Jokes about cable’s customer service are as old as the industry itself. Several surveys show that people hate their cable company more than they hate the tax man. Hollywood even made a movie centered on a deranged cable installer. Is it possible to change that legacy? Comcast’s Suzanne Keenan, Cox’s Debbie Siek and Time Warner Cable’s Dave Temlak sat down with CableWORLD‘s John Ourand to discuss the challenges they face in trying to change consumers’ perceptions of their cable companies. CableWORLD: MSO heads always talk about the need to improve customer service. Are they putting their money where their mouths are? Suzanne Keenan, SVP, national customer service, Comcast: This year, we’re going to do almost 180,000 third-party surveys asking customers who recently had a transaction with us how we did. And we are expecting our leadership to look at what their customers are saying. We started this program about a year and a half ago. We’ve seen a 12% increase in overall customer satisfaction nationally since we put this program in place. That’s not cheap. That’s the kind of support that I was only dreaming about when I joined the company six years ago. I’m pinching myself right now. Debbie Siek, VP, customer care, Cox: I’ve been extremely pleased with the level of support that we get at Cox. We’ve created a customer experience council, made up of some of the department heads from the operating areas: me, the person from field service, dispatch and COO Pat Esser (who is the executive sponsor). We have buy-in not just from the grassroots level, we have it all the way to the top of the company. CW: How frustrating is it that you’re devoting all this money and all these resources to customer service, but customers still hate their cable company, according to all the surveys? Dave Temlak, SVP, customer care, Time Warner Cable: It tells you a little bit about our history. There was a customer service hole that was dug while we were monopolies. We want to try and change the perception of the cable industry. That’s why I’m here. When you’re looking at it from the inside out, it is a little frustrating. We’re paying for the sins of our fathers to some extent. Time Warner isn’t looking at this as a one- or two-year initiative. These are five-to-seven-year road maps that we are working on. Keenan: What I really focus on is the year-over-year improvements that we’re making. When I see a 12% improvement in a little over a year, I am beyond delighted. I want to see that improvement continue. CW: What are you doing to make cable’s image better? Temlak: It’s not like we can do one thing and change the perception of our customers. We’re looking for year-over-year improvements that are driven by a variety of initiatives that we do either individually as MSOs or collectively through organizations such as CTAM and CableLabs. It’s only through those continuous improvements that we’re going to change the perceptions of the customers. Keenan: One item our surveys told us is that we need to make sure that we have knowledgeable frontline employees. As our products get more complex and we add new ones, having somebody when they contact us that has the right information is critically important. Siek: We have to create more of a sense of trust. If you have a bad experience with any organization, you hang on to that and carry it with you a lot longer than the good experiences that you have. CW: Is this working yet? Or do we have to wait a couple of years to see any real improvement? Siek: We’ve seen improvements in our customer satisfaction ratings as well as from focus groups. Our customers are telling us that the service experience that they are having with us is better. Temlak: Look at JD Power—MSOs have been consistently improving their scores. Our competition in the dish world declined for the last several years in a row. The gap between us is closing. It’s not closing as fast as I would like. But the trend that we are putting in place is going in the right direction. Siek: I received a letter from a customer about three weeks ago from one of the systems. This customer described how he had been a Cox customer for about five years. Because of the price difference, he left Cox for about a year and got a dish. After having struggled with the customer service issues around the dish and the way they reacted when there were outages in bad weather, he finally thought that the price difference wasn’t worth it. So he came back to Cox. That creates an even more loyal customer because they have a basis for comparison. CW: Each of you has had a situation when corporate has had public problems with programmers. How do you train CSRs to handle that? Keenan: We want to make sure that our agents have all of the information at their fingertips. We understand their passion around these types of issues. We try to empathize with them and provide them with the most accurate, timely information that we can. Siek: During the situation we had with ESPN last year, we held daily briefings with our frontline employees to keep them up to date with what is going on. Our PR department had worked up some great talking points. We gave our employees the opportunity to ask questions of leadership, so they had a clear understanding of the message that we were trying to send as a company. CW: How has cable’s customer care changed most in the past five years? Siek: Because of all the new products and services that we’re offering, all of our CSRs need to be experts on a wide variety of