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Abort, Retry

Jill Campbell, senior vice president of operations at Cox Communications, recently followed a company technician to the home of a 75-year-old woman. The subscriber insisted her Internet connection was out — and that the malfunction had affected the operation of Microsoft Excel.

The technician quickly determined there was no outage of Cox service: the computer simply was not plugged into the wall. And that outage of sorts could not have caused the second problem, in any event. Because the Excel program, it turned out, was not installed on her computer at all.

Campbell’s experience is representative of the kind of trouble increasingly faced by cable and telephone companies now called on to solve the technical issues of their 56.1 million high-speed Internet subscribers.

They expect access at high speeds, no questions asked. Yet subscribership to broadband services has expanded well beyond the technologically savvy to a growing pool of users who can’t completely cope with the new technology they’ve spent money on, from digital cameras to wireless routers to software applications to the operating systems that determine how their computers work. Making sure the TV works is getting trickier as well, as consumers equip their home with seating, audio systems and other gear that rivals the local theater.

A larger proportion of broadband users “aren’t PC engineers, and don’t want to be,” quipped Frank Nelson, director, Verizon Broadband.

A DIGITAL DILEMMA

They may have older or poorly configured PCs and quickly find they are in over their technological heads, according to the executive. These inquiries, called “out-of-scope calls,” are more frequently being made to the broadband providers because the problems affect access to the Internet or the speed and reliability of Internet access provided by a broadband vendor. But subscribers also call with post-installation inquiries about the operation of their home theater set-ups.

That produces a conundrum: it’s the cable or telephone company’s picture on the screen that’s on view — and monthly payment that is at risk. But their video experts can’t efficiently help with every call because of the vast variety of TV, stereo and recorder brands and features that factor into a help equation.

Providers are faced with a dilemma: have technicians at the help desk take a call for aid with a product the broadband vendor has not provided, at a cost that averages 75 to 80 cents per minute. The alternative: Advise the consumer to seek help from a hardware vendor or third-party repair service, who may take advantage of that service call to sell the consumer a competitor’s product.

The outside solution may also lower satisfaction with a good customer who may subscribe to multiple products. The bundled-services customer may be angered that, after paying $100 or more a month for service, they are still directed to another party such as the Best Buy-owned Geek Squad to get resolution.

Outside remedies come at a price. Technical support services firm Peak 8 Solutions asserts the average in-home charge for Geek Squad runs an average of $220. Paula Baldwin, “mistress of propaganda” for Geek Squad, said that price point is “simplistic,” noting the computer repair specialist offers a variety of services at a number of price points.

Either way, it’s an additional charge. And neither end of the dilemma is desirable for the cable or telephone service operator, according to Kirk Scherf, vice president and principal analyst for Dallas-based Parks Associates, author of a 2006 survey, Managing the Digital Home: Installation & Support Services.

Consumers expressed frustration over access to answers from national hardware and software vendors including Microsoft, he said. They instead have high expectations for help from their local service provider. The survey indicated local providers are likely to get one-third of trouble calls, regardless of the technology at the source of the problem. Verizon officials said that 40 million U.S. Internet users had problems last year with Internet security issues, with another 21 million experiencing hardware or software issues and 11 million struggling with home networking technology.

Scherf said he’s heard two reactions by ISPs to the demand for service for so-called “out of scope calls.” The first is “Oh, my God, we don’t want to be responsible” for every product combination under the sun, he said. The second is fear about the cost. Bundled service providers have tight profit margins selling a three-product bundle for $99 and don’t want that eroded by expensive, non-product calls, he said.

“It’s a scalability issue,” Scherf said, citing data from his research that the average broadband service call will last nine minutes, while a home-networking help call averages 18 minutes, because of the variety of hardware that could be contributing to the problem.

There are providers such as Cox who say they would prefer to be the source of service to the residential customer. This, according to Campbell, is both to ensure continuity of care and bolster customer satisfaction. Providers also fear a third-party provider may receive commissions on sales of competitive products.

“Consumers want one solid piece of advice [on fixing problems],” Scherf said. Any company that can position itself as the trusted digital home advisor will be strongly embraced, he said, adding research shows that one-third of consumers are willing to pay for 24-7 tech support.

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

Dave Seibold, vice president of customer experience for Insight Communications, has tried to quantify the problems his company faces. In May, in 35% of calls seeking help with high-speed data service generated by the cable operator’s 650,000 broadband customers, the modem and connection were working correctly. The biggest problem category was home-networking equipment, which Insight does not market; also contributing were other hardware and configuration problems.

Insight tries to help the consumer “understand where the demarcation is” between its products and other consumer electronics, and will try to help with problems that can be quickly rectified. He estimated about 90% of out-of-scope calls get remedied quickly when they get kicked up to Tier 2 service, where more knowledgeable representatives act on problems.

For instance, Insight has received calls from users of Apple TV boxes who don’t understand that when they wirelessly sync their iTunes TV library to their widescreen TVs, the process uses up all their wireless resources. That leads consumers to think their Internet access is down. That can be quickly explained to a consumer. Given the Apple TV’s penetration, it’s not yet a big service issue, but it’s one that can be quickly disposed of with an explanation over the phone, he said.

More difficult calls are referred to outside help services like Firedog or Geek Squad, he said. Some executives said they don’t want to refer customers to Geek Squad because they believe the workers get commissions for services like the Vonage voice-over-Internet-Protocol product.

