Hating your cable provider has almost become a rite of passage in America over the past six decades.
Despite real progress in on-time delivery, trouble-call reductions and improving service quality, cable operators still reside at the bottom of every major customer-satisfaction poll, finishing lower than previous customer-care pariahs such as fast-food restaurants and banks.
“It is almost like you learn to hunt, you learn to fish and then you learn to hate your cable company,” said Temkin Group managing partner and customer experience transformist Bruce Temkin, adding that the hatred isn’t necessarily misplaced. “They earned their position at the bottom. They literally are terrible.”
With consolidation poised to sweep through the cable industry over the next year or so, customer service has again moved into the spotlight, at a time when the cable industry brushes up against the possibility of its first TV-subscriber growth in more than a decade. Comcast, which consistently brings up the rear in customer-satisfaction surveys, ironically has been at the forefront of reversing a 10-year trend in increasing customer losses, reducing basic-subscriber declines by 27% in 2014 and by 75% since 2010.
KEEP THEM HAPPY
Keeping those customers happy and willing to buy even more services is the key to the future.
While customers have heard similar talk before, this time the cable industry is putting money, people and expertise behind what is growing into an industry-wide effort.
Comcast is leading the charge, spending more than $300 million this year and announcing plans to hire 5,500 new customer-service representatives and to build three new, state-of-the-art call centers by 2017. Other companies, such as Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems and Cox Communications, are pushing forward with ongoing initiatives aimed at making the overall customer experience more enjoyable.
It seems as if past moves to improve network reliability, on-time service delivery and increased convenience have laid the groundwork for a radical concept: making customers enjoy interacting with their cable company.
That is not an easy goal to accomplish, and it will probably take at least two years before results are evident. But the industry appears ready for the commitment.
Although the cable business has been through several customer-service changes over the years, what appears to be different is the convergence of technology and the level of commitment from the operators themselves, National Cable & Telecommunications Association senior vice president of communications and public affairs Rob Stoddard said.
“One thing that has come to the fore in recent years is the use of technology as our friend, the ability to more finely tune automated systems, the ability to provide customers more channels by which they can reach companies and customer care staff and personnel,” Stoddard said. “We have, in some cases, been successful in using social media as a boon, rather than a spoiler.
“I think the Comcast commitment is significant,” he added. “Whenever a leader takes a strong position on something, virtually everyone else is going to sit up and take notice.”
Comcast’s participation and its overall commitment to the effort will be key.
According to Temkin, what has derailed past customer-service improvement efforts has been the unwillingness of major operators to not only change the way they treat customers, but to change their internal cultures as well.
“It requires more than hiring a bunch of people or bringing in someone to try and focus on it,” Temkin said. “It really does require a strong push from senior executives to take a stand and change the culture of their companies.”
Despite cable’s past track record, reversing its poor customer-care reputation isn’t impossible, Temkin said.
“Look at where banking was 10 or 12 years ago,” he said. “People hated their banks. Now if you look at the ratings, banks are right in the middle.”
Competition is what forced the banks to look at their industry and their customers in a different way, Temkin said. Though consolidation usually has the opposite effect on customer satisfaction, he said — taking away competition could allow some companies to get lazier on the service front — footprint expansion could force companies to rethink their approach to customers.
“As they get bigger and have a larger footprint, they have to worry about selling more into their existing customer base as opposed to acquiring new customers,” Temkin said. “Look at the alternatives to those guys — Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu are putting pressure on them as far as some of their service models. But it will take one of those cable companies to say, ‘We’re committed, we’re going to treat our customers better than how we treat our prospects.’
“Changing attitudes and the way a company makes its core decisions is more important. All it will take is one of the cable providers to make a substantive change and that will change the overall dynamic of the industry.”
Comcast, fresh off the termination of its $67 billion merger with Time Warner Cable, unveiled its customer care plans in May, including the hiring initiative, plans to open three new fully-equipped customer-care centers in Seattle, Albuquerque, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz.; and a series of high-tech, customer-friendly retail stores complete with virtual-reality games and snacks for kids.
