Go beyond the subscriber numbers, and only one thing distinguishes small and medium-size cable providers from large MSOs: customer service. For small ops, good customer care is a matter of survival, and that’s certainly the case with Atlantic Telephone Membership Cooperative.
“As a small cable TV operator, we face a difficult challenge of keeping up with the bells and whistles offered by the national companies,” says ATMC CEO Allen Russ, citing that as ATMC’s biggest hurdle in the years ahead. “We also face tough challenges in offering the deep discount promotions because we pay more for our programming and equipment,” he adds. “But where we can excel is service. We stress to our employees that our local service advantage is the most important one. No other provider lives here. No other provider can do more for the people who live in our community. We live here, we are friends and neighbors with our customers, and we’re going to treat them like friends and neighbors. That is our difference.”
ATMC does customer service well, and we’re not the only ones to notice. The Brunswick Beacon, the county’s largest newspaper, solicits its readers to compile an annual Best of Brunswick Awards. Since the Best of program began in 2008, ATMC has topped the list for customer service every single year. Far more impressive, the customer service award is not limited to cable and telephone providers. ATMC’s customer service has been named best in the county against businesses in all sectors. Want more? ATMC revamped its customer service in 2005, so it was just three years old when it claimed its first top ranking in the Beacon. “That’s incredible; to win it once is great, but six times in a row is unbelievable,” says ACA VP/COO Rob Shema. “And we’re not talking about a little, hidden place.”
Founded in 1955 as a telephone cooperative, ATMC added cable in 1983 and now faces off against huge entities Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and DISH. With just fewer than 200 full-time employees, it serves 27,000 cable subs in southeastern North Carolina, midway between Wilmington, NC, and Myrtle Beach, SC. ATMC’s service area is both a bedroom community for Wilmington and Myrtle Beach as well as a hot spot for retirees and golf and beach enthusiasts. “We have overbuilt Time Warner Cable in some communities already,” Russ says. “We believe our success in those areas has been due to our quality local service.” Time Warner Cable has yet to build significantly in ATMC’s territory, but Russ expects that to occur when the housing market recovers.
Excellent customer service was not always the case, however. “In the early part of the decade, our customer service was lacking,” Russ admits. “Customers had a difficult time reaching us, and we didn’t have some of the processes in place to efficiently support their needs.” Things changed in 2005 when ATMC started revamping its management team, developing its own CRM system—those on the market didn’t fit our needs, Russ says—and “most importantly, challenged every employee to make satisfying our customers their number one priority.” To make it easier for customers, ATMC also opened several retail locations. “The nearest local office for one of our competitors is 50 miles away,” he says.
More recent developments include regular CSR training that stresses greeting customers “with a smile on our face or in our voice.” There’s also training to hone listening skills. “We also make sure that our customers don’t have to wade through a myriad of obstacles to speak with a live person or wait on hold for more than 30 seconds,” Russ says.
In addition, an ATMC customer can easily take a complaint to any level of management, even CEO Russ. “If we mess up, we admit it, we apologize and we mean it,” he says. And if a customer reports a problem by 4 pm, ATMC responds to the problem that day. “This has been very big in setting us apart from the national providers who normally schedule repair calls 3 to 4 days out,” Russ says. – Seth Arenstein