Around Tampa and its surrounding Florida suburbs, several franchises battle yearly for bragging rights as the area’s top sports attraction. The competition can get fierce, when you look at who’s involved: football’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2003 Super Bowl champions) and hockey’s Tampa Bay Lightning (2004 Stanley Cup champions). For the area’s die-hard baseball fans Tampa Bay’s Devil Rays, a consistent loser, are the main event. The competition among multichannel providers is just as intense, with cable’s Bright House Networks, DBS distributors DirecTV and EchoStar, overbuilder Knology and market newcomer Verizon vying for attention and revenue. Bright House’s response has been to be exceedingly proactive with customer service. The most innovative, and potentially influential, aspect of Bright House’s customer service strategy has been its "geek squad," otherwise known as customer relationship reps. After customers sign up for an advanced service such as DVR, HD, high-speed Internet access or digital phone, CRRs, in the words of customer care VP William Futch, "knock on these folks’ doors and ensure they understand how to use our products and services." Although they are as well-trained as direct sales reps, CRRs do not attempt to sell additional services. The CRR program, in addition to an on-screen bill payment option called My Account On Demand and a 611 number digital phone customers can call to resolve service issues, put Bright House Networks Tampa Bay in the vanguard of customer service and led us to name it our 2006 System of the Year. Bright House Tampa Bay’s customers would likely not take issue with our selection. Operating largely in the Tampa Bay area, Bright House topped two regional customer satisfaction surveys done by J.D. Power and Associates. It finished ahead of Time Warner Cable and third-place BellSouth in J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction survey covering residential phone for the Southeast U.S.; the July 2006 results marked the first time a cable operator took the top spot in the Southeast phone service survey. More adulation: Bright House ranked highest in the South region in J.D. Power’s cable/satellite TV customer satisfaction survey, released in August. "In both customer service and billing categories [for phone], the company was ranked highest by a wide margin," says Frank Perazzini, J.D. Power’s telecommunications group director. "In past years, they’ve been a middle-of-the-pack performer in different surveys, slightly better than average across all the dimensions of customer service we monitor." And Tampa Bay’s done well in the field, not just on surveys. The city’s service hotline has recorded only 28 complaint calls about Bright House this year, says Mindy Snyder, cable manager for the city of Tampa. "Besides very good service, they are great corporate citizens," says Snyder, who reports to Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio (Ind). "You see them all over, constantly sponsoring local events and doing plenty for Cable in the Classroom." As the year winds down, Advance/Newhouse Communications-owned Bright House Networks shows no evidence of losing ground to rivals. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Tampa Bay system— referred to by Bright House as its Tampa Bay division— anticipates increasing its basic universe of more than 1 million customers by 2% from December 2005. Digital, high-speed and telephony sales grew month after month as new interactive TV, video-on-demand and local programming services were launched. Bright House declined to provide specific numbers. It says it surpassed 60% digital penetration in Tampa Bay earlier this fall, and has more than 170,000 digital phone customers. Digital phone was launched in 2004. Bright House’s challenge in 2006 was to grow its business while improving customer service in the face of aggressive, entrenched competitors and a big-spending new rival, Verizon, says Tampa Bay division president Kevin Hyman. "[We’ve introduced] a lot of things, more than we’ve ever done in one year, and our customers expect us to answer the phone and address their issues. You cannot compromise on the customer experience in the pursuit of new business," he says. "That’s one way you distinguish yourself from the competition. What we’ve done here is dig deeper." There are more than 43,000 DBS subscribers in the Tampa vicinity, according to data from CentrisBRIDGE, a joint project of Media Business Corp. and Marketing Systems Group. DirecTV has more than 30,000 subscribers and EchoStar has about 12,500. Meanwhile, Verizon’s FiOS TV entered the picture in November 2005, first in Temple Terrace. As of mid-October 2006, about 116,000 households in the Tampa vicinity have access to FiOS TV. (Both Verizon and Knology refrain from divulging local subscriber counts.) Companywide, Verizon has more than 118,000 FiOS TV subscribers and predicts 175,000 subscribers by the end of 2006. Knology has about 178,000 multichannel video customers, largely in the South and Southeast. MORE TRIPLE-PLAY FEATURES, BETTER