Customer service at Time Warner Cable’s system in Greensboro, N.C., really rocks. In the company’s most recent internal semiannual survey Greensboro ranked first in customer service among all of the cable operator’s systems nationwide. Not only that, it wins rave reviews from the city’s franchise manager. “They’re great,” gushes Bech Martin, technical systems manager for the city of Greensboro. “They really do have a fantastic customer service management team down here. We’ve been really lucky to work with them.” In fact, the city received less than a dozen complaints last year, Martin says. That’s not even one per month. Pretty darn impressive considering the system serves 350,317 basic subscribers and offers an array of advanced services such as video-on-demand, digital video recording services, high-speed data and high-definition television. Let’s not forget that the Greensboro system spans a large stretch of rural North Carolina, which would be a difficult reach for any cable operator. And what about the area’s affinity for ice storms and, lately, hurricanes, with Isabel dropping in? The state took a $400 million hit due to last year’s massive storms, according to reports. Don’t worry, though, TWC employees are on the case. They’ll not only help restore your services; they’ll credit you for any lost time. You don’t even have to ask. Dianne Blackwood, Greensboro’s VP of customer care, doesn’t stop there though. In her perspective, it can always improve. So she volunteered the Greensboro system to be the pilot for computer integration technology, which gives the customer service representative appropriate consumer data before he or she even picks up the phone. The technology also offers a beta site for a customer self-care website. Consumers can log on to this site and purchase a subscription, pay their bill and so on. The data is all tied into the system’s overall billing and customer service database, keeping everyone on the same page. All of these new services will become a lot easier this month when Blackwood brings all her CSRs under one roof. That’s consolidating eight call centers into one. “Our division is in the process of transforming our call center into the state-of-the-art call center that uses technology to better serve our customers,” she says. Despite this stellar customer service record, the area served by Time Warner Cable still has a high penetration of satellite dishes. Scarborough Research found that residents served by the Greensboro system are 31% more likely to own satellite dishes than residents in the top 75 markets. “Satellite competition hit the entire state of North Carolina first,” says Patty Lumpkin, the system’s VP of marketing. “Last July, according to SkyTrends information, the satellite growth flattened. Since May and June of this year, there has been a slight increase in satellite growth. They are being far more aggressive in our market.” But Lumpkin and crew have satellite dish buy-back programs in their arsenal. On average, the system wins back at least 6,000 dish subscribers a year, she says, adding, “but those are the only ones I can track.” Besides traditional buy-back plans, the system keeps finding new services to offer as a competitive lure for dish-heads. TWC Greensboro has 90,800 digital subscribers, almost 11,000 of which subscribe to video-on-demand packages at $4.95 a pop, Lumpkin says. About 25% of all basic subscribers have signed up for high-speed data services. And the system has shipped out about 5,000 set-top boxes with digital video recording capabilities since November. Mastering the art of selling these advanced services is another thing altogether. But Lumpkin has a plan: Simplify it. In fact, the system launched in July a new marketing plan that wraps all these scattered services into neat simple packages branded DigiPic. “It’s packaging and selling made easy,” she says. “Our employees just really took to the whole concept.” The Greensboro system offers different levels of DigiPic, which bundles services such as video packages, Road Runner and subscription VOD. The brand is simple enough that Lumpkin is aggressively putting it everywhere — on buses, even on coasters in restaurants. Good thing this brand is simple. More services just keep coming. The market just launched tiered high-speed data packages to try and harness those consumers who hog up the bandwidth. And the Greensboro system will most likely test voice over Internet Protocol for local and long-distance phone service in the near future. Jack Stanley, division president, says that a Time Warner subsidiary already has been certified to provide phone service in the state. Time Warner Cable corporate intends to offer local and long-distance phone services nationwide by the end of 2004 or 2005, he explains. It may come to Greensboro sooner rather than later since a VoIP competitor, Vonage, launched in the city in May. But the competition may also be a blessing in disguise. Vonage needs high-speed data connections such as Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner to survive. “It’s still way too early to be speculating on what may or may not happen,” Stanley says. But if corporate sets its eyes on Greensboro for a VoIP launch, the system is ready to go. It’s already got 11,000 miles of fiber and is in the process of installing a transport sonet ring, says Rick Vance, VP of engineering. The network area is already tied together with redundant rings. “I think that’s really important if you are going to have telephone service that you have backup routes,” he says. Even if telephone service over the Internet doesn’t come, Vance sure has his work cut out for him. With video-on-demand, digital video recorders, high-speed data and hi-def, he’s got his nodes full. “Keeping the network working, that’s my biggest challenge,” he says. He has a little help though. The Greensboro system uses an outsourced network operations center, iGlass Networks, to help monitor the hubs and head-ends. If a cable pathway gets clogged at 3 a.m., iGlass calls Vance and his engineering team to take care of it. This helps them fix the problem before a majority of the subscribers turn on their cable or modem in the morning. “Our up time on our servers has gone up dramatically over the last three quarters,” Vance says. (The system has used this service for a little more than a year.) Vance also makes sure they’ve got independent generators going so if there’s a power failure, he doesn’t lose control of the head-end. For him, digital video recorders have been the biggest headache. Software upgrades, geared to correct one issue or another, are needed constantly. For example, at one point, the movies stored on the hard