subjects. Customers are looking to our CSRs to be more than just a help desk. They’re looking for experts to show them how to set up their home networking, for example. Temlak: The other thing that’s taken place is that the cable industry has taken a long, hard look at standardization, specifically in the areas of customer service. This insures that the levels and the types of customer service we offer our subscribers are consistent and effective. Keenan: Five years ago, customer service was viewed as a function—it was the call center. Today, it’s become a way of thinking. It’s not just something that the call center does. It permeates the entire organization. It’s a way of viewing how you launch new products and what new products you launch in a customer-centric, customer-service-focused manner. CW: What services bring the most calls to your customer service hot lines? Siek: We still get an unbelievable number of billing calls. That’s probably our largest call volume. We’re trying to approach it from a self-service standpoint, such as letting customers access their bills online. We want customers to help themselves in ways that do not require a lot of human interaction. Temlak: The questions that we get about billing continue. However, technical questions are also on the rise. Now with the digital phone product, the technical questions and the user questions about the product features are rising. CW: Are your customers going to the Web? Siek: So far it’s been effective. When we started putting information out on the Web, we found that we needed to get a lot more basic with it. We were assuming customers knew things that they didn’t know. The customer base is at a point now where the people who are somewhat familiar with technology had already gotten all the new bells and whistles. Now we’re with a new customer group that really is not quite as technologically savvy. CW: How closely do your CSRs work with other departments at your companies? Siek: About eight months ago, we started a new product lab. It’s made up of an isolated group of trained CSRs, who are the first people to take the calls on new products and services. They give feedback to our marketing and new product development people on the actual service and/or product itself. That helps us refine and tweak the product and get those nuisance calls out of the way before we launch the products completely. Keenan: About a year and a half ago, we started a new-product delivery team, which is a customer care team focused on getting engaged early with marketing. We work together with engineering and marketing to build new-product launch kits, which are updated continuously as they get deployed from market to market. It’s a checklist that we use to make sure that we don’t keep learning the same lessons over and over again. CW: I haven’t seen much of the on-time guarantee. Is that still around? Temlak: It sure is. Siek: Ours varies depending on the markets. It’s between a two-hour and a four-hour window. Keenan: We’ve expanded the number of morning and late-evening appointments. We’ve increased the number of technicians working on Saturdays and Sundays. And we’ve shortened the appointment window. We don’t have any all-day appointments anymore. We’re focusing on two- and three-hour appointment windows, with no appointment window longer than four hours. Temlak: Several of our divisions have gone to real-time installation. This is when a customer calls in and, based on a truck location, we can redeploy a truck while that customer is on the phone. That’s being trialed in a couple of our divisions. Siek: We’re testing similar technology so that the customer could actually tell us when they want us to come. We can call them 30 minutes before the tech is on the way to the house. We have some different tests going on right now around that same idea. Temlak: I’d rather never have to deploy a truck. I’d like to be able to resolve the problem without ever having to enter the customer’s home. Some of the technology that we are testing would allow the CSR to pinpoint the location of a service issue to make sure that if we don’t need to deploy a truck, we don’t deploy it. But if we do need to deploy it, we deploy it to the right location. That type of pinpoint diagnostic capability will have a huge impact on customer service to reduce redundant truck rolls. CW: While I haven’t seen much on-time guarantee marketing recently, I have seen a lot of NCTA’s "take control" PSA. Have you been getting a lot of feedback on that? Temlak: Not at Time Warner. We get the occasional question and we make sure that we have the answers and we provide the data. Keenan: We are not seeing a lot of volume around it. You’ve got to make sure that your agent has the right information; that the customers have the information accessible online. And when our technicians go to their homes, they can show them how to use these capabilities. Siek: We haven’t had a lot of questions or feedback from customers on this. CW: Is there a difference between customer care and customer service? Siek: The customer service industry has evolved over the last several years from more of a service mind-set to a care mind-set. We all feel like there is a difference. But if you talk to a customer, he doesn’t care. He just wants his issues taken care of in a timely manner, and he wants to be treated with respect. Temlak: If the customer has an issue, we want to be able to resolve it whether you call that care or service. To a customer, it doesn’t matter.