BY K. C. NEEL There’s no such thing as a monopoly cable system anymore, but few cable properties have as much competition as Comcast Cable’s Detroit operation. Some 40 communities in the area — representing over 40% of the system’s service territory — are now served by four video providers: Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network and WideOpenWest. DBS providers vie for video customers throughout Comcast’s entire service territory and the MSO also competes with SBC Communications and WOW for high-speed data consumers. As if that weren’t enough, Comcast also competes with SBC in select areas where Comcast is offering phone service. Yet Comcast executives take the competition in stride. “Detroit is a highly competitive market, no doubt about it,” says regional SVP Mike Cleland. “But we position ourselves as the best value with the best products and the best customer service. We are also very visible in our communities. All these things set us apart.” Comcast has had some growing pains as the company went from 500,000 customers in the area to 1.4 million almost overnight in 2001 via a series of acquisitions. The company settled several complaints last year offering a slew of free products and services and is now intent on changing the infrastructure. The MSO has recrafted its customer service departments from seven centers into three and 21 technical operations sites to 14. One call center is up and running in Ann Arbor, Mich., another is solely dedicated to HSD calls and a third is being built south of Detroit and should be finished by the end of the second quarter of next year, according to Annemarie Patton, Comcast’s VP of customer service. About 85% of the customer calls to Comcast are now handled in-house, Patton says. The company hopes to have 100% of the video-related calls answered by Comcast customer care reps by the end of the year. About 95% of the HSD calls are now handled in-house; 100% will be taken care of by Comcast reps by Aug. 31, she notes. But expanding the call centers is just one of the things that Comcast is doing to improve its customer care department. The system found that following up with a phone call after a problem has been solved or service has been added significantly improved the customers’ overall satisfaction with the product. Patton also aligned the company’s dispatch operation to the call center so that both departments work more closely. Clearly, customer service is a top priority for Comcast’s executive team in Detroit. “We pulled together four companies in 2001 and more than doubled our customer count,” Cleland says. “We continue to improve our customer service, and our biggest challenge right now is making sure we are efficient and smart and effective.” Comcast has had some service problems in Detroit and is addressing those complaints now. The MSO agreed last December to give $4.2 million in cash refunds, free upgrades to digital, free pay-per-view coupons and free HSD installations to settle a dispute with the city of Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. The rebates affected about 120,000 customers in the city of Detroit. The city had been at odds with Comcast since May 1998 over the cable company’s equipment and service charges. The city argued that Comcast was overcharging subscribers; Comcast disagreed and appealed to the FCC. In December 2000, the commission ruled in Comcast’s favor on service rates, but agreed with the city that rates for remote controls, converter boxes and other equipment required adjustment. And in May 2002, Comcast gave nearly 1 million of its Michigan customers a package of free services to make up for a rash of service complaints. The package, according to the Detroit News, included two free pay-per-view movies, a free upgrade to digital cable, one free premium channel and free HSD installation. Perhaps one of the things that will make the biggest difference in how Comcast’s customer service is perceived is the introduction of a special force of reps that speak Spanish and Arabic. Detroit has a significant number of Hispanic residents and several of the DMA’s communities are highly concentrated with Arabic-speaking residents. Indeed, some Detroit-area communities, including Dearborn and Sterling Heights, are as much as 60% Arabic, according to the company. The area also has a sizable Asian population. According to the 2000 Census, more than 10,000 (or 13%) of Troy’s residents are Asian. That’s up from the 4,800 that lived in the area a decade earlier. The second-language pilot program has been coming along slowly, Patton says, because Comcast wants to do it correctly the first time. At this point, there are eight special customer care reps that can handle the dual-language calls but Patton hopes to expand that number as demand increases. The dual-language reps work Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Comcast found that customers that speak Arabic or Spanish have the most trouble getting help during the daytime hours. “At night or on the weekends, they can often find someone who can speak English to help them,” Patton says. “But during the day is the hardest for them to find help, so that is where we started.” Comcast is currently hiring more dual-language customer care reps to expand the program, she notes. “We want to grow as the volume grows. We started this program three months ago and we started at a crawl. Now we’re walking and soon we’ll be running.” Detroit’s multi-ethnicity has resulted in the addition of a slate of Spanish-language channels as well as ART — Arabic Radio and Television — to Comcast’s channel lineup. The system is working closely with International Channel to launch ART in the Detroit area now. On the data side of the house, Comcast is pushing its new HSD portal. The Detroit market was hyping the service heavily late last month in anticipation of the new portal’s launch, which will offer customers an enhanced Internet access experience. Programming is just one of the areas in which Comcast is trying to differentiate itself from the competition. When Comcast expanded its footprint to over 1 million homes, it enabled the MSO to take advantage of marketwide media tactics and scale economics while providing advertisers with the ability to buy the entire market or over three dozen zones. That kind of flexibility has not only given the company economic scale when it comes to marketing its own services, it’s also enhanced its ability to lure advertisers to its lineup. WOW may be one of Comcast’s biggest competitors when it comes to customers, but the two work together aiming for advertising dollars. WOW agreed June 26 to join Comcast’s interconnect enabling advertisers to buy the entire Detroit DMA of 1.4 million cable homes. For advertisers, it means a single point of contact, standardized affidavits and more efficient invoicing, says Kevin Cuddihy, VP of ad sales for Comcast’s Midwest region. Comcast currently inserts on 42 channels, up from 16 just two years ago, Cuddihy explains. About 60% of the interconnect’s ad sales are regional and