War of '04: Cable vs. Murdoch

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With the holiday season upon us, cable operators can take a little breather to recharge for the mother of all wars in 2004 — the arrival of a super-charged DirecTV Inc., soon to be under the ownership of News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch.

Already, cable operators are bracing themselves for the transformation of DirecTV. Early press reports talk about Murdoch offering enhanced ITV offerings here, much like what he has in the United Kingdom, with BSkyB.

Likewise, cable is scrambling to offer its subscribers new, interactive services in the hopes of protecting its subscriber base to losses from DirecTV.

Frankly, I think cable is putting the cart before the horse here. In this upcoming new battle with satellite, cable must concentrate first on the foot soldiers in this war, the customer-service representatives who are the first and only contact the industry has with its subscribers.

Soon, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing will announce that it has formed a new subcommittee to address the issues of customer care. That subcommittee will be co-chaired by Time Warner Cable executive vice president and chief marketing officer Chuck Ellis and Comcast Cable executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service Dave Watson.

Honestly, think about what the typical experience for a cable customer is with the CSR. It's a lengthy telephone call, in which the customer has to listen to a litany of pre-recorded options before a real, live — and usually very harried — CSR gets on the line.

And today, more than likely that CSR is posted in some remote, faraway call center and may not have sufficient knowledge about a local problem.

Borrowing a page of "what not to do" from the retail industry, I think of my recent CSR dealings with several catalog companies. By far, the worst was Marshall Fields Direct — much to my disappointment, being a native of Chicago and nostalgic about what had been a great shopping experience.

My opinion has changed, as I learned that Marshall Fields has exported its CSRs to India. On the phone, I was talking to someone in Bombay, not Chicago, and the communications were impossible. My order was mailed to the wrong address.

By contrast, Orvis has kept its CSRs in this country, close to its customers. My expectations were not only met, they were exceeded.

Back to cable. As the industry looks at new services like Internet-protocol telephony and interactive services to compete with new DBS offerings, I pray that cable does not ignore the first line of defense in the battle front, customer care.

With jobs moving overseas by the droves these days, I pray that some shortsighted MSO bean counter doesn't try to save money by stinting on customer care, and suggesting that cable could save money by, say, also exporting its call centers to India, where cheap labor abounds.

Let's be honest here. Cable, to date, has a lousy track record in training its CSRs, or foot soldiers. That's where the industry's Achilles heel has always been — and Murdoch and everyone else on the planet knows it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where the battle of 2004 will be won or lost.

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