Thinking of your customers first is a sound business policy, but as a strategy, it’s not much. Looking at business, customer and community angles simultaneously and thinking of one’s industry as a whole — that’s a strategy, and one embraced by Bob Gessner, the second-generation president of family-owned Massillon Cable TV, serving about 45,000 customers in Massillon, Ohio.
"Bob is always looking for new services, new angles," says Robert Shema, VP/COO of the American Cable Association. "He’s one of those guys who is always looking for the hole, that niche that needs to be filled or improved, and not just for his company but for the entire industry."
Gessner is an active NCTC board member and served as chairman of the organization from 2006 to 2008. "We needed a strong, strategic thinker to help us re-envision what NCTC is," says NCTC VP of Corporate Communications Dan Mulvenon. "Bob was one of the first to start his company on the path to all-digital and has shared his extensive research on how and why he would do that with NCTC’s members."
Massillon eliminated its last analog channel in mid-July, and Gessner and his team have done all they can to bring along the community. "We created a great campaign to inform the public, motivate our customers and fulfill converter orders," Gessner says. "This worked well for the vast majority of customers. As we all saw with the broadcast DTV transition, there is a resolute group of consumers who simply do not accept these sorts of changes. As a result, we inevitably end up in a panic mode when these customers finally come to the realization that we were serious and it really has happened. We kept very careful records of the entire process and are willing to share."
As an advance man on the DTV transition for small and midsize operators, Gessner and his team at Massillon developed a solution to the problem of digital converters sending cable signals to the wrong numerical channels on TV sets — and possibly sending subscribers into the arms of satellite. "Using PSIP data has enabled us to present to the consumer a 100-channel video lineup, with 10 HD signals, that is arranged in the exact same order [on all their] TV sets," Gessner says. "This can be further enhanced with program guide data for every channel, digital music and other features. DBS cannot do that."
Another recent Massillon innovation, SubscriberWise, was begun by the system’s credit manager, David Howe, as an internal software system that verifies customers’ identities and assesses their credit risk. It has since been developed into a risk management system that is being marketed to other cable operators. "Dave was the driving force behind constantly improving the system to assess the risks, uncover identity theft, recover equipment and collect past due amounts," says Gessner. "He finally reached a point where he felt it was ready for prime time." The analytics-driven risk management system delivers predictions about subscriber payment behavior and helps mitigate bad debt and equipment loss.
"[SubscriberWise] helps cable companies know they’re going to get their box back and provides them with better customer information," Shema says. "This is something Bob was doing three years ago. It’s that strategic thinking standpoint — he’s always thinking about what’s needed for the industry."
Gessner’s strategic outlook extends beyond digital tuners and numerical probabilities to encompass the Massillon community — the system was honored in our Top Ops issue last year for its annual Downtown Fun Fest — as well as the internal community of system co-workers. On June 12, Gessner presided over an "End of an Era" company party celebrating the end of analog TV, at which an old tube TV was ceremoniously dropped from a crane at the stroke of midnight, to the backdrop of mild fireworks (see photo above).
"The thing we provide that our larger competitors — and contemporaries — don’t is localism," Gessner says. "It is not that they don’t want to or don’t try. They simply can’t match the notion of a company that is owned by local investors and staffed by neighbors who are truly involved in local affairs. But our customers still expect the same suite of advanced services they find from larger companies in larger markets, along with that local flavor."