It’s a big change from just a few years ago, when operators were heavily promoting on-time guarantees and one-hour appointment windows. Those things are still essential to the overall process, but now the message seems to be more universal.
‘NOT THROWING BODIES AT IT’
Newly appointed Comcast executive vice president of the customer experience Charlie Herrin, who took the job in September after spending several years in product development — most recently as the architect of the much-lauded X1 operating platform — said there is much more to Comcast’s customer-care commitment than dollars and cents.
“It would be a huge mistake to just think that we are throwing bodies at this. That’s not what we are doing,” Herrin said, adding that Comcast is implementing measures in all aspects of the business that are “rooted in the customer lens.”
That includes finding ways to simplify how customers do business with Comcast.
“We’re focused on service levels, for sure; focused on the quality of those interactions. But we’re equally focused on, can we simplify the way that we bill, so we’re launching a trial to do that. We’re looking at our activation process, how do we make that much more clean. We’re looking at taking friction out of the business.”
Herrin said Comcast has also implemented different ways of measuring its service function — like focusing more on net promoter scores instead of internal efficiency metrics — so that it looks at the business from more of a customer perspective.
That approach includes implementing technology such as the Tech Tracker app, which in Uber-like fashion shows where a service technician is at any time before a scheduled appointment, determines when the tech is likely to show up at the door and displays the tech’s name and photo for the customer. If the tech is late, the customer will automatically get a $20 credit to his or her bill. A customer can also rate the tech’s performance via the app immediately after he or she leaves the house, and any rating of less than four stars will receive a follow-up call from a service rep to determine how the customer could be better satisfied.
That focus on the overall experience is something that has been sweeping the industry for the past few years. At Cox Communications, senior vice president Paul Cronin said that the goal isn’t just to be on time or to do the job right — that should be a no-brainer — but to make sure that customers have a good feeling about their interactions with the company as a whole.
Cronin calls it a “holistic” approach.
“Historically, I think our industry and our company have looked at customer service along very specific customer touchpoints, be that our care organization, field-service organization or our retail point; places where we physically interact and touch with customers,” Cronin said.
“Over the last several years, what we’re looking at is more of the end-to-end customer relationship that starts with the brand message in the marketplace, how they interact with our products and services and what value they see in our products and services.”
COX’S RECENT EXPERIENCE
But even Cox Communications, which has been considered the gold standard in cable customer service, has begun to see its ratings slip. In the past three years, Cox’s American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) ratings have slipped from 65 in 2013 to 62 in 2015. The company that had consistently been the leader among cable operators fell to third place, behind Bright House Networks and Charter Communications, in 2015.
Cronin said Cox’s internal customer-care research shows that satisfaction is improving. He said measurement metrics don’t reflect the overall holistic care approach that many operators are taking.
“Customers are seeing value,” Cronin said. “We’re introducing products and services, new technologies, new ways to interact with us. I’m not sure all of the measurement systems out there necessarily reflect that holistic view of what customers are asking for and, frankly, what we’re delivering.”
Aside from traditional ways for customers to interact with the company, Cox and other cable operators are putting more emphasis on contact points, including Web interactions, social-media exchanges and chats.
“These are all channels that aren’t brand new but are clearly becoming more important and evolving,” Cronin said. “Regardless of the channel you want to do business with us in, we’re meeting your needs and exceeding your needs. We’re moving beyond the traditional call centers.”
Traditional metrics are also showing that some cable operators have been making strides in improving the customer experience.
Cablevision Systems launched a track-the-tech app in 2013 and has been a pioneer in self-installation of services all which have led to strong results.
Over the past nine quarters, Cablevision said, service calls are down 21%, trouble call-related truck rolls are down 32%, repeat trouble calls are down 46% and about 88% of outages are identified before a customer reaches out.
Cablevision also has been actively using social media — it had a Twitter account (@OptimumHelp) since 2012 that has about 11,000 followers and has trained social-media agents that specialize in customer support, account information, product information, sales and others.
Other cable operators have followed suit. Cox has a strong social-media presence and Comcast expects to hire 60 people in its social-media unit by late spring or early summer. Since launching its social-media efforts in 2010, Time Warner Cable has grown that team from just three people to about 25 today.
