The cable industry got some peripherally good news and some routinely bad news from a third quarter consumer survey conducted by Forrester Research. The good news: Cable is no longer out on a limb by itself when it comes to providing entertainment television; it’s lumped into a "TV Service Provider" category. The bad news: the industry (as usual?) came in eighth out of nine industries surveyed on the basis of usefulness, usability and enjoyability of the experience. That actually might be peripherally good, too, since it wasn’t ninth place.

Throwing salt into that gaping wound, TV service providers (the category also includes DirecTV, Dish Networks/EchoStar and a category called "other cable TV providers," came in below insurance companies, credit card providers, cell phone service providers and even Internet service providers and only ahead – barely – of medical insurance providers in the minds of the surveyed consumers. Think about it: MSO and HMO in the same lump of coal.

The research firm asked nearly 5,000 consumers their opinions on 112 companies within nine different industries to determine a Customer Experience Index (CxPi) rating in terms of being useful, easy to use and enjoyable. A rating of 80 or above was considered excellent and below 50 considered very poor. As an industry, TV service providers garnered a 60, or OK rating, and a non-cable provider, DirecTV, did best at that with an overall 69. At least DirecTV, which ranked 50th among the 112 companies, cracked the top half of the ratings. Two cable operators, Cablevision/Interactive Optimum and Charter Communications bottomed out at 49 and 41 respectively, finishing with rankings of 109 and 110. The best cable operator, Cox Communications, garnered a 63 and finished in 76th place, just ahead of the "other cable TV provider" category.

The top industry, incidentally, had to jolt trade journalists everywhere. It wasn’t trade magazines or even their Web sites; it was retailers. Imagine that, stores that depend on happy customers to stay in business within a highly competitive space ranked highest in customer satisfaction. What’s this world coming to? The deeper meaning The survey results, in addition to the obvious need for the industry to spruce up its customer relations, probably have deeper meaning for the companies involved, said Bruce Temkin, vice president and principal analyst of Forrester Research.

"There’s a quote by Colin Powell that excellence shows up in the little things that you do, and it’s not an exception – it becomes the norm," said Temkin. "When you care about customers, you start caring about people not only outside your firm, but you end up caring about people inside your firm."

In other words … "it’s not in all cases, but I do believe that the companies that deal with customers well generally deal with their employees well and deal with other people like the press (imagine that!) or other constituents well," said Temkin. "It’s about having respect for people (again, fellow journalists, imagine that) that shows up in lots of things they do."

While Temkin said he couldn’t tell what companies improved – or how much – since this was the first year the index was formulated, he said that companies that continue to compare themselves against others within their industry, rather than looking at the big picture of what other industries are doing, are doomed to get even worse. Comparative mediocrity "What they end up with is comparative mediocrity," he said. "At the end of the day what happens is … you can compare yourself to each other and think that you’re doing not so badly, but that only works until there’s a disruption in the industry."

The disruption, he said, can come from "an outside provider coming in (as unlikely as this might seem for cable), or it could be one of your competitors who says, ‘Enough of this crap – I’m going to be good, I’m not just going to be mediocre.’"

In the end, he said, "There’s a huge opportunity with TV service providers for one or more of the players to say, ‘We want to be recognized for good service.’ It clearly doesn’t take much to distance yourself from this pack."

For those interested, here’s the way the ratings broke down: DirecTV (69), Cox Communications (63), other cable TV providers (63), Dish Network/EchoStar (62), Time Warner Cable (58), Comcast (54) Cablevision/Interactive Optimum (49) and Charter Communications (41). – Jim Barthold

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