product this year.