As you may know, I’m a basketball guy. I love the game; played it my whole life. Still do, in fact. And much of what I know today-about life and about business-I learned on a basketball court. I coach, too. And this past weekend we played a big tournament a couple of hours south of where I live in Virginia. The tourney was a preeminent AAU event and attracted teams from all over the country. On Saturday, we played a deep and talented team from California. By all rights, we could have been blown out of the gym, but we played hard and with under a minute to go, actually had the lead. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the other team fouled us in hopes we’d miss our free throws and they’d get the ball. And that’s exactly what happened. We missed our foul shots, they caught us, and we lost in overtime. In basketball, it doesn’t matter how talented you are. It doesn’t matter if you can spin and slash and throw down breath-taking dunks. If you can’t execute the most basic shot in the game-the free throw-more often than not, you’re going to lose. As I was driving home later, still stinging from the defeat, I had time to reflect on what had just happened-and, of course, to think about my column. And what I realized once again was what I have learned over the years: that in basketball execution always trumps talent. If you can’t do the little things on the court, it doesn’t matter how good you are; how talented you are; how many times you can bring the crowd to its feet with your physical skills. I realized that you may be able to beat vastly inferior competition on talent alone, but when the level of the other team is comparable to yours, the difference between who wins and who loses often comes down to who better executes the fundamentals. And what are those fundamentals in the cable industry? What is the one aspect of this business that is the operational equivalent of a free throw with the game on the line? Two words, and you know what they are: customer service. Look, I know DVRs, VOD, high speed, and all the other fruits of our technical labors are sexy. And I know they’ve given us a leg up on DBS and the telcos. But we’re sadly mistaken if we believe that who wins the battle for the hearts and minds of the American consumer will come down to who has got the better toys; whose doo-dads are fancier than the other guy’s. A couple of years down the road, when cable, telco and DBS products look even more similar to consumers than they do today, what do you think will be the single most important differentiator between them? It won’t be branding. It won’t be price. It will be service. It will be whose call centers answer the phone in the most friendly, knowledgeable and efficient manner, whose scheduling philosophies are most customer-friendly, and whose field staff is the most professional, courteous and helpful. Long after the initial infatuation with digital products has faded; long after the marketing battles have run their course and the bloody price wars been waged; long after cable’s incumbency loses its relevance, it will come down to which provider is more dedicated to the customer. As we walk the floor this week in Atlanta, we should keep that in mind. Symonds says we’d do well to remember that the game is up for grabs, that the other team is desperate, and that at some point very soon we’re going to have to step to the line with everything we’ve ever worked for in the balance. Curtis Symonds can be reached at curtissymonds@yahoo.com.

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