Herrin said the focus of social media is shifting, in that it isn’t being used solely as a way to inform customers of outages after the fact, but more as an engagement tool.
“I think we’re also using it as a valid care channel,” Herrin said. Like any other marketing tool, social media also can be used to make sure that customers are aware of the total customer-care plan, he said.
“It’s something we want to make sure we leverage. Let’s face it, a lot of people would prefer to consume news and information that way,” Herrin said. “We have to make sure we’re using that channel to let people know the plan and the journey that we’re on.”
Still, cable has a long way to go to right the customer-care ship. It has endured several black eyes over the years, especially at Comcast.
As the largest cable company in the country, with about 22 million video subscribers, Comcast has been an easy target of ire. It has brought up the rear in several customer satisfaction surveys: J.D. Power, the ACSI and Temkin Group all have ranked the cable giant near the bottom in each of their TV service surveys for the past two years.
In 2015, Comcast received its lowest ACSI rating since 2008 — a 54 — and its only consolation was that Time Warner Cable was slightly worse, with an ACSI rating of 51. That TWC ranking, by the way, was the lowest mark among 300 companies in the ACSI Index.
The low ratings ironically come as video-subscriber metrics have been at their best levels in years. In the first quarter of 2015, Time Warner Cable reported a gain of 30,000 video customers, the first time it crossed into positive video-subscriber increase territory since 2006. Comcast reported a gain of 6,000 basic video subs in Q4 2014 and has reduced its basic-video losses by 75% since 2010.
At Charter, which had a gain of 3,000 basic-video customers in the fourth quarter of 2014, losses have declined by about 92% since 2010. Even Time Warner Cable, which saw basic video losses balloon to 833,000 in 2013 — the aftermath of its month-long CBS blackout — cut those losses in half in 2014 to 408,000.
Though there seems to be a disconnect between the satisfaction ratings and better subscriber metrics, Temkin said, the disparity isn’t uncommon. He characterizes those customers as “trapped.”
“The trapped are customers who are dissatisfied with how they are being treated, but are still remaining loyal and staying with their current provider,” Temkin said. “I would bet that that industry has more trapped customers than any other industry. There is an opportunity for someone who comes out with something that is noticeably and significantly better to grab a lot of those customers.”
Efforts to increase the number of customer-service representatives and build new call centers are all well and good, in Temkin’s view, but they miss the true mark. Cable, he said, could go a long way toward righting its past customer-service wrongs simply by treating its existing customers better.
Comcast has been the butt of jokes and the focus of two of the most high-profile customer service disasters in the past two years — the eight-minute haranguing a customer who simply wanted to disconnect service got from a retention specialist and the “A**hole Brown” incident, for the name a Comcast customer-service rep placed on a customer’s bill after that subscriber attempted to reduce his service. In both instances, Comcast immediately rectified the situation — apologizing personally to the former customer trying to cancel service and, in the case of Mr. Brown, offering two free years of service, refunding him for his previous two years and correcting his name in the system, according to reports.
Granted, these are two incidents in a company that receives more than 20 million customer service calls a month. But in the age of instant communication on the Internet and via various social media, any bruise can quickly turn into a hemorrhage with the click of a mouse.
“It is true that, in past years, something that might have been a small blemish in a local market takes on national stature, because it can be spread so quickly through the communications tools at our disposal today. What used to be a small blink in a local market can now spread nationally,’ ” Stoddard said. “That’s not to make excuses for the state of our customer experience. Virtually every customer-care professional that I talk with in the business acknowledges that we are nowhere near where we need to be.”
Stoddard said operators aren’t alone in their quest to revamp customer care. The Cable Center has several programs available — its C5 program (Cable Center Customer Care Committee) has become more intensive in terms of sharing best practices between companies and turning more frequently to expertise outside the cable business for new ideas in the customer-care space.
Cable Center senior vice president academic and industry outreach Jana Henthorn, who runs C5 with University of Denver professor Dr. Charles Patti, said the program was started about seven years ago and brings cable professionals face to face with customer- care experts from companies like Charles Schwab, Scotiabank and others about twice per year.
