Still a Good Idea — Guaranteed


How many cable public-service or customer-service initiatives have resonated as strongly as the On-Time Guarantee?

Not many. C-SPAN, of course, is the industry's ultimate gift to the public discourse, and Cable in the Classroom helps commit operators' wire-the-schools initiative to memory. But the OTG really appeals to consumers, and confronts one of cable's worst images — that of poor customer service.

Been annoyed waiting all day for a cable installer to show up? Well, now every operator promises to show up within a limited window — usually a couple of hours — and backs it up with either a free install, a credit of about $20 or a month's free service.

Since its introduction by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in 1995, the guarantee is pretty well-penetrated in the minds of the public and media. And it still helps cable look better when how-to stories about choosing cable or a dish get published.

So why do so many people seem to think it's faded away?

"I didn't even know it still existed," was the reaction last week when the topic was broached with market researcher Bruce Leichtman, who, long after his days at Continental Cablevision Inc., has moved away from such mundane arcana and onto such topics as how operators should target digital customers.

It does still exist, and it's still paying dividends to consumers. This column originally started as a screed against a certain New York City operator that failed to show up for two scheduled appointments when a friend moved across town several months ago. But the postscript was actually a happy ending: The friend knew about the OTG, asked for it and got it. And because her account includes digital TV and a cable modem, the free month's service was worth around $100.

That prompted CTAM's Anne Cowan to observe that the stakes have really gone up for cable operators that still offer the guarantee. The cost of a month's free service from multiple-service cable providers has risen a lot higher than inflation over the last seven years.

Cowan's boss at CTAM, Char Beales, points out that the OTG naturally took on a lower profile over the years. It's shifted from a new initiative that needed to be publicized to a normal part of doing business — and something every new cable customer learns about when they sign the line on the installer's sheet that certifies the job was done on time.

It's still the industry standard, though, she said. A Google search of "cable TV" and "on-time guarantee" last week revealed it's on many a cable-system Web site, often with a cute "On Time Guaranteed" logo.

But at a time when so much intense scrutiny is paid to how few basic subs cable operators are adding — or, in some cases, how many they're losing — it might be time to emphasize it a bit more.

Leichtman, for example, says: "It's not a bad time to pull that out of the hat again, because the jump ball now is all about new movers."

There's more incentive than ever to grab customers at the point they move into a new home, because most of them (our New York apartment-dwelling friend to the contrary) can buy a dish, at heavily discounted prices.

Old ideas shouldn't fade away — not when they're good ones.