As Service Levels Rise, Gripes Persist

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Cable has always walked a thin line with respect to complaining customers. In the 1980s, gripes centered around such issues as trampled rose bushes and frustration with trucks that never seemed to lay cable fast enough.

By the '90s, soaring prices created a populist uproar that spurred the 1992 Cable Act, which strangled the industry until 1999, when most of those rules elapsed. Since then, customer service has improved significantly by anyone's measure.

The industry's "on-time guarantee" and other initiatives have helped smooth relations with subscribers and local franchising authorities. The training of customer-service representatives (CSRs) is vastly more sophisticated.

And competition from direct-broadcast satellite providers has put the quest to reduce subscriber churn at the top of the priority list, where it arguably should have been all along.

The cable industry has grown into a consolidated cadre of major corporations with high-tech call centers, technically savvy technicians and better-trained customer-service representatives.

As a result, as cable operators roll out new services such as high-speed data, telephony, digital cable, and interactivity, complaints have declined in many localities.

"Generally, cable complaints have been reduced in a big way," said Mayor Kenneth Fellman of Arvada, Colo., an AT&T Broadband market. "There aren't nearly as many complaints as there used to be."

Of course, each market is different, and complaints aren't necessarily declining nationwide. In some markets, they are on the rise.

In Los Angeles, where the various operators include Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc., Adelphia Communications Corp. and AT&T Broadband, city officials just reported a 117 percent increase in consumer complaints. There were 6,414 complaints in 2001, compared with only 2,956 in 2000. In other markets, complaints are down.

In Washington, D.C., they've declined from 1,170 in 1997, during the Tele-Communications Inc. regime, to 516 in 2001, under Comcast Corp.'s watch.

BALANCING ACT

But even improved markets face regulatory scrutiny. For instance, Washington just adopted strict new customer-service standards.

"It was prompted by the various calls we were getting," said consumer services cable coordinator Marcella Hicks. "Constituents feel helpless."

The industry's ultimate goal has been to balance the need for new-service rollouts with improvements in customer service. It hasn't been easy.

"There are a lot of things going on that are putting pressure on customer service," said Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing president Char Beales. "We're in a situation in which there is an explosion of new products that CSRs are dealing with."

All of this comes after several years of consolidation, with constant cable-system swapping adding to the consumer confusion.

"Hopefully, we're leaving the period of mergers and rebuilds," said Beales. "But we still have all of these new products."

PLUG IN PLANO, PLEASE

The industry has struggled to roll out digital cable, high-speed data and, in some cases, telephony services at essentially the same time.

Just as consumers in the '80s cried, "I want my MTV," many consumers in the 2000s now covet advanced services.

One example is Plano, Texas. The city's proximity to the technology corridor of Richardson, Texas, makes it one of the country's highest per-capita communities for work-at-home telecommuters and businesses — not to mention tech-minded consumers with an average income of $77,558 per year.

AT&T Broadband has rolled out cable-modem service in that market, but apparently not widely enough to satisfy local officials. They report complaints from consumers angry that they can't get broadband service.

"There's not a whole heck of a lot I can do for them," said assistant to the Plano city manager Julie Fleischer. "It's pretty frustrating. What do you tell people?"

Of course, Fleischer gets just as many complaints from people miffed that SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications have yet to deploy digital subscriber line service throughout most of the city.

Franchise authorities said they often cope with consumer complaints regarding cable-modem service.

Even when the service is available, current customers complain of slower-than-promised connections or service outages. Also hurting matters was Internet-service provider @Home Corp.'s bankruptcy, which led to service disruptions for millions of subscribers in cities throughout the U.S.

MODEN SUBS: DEMANDING

Cable-modem customers can be a demanding bunch, even when customer service in other areas has improved.

Take Carroll County, Md. Local officials there reported a more than 50 percent decline in complaints after Adelphia finished a system upgrade in November.

Still, residents who attended a March meeting of the Carroll County Cable Commission focused on alleged flaws in Adelphia's cable-modem service, complaining of outages at peak times and long hold times for technical support calls.

Such tensions over cable-modem service have reached a boiling point in many cities.

"There has been an enormous spike in cable-modem complaints," said Nick Miller, a municipal attorney at the Washington law firm of Miller & Van Eaton, which represents several cities in actions against local cable operators. "The folks installing the equipment haven't been properly trained, and the customers can't get adequate phone support.

"A lot of these systems were rebuilt three to five years ago, and they weren't designed to handle the traffic they are now experiencing. People are kind of upset that they're not getting the kinds of speeds they wanted."

Miller called it "ironic" that such complaints are on the rise. That's because the Federal Communications Commission recently affirmed that cable-modem service is an "information" service rather than a cable service, thus exempting it from cable regulations. As a result, operators may disregard high-speed data revenues when calculating franchise-fee payments.

"There's a lot of frustration at the local level," he said.

FCC PULLED OUT RUG

In the Washington suburb of Montgomery County, Md., local officials had been applying the county's customer-service standards to Comcast's cable-modem service, but recently stopped because of the FCC decision.