“Dr. Patti talks about the functionality of customer experience, things like having the best features, the highest broadband speeds, having the best services and the best price; those are what I would call the head issues,” Henthorn said. “Then there are the heart issues, the emotional things — your customers want to know that you know who they are, that you value them and that you listen to them. I think that now cable companies are now working in both areas.”
Herrin is well aware of the power of the Internet to turn customer care stories viral. And he also is cognizant that it only takes one bad experience to unravel a lifetime of goodwill.
“Any one point of failure can be very damaging for us, that is why we’re so focused on looking at every aspect of the business, of not being content that good enough is good enough,” Herrin said. Safeguards are in place to ensure the quality of customer interactions, he added, but one of the most effective tools in making sure that such incidents don’t happen again is to give more control to the customer.
“Part of our plan is, how do we put more and more of that control in their hands so that it is more convenient and quicker to do?” Herrin said.
CUTTING OUT TRANSACTIONS
Charter CEO Tom Rutledge has said that the key to improvement for the industry is removing transactions out of the business.
According to Rutledge, that means reducing the interactions between customers and Charter service employees.
“The inherent problem in all of cable, and always has been, is that you have to schedule a job with a person who doesn’t really want you to come to their house,” Rutledge said at a recent industry conference. “And you have to do work of an indeterminate length of time and get to the next job on time. And that’s inherently difficult.
“And all businesses that do it — plumbers, contractors — everybody can’t stand them, because it’s a difficult transaction to manage. So the more you can take that out of the business, the higher the satisfaction goes, just inherently.”
Temkin said putting more control in customer hands could be a huge benefit in improving subscriber satisfaction, but it has to include more than just letting customers sign up for service online.
Temkin said one of the biggest factors in the turnaround in the banking industry was the advent of online banking. But the added convenience also required the industry to place a massive support network behind the service, something the cable industry has to be willing to commit to as well.
“You have to help customers learn how to do stuff,” Temkin said. “You have to make it easier, you have to support them and if they have questions, you have to be there for them. They didn’t just put it out there and say, ‘Now, instead of calling us up or going to your branch, go online and do this stuff.’ ”
Five Ways to Improve the Customer Experience
Making cable customers feel good about doing business with their cable company is job one at most cable operators today. Here’s what some are saying is the quickest path to getting there:
1. Treat your existing customers as well as your prospects. Temkin Group managing partner and customer-experience transformist Bruce Temkin said cable’s biggest drawback is that loyal customers feel forgo_ en. While promotions like free months of service and $300 gift cards are saved for potential new customers, the people that drive the bottom line get nothing — save for the occasional upsell call. Temkin said recognizing customer loyalty can be relatively cheap — sometimes a free month of HBO will do the trick — and will go a long way towards extending the life of that customer.
2. Engage customers through social media. While Facebook and Twitter are great tools for informing customers about outages and other potential problems, they can also be valuable in keeping the customer conversation ongoing, finding out what subscribers want and determining how the service provider can make the overall experience more enjoyable, as well as notifying customers of special events and upcoming programming.
3. Make the customer experience an integral part of corporate culture. It’s not enough to just pay lip service to customer care or make sure that the network is reliable, appointments are kept and service outages are at a minimum — people already expect you to do that. Customer care has to become part of overall decision-making, not just selling more products and acquiring new customers.
4. Put more control in the customer’s hands. The best service problem is one customers can solve quickly and efficiently by themselves. More cable companies are using technology and apps to help customers self-install, troubleshoot and solve their own problems and for CSRs to reconfigure or add services remotely.
5. When there is a problem that requires a truck roll, make the experience as enjoyable as possible. That doesn’t just mean being there on time and not tracking mud through the customer’s home. Many operators are using technology like Comcast’s Tech Tracker, a mobile app that lets customers know when, where and who a tech is prior to their appointment. In addition, more operators are letting customers rate their experience almost immediately after it happens — and at some, anything less than a four-star rating prompts a call to see how the company can make the experience better. Comcast also issues an automatic $20 credit to a customer’s account if the technician doesn’t arrive on time.
— Mike Farrell