Tech Life on the Front Line


Fort Collins, Colo. -- Learning and applying new
technologies while increasing employee accountability are the new operatives taking center
stage at one typical cable system.

Tele-Communication Inc.'s Cablevision of Colorado,
located in Fort Collins and Greeley, is finding that doing business in a newly competitive
environment is requiring changes in the ways that a classic cable system grows and markets
its products.

The TCI system serves 65,000 subscribers spread across
several northern Colorado counties, including Fort Morgan and Sterling, along with several
smaller towns. Its hybrid fiber-coaxial plant passes 95 percent of the homes in its

With a rebuild approximately 50 percent completed and
digital video services weighing into its service mix since late last year, the system
considers itself to be one that is familiar in composition to a growing number of cable
systems around the country.

That's because it faces the same daily issues as most
other typical cable systems: marketing new products, incorporating new technologies,
enhancing customer service, providing adequate training, reducing outages and more.

"I guess we could be classified as a typical cable
system. After our rebuild, and during, we really need to dedicate ourselves to marketing
new technologies, especially digital," said Kathy Stewart, the system's general

Stewart added that TCI is currently undergoing adjustments
to ready itself for high-speed-data provider and TCI partner @Home Network. That includes
extensive reverse-path sweeping and developing budgets, she said.

As for digital video, so far, so good, Stewart said.

"Customers love digital, especially the navigator, so
now, there's lots of cross-promotion and marketing to be done using our own
media," Stewart said. "Cross-channel promotions are working, but you need
different approaches to each individual. It's like 'marketing 101'

Installers, as the front-line liaison to customers, also
now face a new set of issues: They are expected to be multitasking professionals, and they
require additional skill sets.

"Installers have to be knowledgeable in telephone,
digital and surround sound because of the wide assortment of technologies in
customers' homes," said Paul Eisbrener, technical operations manager for the

As a result, selective hiring practices and employee
accountability are major issues for the system.

"We have to be more selective in our hiring. Today, an
electronics background is helpful, and applicants should know analog," Eisbrener
said, explaining that TCI now uses a self-paced learning program for new employees.

"Now, with @Home, we have another layer of information
to learn," he said.

Making employees more accountable is a another priority at
the system, said John Harris, technical operations manager for the Greeley system.

"The typical system like ours is smarter in how they
manage. Our employee-performance measurement, for example, is for all employees, and it
includes quality, quantity, customers and peers. And accountability will be in all four
areas," he explained.

Eisbrener said he's seen a leap forward in employee
morale and responsibilities since the new emphasis on accountability.

"We are now more accountable for technical P&Ls
[profits and losses] and budgets. It allows us to launch digital and other products with
very few problems," he said.

Harris agreed: "We're seeing a career buy-in
among employees, and not just a job. They understand that we are all responsible, and it
really makes a difference.

"We've launched lots of new products in the past,
but now, employees are feeling more ownership. There's lots more training for
front-line employees," he continued.

The difference shows in the numbers, Harris said: In the
past four years, the system has reduced its service calls per month from 12 percent of its
subscribers to 2 percent, and truck rolls have slimmed from 1,200 to 450.

And most important, Harris added, "we rarely hear
customer-service complaints anymore about reliability. Customers know that they are going
to get a quality picture."

Installation times, especially for digital, remain an issue
with the system, and Harris has broken out homes into three categories, including average
install times for each.

For example, to hook up the General Instrument Corp.
DCT-1200 boxes used by the system, Harris said prewired homes take 45 minutes to install;
older homes with only one or two phone outlets require two to three hours; and existing
cable subscribers take 20 to 30 minutes.

Installers and technicians, and the training that they
receive, are the key components to reduced customer complaints and cutting installation
time, Harris said.

"The perception of installers and technicians is now
more customer contact, and not digging trenches," he said. "Our group-training
process has remained at the system, and the 18- to 20-year-olds that we're hiring are
very familiar with computer software and hardware and all types of phones."

Rich Broick, installation supervisor for the system, said
the focus on employee accountability is working. "It's better for us now. We go
the extra mile for the customer and concentrate on how fast we can get in and out.
It's a competitive world out there, and we have to be competitive."

With myriad issues -- from franchise agreements to customer
service -- facing systems like Cablevision of Colorado each day, Stewart cited smarter
management of the system and its people as her top goal.

"We have to make sure that we are working smarter,
both individually and as a company, and that we understand how both impact the company.

Giving employees more accountability and measuring feedback from individuals, the company
and customers are our goals," she said.

"Also, we are trying to increase awareness of our
reliability, because they [government officials and the media] still don't believe
that we have competition."