"Now, it's outside our purview," said Montgomery County cable administrator Jane Lawton. "We don't have any muscle. With broadband, people really feel like they're hung out there."

Operators have admitted to challenges with the @Home migration and other cable-modem related technical issues.

But the industry has also exhibited some grace under pressure. For example, AT&T Broadband said it processed some 5.2 million customer contacts over two and a half months, in the course of its @Home migration. It continues to offload much of its broadband technical support to the Internet, which reduces call-center volume.

Such online traffic has also enabled the company to shift 330,000 subscribers (about one-third of its broadband customers) to online billing systems, further reducing administrative stress.

In any event, complicated new-service rollouts have shifted focus to the trenches — the call centers — where CSRs can placate or aggravate confused subscribers.

Although reps were once the lowest-paid, least-respected drones in cable's hive, they have become the source of consumers' first impression, upsellers of new services — and the last line of defense to stop customers from buying a dish.

"Customer care and service clearly continue to be a top priority for our companies," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association senior vice president Rob Stoddard. "The competitive marketplace is driving an intensified focus on customer service. It goes straight to the bottom line."

TRAINERS EVERYWHERE

Nowhere is that more true than in the field.

"When I started 11 years ago, I was the only trainer," said Insight Communications Co. vice president of training Lori Urias Gehris. "Now, we have trainers in every district."

There are now about 30 technical and administrative trainers at Insight systems across the country, all working full-time to keep CSRs up to date on the increasingly sophisticated cable systems under their watch.

"It's not the old days when you could say, 'Make sure you're turned to Channel 3,' " she said.

Insight senior vice president of employee relations Scott Cooley said: "Now, you have to at least be knowledgeable about TiVo, home theater systems. We understand that we can have all the products and bells and whistles, but until the employees are comfortable with the products, they're not going to be successful."

Workforce automation has also allowed many operators to cut down on missed service appointments and route in-home visits more efficiently. Truck rolls are often inevitable, because of the increasingly complex entertainment center set-ups now found in homes.

Past industry practice was to hand a clipboard with the day's assignments to each service technician.

These days, technicians often take their assignments one at a time, contacting the dispatcher after each service call to find out where they're needed next. (Insight has deployed such a procedure in several systems, and even lets techs hand out customer credits without getting authorization from higher-ups.)

"Install times have generally diminished because of such automation," said one industry source.

CALL CENTERS COME IN

The consolidation and clustering of cable operators in recent years has also led to another relatively new industry phenomenon: regional call centers.

Although the concept is old hat to telephone companies and even DBS operators, only recently have cable systems been clustered closely enough to take advantage of the economies-of-scale that call centers afford.

In addition, cable operators have used call-automation software designed to efficiently route calls and database customer inquiries.

"There have been some dramatic improvements in recent years in call-center technology," said one industry executive. "But anecdotally, the biggest complaints tend to be about the automated response, when you can't roll over to a real person."

To address that, cable operators have deployed software that automatically routes calls from over-run call centers to off-site locations, thus ensuring the customer can get to a human operator more quickly.

"At least the person got somebody to answer their question without getting a busy signal," noted the executive.

Still, some franchise authorities report long hold times as operators struggle to help subscribers through a panoply of new services.

"Phone volume has increased dramatically in recent years, and companies haven't been prepared for it," admitted one industry source. "When you do all this stuff simultaneously, that's when call centers simply become overloaded. You're just swimming in customers and desperately swimming upstream."

Costa Mesa, Calif., officials recently threatened to fine AT&T Broadband $100 per day after residents complained of delays in reaching CSRs out from the company's newly consolidated regional call center.

Although such perceptions can create PR disasters for the managers of local cable systems, corporate offices — once considered somewhat apathetic about system-level problems — are starting to feel their pain.

Some HQs are actually doing something about it. For example, AT&T Broadband just appointed longtime AT&T Corp. executive Cathy Kilstrom to become senior vice president of customer care, a newly-created position.

"We're really improved in being more responsive to our customers," she said. "I feel really good about that."

Kilstrom said she manages subscriber surveys, system spot-checks and focus groups to fix potential problems before they become epidemic.

"Now we need to take the words our customers say and make them actionable," she said. "That's where we really need to drill down more. I want to make sure that we understand what the customer really wants."

BACKS REGIONAL CENTERS

Kilstrom acknowledged that the debate over regional call centers has been fierce, even within Broadband. But she said the benefits outweigh the occasional problems.

"There's always this contentious issue around decentralized versus centralized operations," she said. "We have to strike a balance so that it's transparent to the customer."

In first-quarter 2002, AT&T Broadband added some 500 CSRs to its call centers. It has also deployed "integrated voice response" technology, which can determine where a given customer is calling from, then tailor the prompts to reflect the services available in that specific system.

"It has taken a minute per call off the handling time," said Kilstrom. "Customers are not frustrated and get only the prompts specific for them."

Of course, some franchise authorities question whether the heavy use of automated response has given the industry a way to fudge 30-second phone answering rules.

"They don't even start counting those seconds until the customer has pushed the last button," said Lawton in Montgomery County, Md.

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