drive would be deleted. But since Vance tackles any problem quickly and efficiently, consumers stick with the product. “It’s a pretty complex piece of equipment,” he says. “The customers like it anyway.” Software upgrades give Paul Stephens, VP of technical operations, a headache as well. There are continuous upgrades needed to clean up one problem with a DVR or video-on-demand out in the field as well — his area of expertise. “We have to continue to work on those to figure out what needs to be changed,” he says. “We fix one issue but another one arises.” Good thing that the system adopted C-COR.net Corp.’s automated service fulfillment operations, called Integrated Services Management Mobile Workforce Manager system, last year. It has increased the amount of service calls each technician can handle by 1.9 a day, Stephens says. “The mobile force automatically routes by skill base, by node, by hub,” he says. “It gets very granular and can route more efficiently. We save an a hour and a half out of each day that was [eaten] up by routers in the morning.” TWC Greensboro’s unique offerings go beyond automation, beyond engineering, even beyond customer service. The system lets television advertisers target by demographic and location — a characteristic unique to cable advertising. This targetability is exactly why Scott Rhodes, president of a new franchise of portable on-demand storage units, or PODS, decided to put all of his advertising budget into cable when he launched his new business in June. “Cable enabled us to advertise to specific zones, which is better for our business,” he says. By concentrating in zones, Rhodes can roll his trucks out easier and more efficiently than if demand was coming from all over the region, he says. Furthermore, he liked cable’s ability to target different demographics, specifically women, since they typically make the first call when it comes to finding an appropriate moving plan. The ads have definitely worked. In the first month after launching, between 50% and 70% of his calls were prompted by the cable ads. Lesley Thompson, media director for advertising agency Bouvier Kelly, also takes advantage of TWC’s ability to target for some of her clients. Moses Cone Health System, for example, serves Guilford County, which is within the Greensboro cable system area. So Thompson buys some cable advertising that covers the area along with her broadcast schedule. In general, however, Thompson buys mostly broadcast because she would have to spend a lot more to get the same ratings needed, she says. To accommodate media buyers who want easier cable advertising buys, TWC is reorganizing its zones. This month, the cable zones are being consolidated, going from five to two, says Martha Spillane, general sales manager for Time Warner Cable Adcast. “We are, as much as possible, wanting to make it easier for buyers,” she says. This will help the growth of national ad sales for the system, which has increased at a healthy clip this year, she says. Automotive is the top national and the top local advertising category for Greensboro. Perhaps Greensboro attracts automotive advertisers of all sizes because North Carolina is home to NASCAR auto racing. In fact, 98% of the residents served by Time Warner are more likely to be interested in NASCAR auto racing than the rest of the country, according to Scarborough. Advertisers like the Greensboro system, and so do subscribers. As well they should. Division president Stanley pitched customer service as one of his main issues 35 years ago. He wasn’t lying. He helped create some of the customer service standards adopted both by his cable company and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. “I know when I go to a service enterprise, I expect to be treated fairly and to be treated with some degree of respect,” Stanley says. “So I try to reciprocate.” EMPLOYEES: 600-plus HOMES PASSED: 579,382 MILES OF PLANT: 11,266.79 PERCENT UPGRADED: 100% to 750 Mhz two-way BASIC SUBSCRIBERS: 350,317 BASIC RATE: $8.29 DIGITAL SUBSCRIBERS: 90,787 DIGITAL RATE: $43.30 HIGH-SPEED INTERNET SUBSCRIBERS: 74,073 Road Runner; 8,937 AOL; 5,987 Earthlink; 9 Inter.net HIGH-SPEED INTERNET RATES: $44.95 VOD: Launched October 2002 SVOD: 11,000 subscribers at $4.95 DVR: 5,000 set-top boxes with DVR capabilities HDTV: All local channels, plus Discovery, Showtime and HBO at no additional charge TELEPHONY: N/A AD INSERTIONS: 36 networks SOURCE: TIME WARNER CABLE After graduating from the Electronics Technology School of South Georgia Tech, Stanley started his career with GTE. He’s been with Time Warner Cable 25 years. Stanley’s focus on customer service has helped the Greensboro division win the top rank of TWC’s latest customer service survey. Stanley is president of the North Carolina Cable Telecommunications Association. Lumpkin kicked off her cable career in 1980 as marketing manager for Teleprompter. The company had 13 channels and 13,000 customers when she started and grew to 70 channels and 100,000 customers by the time she left. After a stint as system trainer and local origination director for Group W. Cable in St. Petersburg, Fla., she joined TWC Greensboro in 1990. Blackwood took over management of the Greensboro customer care division in June of last year. Before that, she served as VP of operations for the division. Blackwood started in cable as office manager in TWC’s Burlington, N.C., system, in 1981. Before joining the company, she worked at the Student Health Facility at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Vance got his Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Pfeiffer University. He has 27 years of experience in telecommunications, including five years with the U.S. Army and eight years with Sprint. He joined Time Warner Cable and its subsidiary Time Warner Telecom 14 years ago. He relocated to the Greensboro division about five years ago. Stephens started out in the cable business in 1977 as an independent operator. After Prime Cable purchased his systems, he went to work for James Cable Partners in Tennessee for a year. Then he moved to Cablevision, where he spent 14 years. TWC purchased the system and he has been with the company since that time. Spillane is about to celebrate her ten-year anniversary working for Adcast. She has worked in radio, newspaper, broadcast television as well as an ad agency. Before joining Time Warner Adcast, she was an account exec for radio station WQMG-FM in Greensboro. She has a B.A. from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s School of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures. Comparison of consumers in Time Warner Cable’s Greensboro service area to the top 75 market average.