SERVICE Over the past year, Bright House made certain that its triple-play bundle of video/data/voice grew. Galavision, A&E HD and several local high-definition broadcast channels were added, along with Catch 47, a full-time sports service featuring University of South Florida events. Video-on-demand programming increased to more than 2,000 titles per month. Bright House raised the maximum download speed of its Internet access service to 7 mbps and the maximum upload speed to 512 kbps; the company also improved the download speed of its Road Runner Lite service. Last spring, three-way calling, voicemail and caller ID on the TV screen were added to digital phone packages. In May, customers were given a choice of two phone service options: unlimited U.S./Canada calling at $40 per month, and unlimited Florida calling for $30 a month. Concurrently, Bright House launched its CRR initiative. The customer relationship reps spend up to one hour with customers, asking about experiences with their new service and answering questions and troubleshooting problems on the spot. Some CRRs patrol specific neighborhoods; others are given specific customer segments to work with on their daily rounds, such as double-play subscribers just turning on their DVR, or triple-play customers enduring their first service call, says Futch. "We Care," another new program, encourages Bright House employees to report service problems they encounter in their time away from the office. When employees call in or e-mail the information to Bright House, another group of designated representatives, acting like a SWAT team, hits the streets and guarantees resolution within 24 hours. Subscribers are also called at home and asked about the efficiency of recent service appointments. Over the last 24 months Bright House also launched My Accounts On Demand and the 611 phone line staffed 24/7 to handle problems with digital phone service. "All these initiatives are proactive," says Futch, who worked at Sprint before coming to Bright House. "I can’t say there was one meeting or one moment of epiphany that generated what we’re doing. This was the result of a lot of meetings over how to reach out to customers before they reach out to us." Unwilling to provide competitors with strategic leads, Futch and his system associates decline to provide stats on CRRs and other programs, or the number of people involved. Futch acknowledges that one result of Bright House’s service initiatives— besides the J.D. Power results— is a decline in walk-in traffic at the system’s payment centers. Other Bright House systems are developing their own CRR programs, while Futch, who serves on CTAM’s customer care committee, has debriefed other operators about his system’s strategies. "If people can get service from someone willing to come out and just fine-tune the performance of these products, that obviously makes a difference," says J.D. Power’s Perazzini. "That example of service will win more subscribers than someone who just makes the connection, hands out a pamphlet and leaves." THE BUNDLE’S 4TH PRODUCT: CUSTOMER SERVICE Customer care is touted in Bright House’s promotions, developed by marketing VP Stephen Colafrancesco and his team. Broadcast TV, cross-channel, print, radio and direct mail campaigns highlight the CRR program and My Accounts On Demand. "We treat it like the fourth product of a bundle, alongside digital, phone and high-speed," he says. "What’s crystallized this year is solidifying with our customers the convenience of easy access to services," says Elliott Wiser, GM of Bay News 9, the system’s 9-year-old all-news channel. "Everyone has to do a good job, from the techs to the phone people to local production." Wiser’s department premiered an all-news VOD channel in August, consisting of long-form events from press conferences to city hall ceremonies, in English and Spanish. Several Bay News 9 programs, including Political Connection, launched interactive polling segments this year, which lets viewers react to local issues with their remotes. An expansion of bandwidth capacity is also being contemplated; Bright House is looking at all-digital, IP, switched digital video and other expansion strategies. "[We] could integrate four or five expansion processes on top of each other," Hyman says. "The beauty of our network is that it’s like an erector set. You don’t have to take everything out of the ground and replace the plant to get somewhere."
BRIGHT HOUSE NETWORKS TAMPA BAY, FLA. EMPLOYEES: 2,500 MILES OF PLANT: 20,000 BANDWIDTH: 750 MHZ BASIC SUBS: 1 MILLION DIGITAL PENETRATION: 60% DIGITAL PHONE SUBS: 170,000 DIGITAL PHONE RATE: $39.95/MO. (UNLIMITED NATIONWIDE); $29.95/MO. (UNLIMITED STATEWIDE ONLY) HDTV: 20 CHANNELS, INCLUDING LOCAL ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, NBC AND PBS affiliates, DISCOVERY HD THEATER, ESPN HD, HDNET, HDNET MOVIES, IN DEMAND HD, IN DEMAND HD2, TNT HD AND UNIVERSAL HD DVR RATE: $6/MO. HOURS OF MONTHLY VOD PROGRAMMING: 2,000 AD INSERTION: 46 CHANNELS SOURCE: BRIGHT HOUSE NETWORKS

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