national spots. That’s a tad higher than other markets, and Cuddihy credits this to the size and makeup of the market. Companywide, about 55% of Comcast’s ad sales still come from local sales. “Detroit is a top market and the ability to sell the entire market helps a lot,” Cuddihy says. Not only that, but advertisers can buy up to 33 zones in the Detroit DMA, which helps local sales as well, he adds. The system can’t insert on any digital tiers yet, but Cuddihy expects to break that barrier next year. Moreover, there will be plenty of new ad sales opportunities with the expansion of video-on-demand in the market, he predicts. Comcast has 45 ad sales reps in the Detroit area that concentrate solely on local ad sales. Another five specialize in regional spot sales and there is one national ad sales manager located in Chicago that handles national spot sales for the Detroit system as well. If automotive ads are Comcast’s largest single ad sales segment, media is a close second, Cuddihy says. Local stations and national networks regularly buy Comcast’s avails, he says. “Broadcasters are still our competitors when it comes to ad dollars, but they know we can deliver for them,” he says. Cuddihy knows of what he speaks. He had been with CBS for 19 years before coming to Comcast in 2001. “I watched the [broadcast] ratings decline year after year and realized that cable is a growth industry in the second or third inning, while the broadcasters are in the eighth inning of a baseball game.” Additionally, selling ads on the Internet will bring in a whole new revenue stream, he says. Comcast has control over the advertising of all of Detroit’s top sports leagues, giving advertisers “a new way to get access to the sports teams when other avenues are sold out,” Cuddihy says. Comcast’s Detroit system is on the fast track for the introduction of new products, Cleland says. Video-on-demand was first introduced to customers in April 2002 and the company’s free VOD model and SVOD will be available to 80% of the area’s customers by Sept. 1, according to Dave Bologna, VP of marketing. Detroit was also one of the first Comcast systems to roll out high definition; the service reached the market six months ago. “All these products set us apart from the competition,” Cleland says. “We position ourselves as the best value, and these products and services make that true. We don’t compete as much on price as we do value.” That said, the company does have a buyback program to lure back both DBS and WOW customers. Comcast has been accused of unfair competitive practices by WOW, and the FCC is currently evaluating those claims. Cleland claims the system hasn’t done anything wrong and maintains it will eventually be vindicated. In the meantime, the two companies try to take customers away from each other on a daily basis. Bologna admits that Comcast’s offers are different in markets that don’t have wireline competition, but stresses that the entire market experiences competition. Basic service, for instance, varies from $36.99 a month in competitive markets to $41.99 in others. “We are always cognizant of competitive offers,” Bologna says. “So we address them differently and approach those markets with different tactics and strategies in order to be responsive to competitors’ offers.” Comcast is emphasizing brand marketing in all its markets, and that is no different in Detroit where brand marketing has been a top priority. Still, brand marketing rarely stands on its own. Comcast will almost always sell a product or service when it’s pumping its brand, he says. One exception to that general rule is when Comcast is advertising or pushing a community relations initiative. When it comes to selling products and services, Comcast is aligning itself with several local consumer electronics stores and finding great success. The company recently cut a joint marketing deal with ABC Warehouse, a local retailer with 16 outlets in the Detroit area. All of Comcast’s products and services are featured in the stores and ABC employees receive commissions every time they sell a Comcast product. The two companies also jointly run and pay for TV and newspaper spots. Bologna expects the program to be expanded to other consumer electronics stores in the area in the coming months. “This is a highly competitive business,” Cleland says. “We’re running hard every day. We always need to be cognizant of our customers and what they want. That means expanding our language capabilities, adding programming and marketing to the right places with the right message.” EMPLOYEES: 2,565 MILES OF PLANT: 22,000 HOMES PASSED: 1.97 million PERCENT UPGRADED: 98% BASIC CUSTOMERS: 1.04 million BASIC PENETRATION: 51.6% BASIC RATE: $36.99-$41.99 DIGITAL PENETRATION: 31.8%* DIGITAL RATE: $14.95** HIGH-SPEED DATA PENETRATION: 13%* HSD MONTHLY RATE: $42.94 with video; $57.95 w/o TELEPHONE PENETRATION: 15.8%* TELEPHONE RATE: $20.95-$44.95 AD INSERTIONS: 42 channels * national figures ** a la carte pricing SOURCE: COMCAST Cleland has more than 20 years experience in the cable industry. Prior to his current position, he served as a regional VP, an area VP and system VP/GM for Comcast, which he joined in 1997. Before that, Cleland worked as a GM for TCI, for which he oversaw the company’s operations in Oakland County, Mich. He is president of the Michigan Cable Telecommunications Association, serves on the Detroit Regional Chamber’s board of directors and is a member of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers. He attended Northwood University. With more than two decades in cable marketing, Bologna joined Comcast in 1989. He now oversees and sets strategy for driving customer growth in Detroit. Bologna also leads the sales management, fulfillment, customer communication, advertising and marketing analysis functions. He holds a master’s in business administration from Wayne State University and a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Michigan State University. Also in cable for more than 20 years, Patton has spent more than 13 of them in customer service. Prior to joining Comcast in 2002, she served as director of customer relations for StorageTek, a $2 billion Colorado-based global digitized data storage solution provider for which she launched a worldwide customer-centric cultural initiative and realized more than $1.3 million in cost savings during her tenure. She has a master’s of science administration and bachelor’s degrees in interpersonal and public communications and journalism from Central Michigan University. Cuddihy manages all aspects of adverting sales throughout the Comcast Midwest division and has been with the company since 2001. Prior to joining Comcast, he spent 19 years with CBS, including serving as VP/GM of WNDY Indianapolis, WWJ Detroit and general sales manager for WCCO TV in Minneapolis. He serves as the Cable Chair for the United Way of Metro Detroit and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Drake University. Comparison of consumers in Comcast’s Detroit service area to the top 75 market average.