But Baldwin said that company workers are paid an hourly wage, not by commission. Customer research shows that consumers view Geek Squad as brand-agnostic, and that factor is very important to consumers who contract with the company, she added.

The reaction from some broadband service companies, faced with a growing number of out-of-scope calls, is to try to embrace, and perhaps monetize, the challenge.

Scherf’s survey found that consumers prefer to find their own remedy, or get help from a neighbor, before they seek outside help. Cablevision Systems, according to Peak 8 Solutions, is providing a self-help solution that is somewhere in the middle. For the last 18 months, the cable operator has made Peak 8’s support portal available free of charge to its Optimum Online Internet users. The application, accessed through the operator’s website, allows consumers to download a diagnostic tool to their home PC to identify configuration or hardware conflicts. The product can suggest fixes to home consumers.

Ron Renjilian, CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based Peak 8, said 130,000 of Cablevision’s Internet customers have found and downloaded the application, leading to an 11% decrease in trouble calls to the operator. Cablevision declined to respond to requests to comment on the product.

Peak 8’s research indicates that out-of-scope calls may represent up to 50% of traffic currently to help centers run by Internet access providers. Of those, only 5% may justify a truck roll, he said. The rest could be completed by phone or online with self-help diagnostics. Peak 8 is compiling a data base of frequently occurring problems, in partnership with support staff training developer Jones/NCTI of Centennial, Colo. Peak 8 clients can use that database, which is updated frequently as technology issues are identified and resolved, to more quickly diagnose and correct out-of-scope problems.

GETTING IN THE GAME

Cox Communications Inc. is also making use of online help tools in some of its systems. In June, vendor HiWired of Needham, Mass., said Cox would deploy its software, which helps computer users diagnose problems themselves, in New England, San Diego and Orange County, Calif. Besides helping consumers fix their own problems, the software is set up to also share the in-home information with technicians, if the problem escalates into a help desk call.

Like Peak 8’s product, this diagnostic information shortens calls by eliminating what help-desk staffers call “the 20 deadly questions”: time-consuming but basic inquiries (“Is your computer on? Are the modem lights lit?”), which diagnosticians must make to determine the source of a problem. If the call escalates to a Tier 2 assistance level or higher, these questions are often repeated, increasing the duration and cost of the call. And irking the consumer.

HiWired’s tool also can help generate revenue for service providers. If a consumer opts into the product, the service provider can access the home computer to determine, for instance, if the memory is filling up with digital images, bogging down performance. The information can lead to a marketing call pitching Internet-based digital storage products.

Customer support itself can be a profitable, albeit low-margin, business for a service provider. Campbell said 50% of high-speed data help calls are for virus and spyware problems, with another 15% of complaints traced back to home networking. To deal with such problems, Cox is rolling out Cox Technical Solutions, a Geek Squad-like service to deal with out-of-scope problems. The teams will activate first in New England, Orange County, Calif., San Diego and Oklahoma City, with teams in three more system clusters by the end of the year. The operator will charge $59.95 to $129.95, depending on the complexity of the trouble call, for help by phone. In-home visits will cost $80 per hour.

The teams won’t deal with home-entertainment centers, she said, noting there are just too many combinations of equipment with which to cope. Cox doesn’t expect the tech teams to be big money makers. But the company’s attitude is, “If you don’t do it, and the competition is, how long will they want to stick with us?” she said.

And the competition is attacking the same problem areas. In April, Verizon Communications launched its own premium technical-support service. For $9.99 a month, computer users can call any time for help with spyware, adware, viruses, Internet security, hardware issues, computer operating-system support or other problems.

“Any new device is ripe for technical support calls,” said Nelson. Resolutions could mean a lengthy call and Verizon would rather handle such a query itself, if it can, than send customers to a device manufacturer or third-party vendor.

“Geek Squad is good, but it can be pricey … we found lots of service can be done over the phone, and quickly,” he said.

Consumers who don’t want a monthly commitment can opt for one-time assistance for $64.99.

HUNGRY FOR SUPPORT

Verizon uses vendors such as service automation solutions vendor Motive Communications Inc. of Austin, Texas, which supplies software that remotely identifies consumers’ hardware and provides technicians with remedies that are brand-specific; and SupportSoft Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., which provides one-click fixes for computer users, online. Support services are provided for routers; network, video and sound cards; CD and DVD writers and readers, hard drives, printers, scanners, game consoles and firewalls. It handles Windows platforms from 1998 on, but does not support Apple products.

Companies such as Internet-based phone company Vonage are beefing up their service, too. Charlie Sahner of Vonage’s corporate communications department said the provider is immediately routing some common calls, such as lack-of-dialtone and call quality complaints, to Tier 2 support, utilizing new software to route the call and open service tickets. The tech desks now will pull in a user’s Internet Service provider into a three-way teleconference so that the companies can jointly work out service issues, Sahner said.

Some times, there is no slaking the hunger for personal support. Peak 8’s Renjilian points to the day a consumer called the help desk of a Peak 8 client for help in uploading images from the consumer’s digital camera to the Internet. The consumer was convinced he had a connection problem.

The broadband provider ran a diagnostic test on the provider’s part of the Internet connection and found no problem. The tech had to convince the consumer to hang up and check the camera manufacturer’s self-help FAQ area for a possible solution. The consumer actually waited 20 minutes and called back seeking a “new, smarter” agent to help him, but in the end his problem was not resolved.

“What do you think that consumer’s reaction is going to be when the provider tries to sell them a voice solution next month?” Renjilian asked.