Amid all of the technical wizardry populating this
week's Cable-Tec Expo in Denver will be many questions from the industry's
technical staffers about how on earth they'll learn how to use all of their new toys.
Training -- a critical element in the success of broadband
technologies -- is again a lead concern in the minds of cable's technical ranks.
Beyond the need for installers and technicians to know how
to provide and repair analog-video service, new technologies provide fresh challenges.
With two-way-plant activation, digital video, high-speed data and, in some cases,
telephony in the cable-service mix, the need for how-to information is high, MSOs said
Plus, these days, training doesn't stop at how to make
equipment work: It also tips over into customer service and sales, because of the
important face time that installers share with would-be takers of new services.
"These people may be in a customer's house for an
hour or two," or longer, said Mark Enter, director of Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s
training group. "They may be crawling around in an attic, basement or bedroom --
they're all over that house, and they need to know how to react in various
George Simon, vice president of training and education at
Tele-Communications Inc.'s TCI Communications Inc., said customer-service skills are
vital in today's increasingly competitive environment.
"To be honest," Simon said, "it should have
been that way all along -- we should have had installers who paid more attention to
Customer care by technicians is even more important today,
executives said, because subscribers simply need more purchasing information about new
broadband services before buying them, "so that they can get the full value -- or, at
least, the perceived value -- from them," Simon added.
"The better the job [that technicians] do on the front
end, the more satisfied the customer is going to be on the back end," he said.
This means sales training, too. Cox Communications Inc.,
for example, put together a program called the "field-service rep in charge of
sales," where sales is positioned as part of the customer-service cycle, said Mike
Dyer, director of communications for the MSO.
"It's more of a soft sell -- it's not
aggressive," Dyer said. "For example, they're in the house and they see a
computer, so they bring up Cox's high-speed-data service, and they leave them sales
materials on it and pricing."
That's a far cry from the traditional methods endorsed
by cable operators, which sometimes skimped on training to save costs and to keep
"Up until now, the installer went in and plugged in a
one-way service," said David Gibbs, executive vice president for business development
at HSA Corp., a turnkey high-speed-data provider. "Now, operators are getting into
somebody's personal -- and there's a reason why they call it a
'personal' -- computer, with all kinds of detailed information on it."
Because of that, MSOs are challenged to train their
employees well enough so that customers are comfortable not only with new and existing
services, but with cable personnel, he said.
Plus, the familiar lament of the 1990s -- that everything
is moving too fast -- similarly applies to the cable industry. Operators rushing to deploy
new technologies, anxious for new revenues, are often training their front-line personnel
as they're rushing out the door on truck rolls.
Cox -- now a seasoned provider of digital video, telephony
and data -- had every intention of getting comprehensive training materials ready nine to
12 months before launches, Dyer said.
"But we didn't get them together. We were still
putting them together when we launched," he added.
MediaOne's approach was to develop multipurpose
"uni-techs," or staffers who can do it all, said Reg Griffin, director of
communications for MediaOne's Atlanta region.
"Generally, in cable, we have three levels of
technical folks," Griffin said: "The installer, which is sort of an entry-level
position; the service tech, who troubleshoots a little more and generally covers the
region from the tap to the home; and the line tech, who knows the main trunk lines of the
Now, that list has grown to include fiber techs and
broadband uni-techs who can manage cable, telephony and high-speed data, Griffin said.
Simon said TCI has had success with a two-pronged approach
in training personnel for its ambitious digital-cable rollout.
"What we did is bring the employees to our regional
training centers and train them in-house," he said, noting that TCI's target was
to train at least 20 percent of its staffers in a classroom, given that "we have many
more employees than we do trainers."
The other 80 percent received self-paced training with a
facilitator, Simon said.
"The difference is that with the instructor-led
teaching environment, the instructor walks the employee all the way through the training
experience. With the self-paced training, there's a facilitator who supports the
employee's completion of the training outside of the classroom," he added.
Cox is bullish on a cross-training program, with at least
30 percent to 40 percent of the installers in its Orange County, Calif., system now
knowledgeable about at least two products, Dyer estimated.
So far, the approach is going well, he reported. "Our
folks have responded real well to the challenge of adding new services," Dyer said.
"I think that initially, we may have underestimated the capability of our internal
people to be able to install some of these products."
All of the MSOs said the main challenge is to keep the core
video business running smoothly, while cross-populating knowledge about new services.
Some have also outfitted their internal Intranets to share
information about how particular problems were solved and to generally disseminate
information to others.
"When we update [the Intranet server], we provide a
notice to our field organizations that a particular training module has been
updated," Simon said. "Then, they can pull it off the server and have the
material right there for incorporation into their current lesson plans."
Similarly, Cox developed what it calls "Cox
University" -- a virtual school that will be activated at the end of this month to
share information over the Internet -- Dyer said.
"The whole name of the game is getting information to
your people in a timely manner," Dyer said. "If you get them the information,
they'll do the job for you. If the compensation is there, the recognition is there
and you've done some training, they can knock your socks off with what they can
Mike Lafferty is a senior editor at sister publication CED