MIKE LUFTMAN In my old line of work I had more than a few strange phone calls. When our wonderful receptionist, Vera, couldn’t figure out what to do with a particular caller, she punted to me. Some were irate customers claiming they’d been mishandled by one of our local cable companies. I was generally able to fix their problem and end the call on a positive note. Actually, I loved the idea that, even from corporate headquarters, I could occasionally save a customer. So when my secretary announced a customer named Mr. Elliott Offen was on the line, I had no reason to suspect I was about to enter the customer-service twilight zone. It was a long, rambling call in which Mr. Offen complained that his requests for compensation for an interrupted pay-per-view wrestling event had been unfairly handled. Things got stranger as Mr. Offen described his influence, accomplishments and mission to spread goodwill and love. Liftoff for the twilight zone occurred when Mr. Offen informed me he also was a long-distance runner who ran “poetically and sensuously 18 miles a day through the streets of Queens [N.Y.] wearing lacy, frilly, women’s lingerie.” “I see,” I replied, and ended the call with an assurance that I would investigate his claims (not about the lingerie, but about the pay-per-view issue). I called a colleague in Queens, and she said, “Oh, yes, we know Mr. Offen well. He runs through the streets in women’s underwear.” So my first suggestion is that someone write a book of interviews with CSRs, each describing the weirdest call they ever had (and I’ll put this one up against any of ’em). But my real point is that, while extreme, my limited experience gives me a great deal of appreciation for CSRs. I only had to handle about one or two angry customers a month, while CSRs probably handle a dozen or so a day, along with the usual sales or repair calls. They are the industry’s main link to its customers. No single part of the cable staff can be dubbed “most important,” but none is more mission-critical than the CSR; especially in a complex, competitive world of sophisticated products and bundled packages. The easiest way to appreciate this is to do a stint as a CSR yourself. One of the best parts of the NCTA’s excellent Customer Service Week program had senior executives donning headsets and handling customer calls for a while (as well as doing installs and other key tasks). But it should be more than a once-a-year showcase effort by CEOs. It really should be part of any cable staffer’s yearly “recertification.” There’s a clear business benefit to having staffers familiar with what their colleagues do. Such cross-training isn’t new, and some cable systems do it, but more should. Besides developing a greater understanding of one another’s stresses and strains, it also makes the organization more flexible in emergencies, enhances cross-fertilization of ideas and encourages new career paths. But back to customer service: The cable industry has come a long way toward making CSRs more effective. One of the best ways to do this is by empowering them to solve customers’ problems themselves. Giving them the tools and the authority to satisfy a customer on the spot, without calling in a supervisor, makes them more effective at retention. It also increases their job satisfaction. Considering what it costs to train a good CSR — and how much cheaper it is to save an old customer than to attract a new one — making them more comfortable with their job is smart, too. So it becomes a classic win-win situation for the company. But know this: No matter how happy, well-trained and productive your CSRs may be, no amount of experience can prepare them for an occasional angry, lacy, frilly long-distance runner. Mike Luftman is an adviser to Time Warner Cable. He was VP of corporate communications for that company and held similar positions at American Television and Communications and Time Inc., the world’s largest magazine company. He is also a consultant to companies in the cable and communications sectors. He currently resides in Rye, N.Y., and may be reached at email@example.com.