Bob Gessner President and CEO Massillon Cable

Bob Gessner, president of Massillon Cable, has grown up in the cable business. His father started the business in Massillon, Ohio, and Gessner has done pretty much every job in the company. Massillon Cable serves a total of 48,000 customers. Massillon has 35 customer service representatives. Being an independent cable operator presents it own benefits and challenges in every aspect of the business, including customer service. Gessner sat down and spoke with Focus on Customer Care about how he and his team take care of customers. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What is Massillon Cable doing these days to make customers happy?

A: We are bearing down on our digital simulcast headend consolidation effort which we should have by the end of December. If you have a digital box or a TV with a cable card, everything will be digital. But we still have the benefits and ease of analog so people can still use their analog VCR. They can still have that TV on the kitchen counter. I look at that as a big competitive advantage to satellite and IP providers.

I can have my massive entertainment center with digital, high-def and DVR and all that stuff but I can also have a 75-channel analog service in the guest room. Do I really want a $5 a month digital box or satellite receiver on that television that my mother-in-law is going to see only two weeks a year? Or do I want my kids to have access to on demand and premium movie channels in the bedrooms? No.

The mantra I keep telling people is “With our service, you have the quality of all digital and convenience of all analog and they can be mixed throughout the whole house. We know that most people have three or four TV sets, but they only have an average 1.2 converters. So what are they doing with those sets? They migrate to the kitchen or the laundry room or the guest room. We’ll eventually want to recapture some of that analog spectrum, but I don’t see it for many years.

Q: Do you offer a triple play product?

A: We offer voice, video and digital phone service, but we haven’t really pushed the triple play as much as we should. It’s an ’07 project for us. Everything will go into bundles and discounts.

Q: How will that affect your customer care operations? Do you have specialized CSRs, or do they handle both sales and service?

A: All of our CSRs are full function agents. They do everything. They take service calls. They help people with computer and Internet problems. They do sales calls. They do it all.

Q: With only 35 CSRs, are you able to do 24-hour call-in service?

A: Obviously, we could. But we don’t because there really hasn’t been a need for it yet. We are 16 hours a day, seven days a week. That covers our customers. We have an outside answering service that picks up calls between midnight and 8 a.m. And they have definitions of emergencies. For instance, if they get 10 calls reporting the same problem, they are going to call us, which rarely happens. Most nights the answering service takes no calls.

Q: Is that the benefit of running a clean system?

A: Yes. I like to think so. It’s also making sure all our calls are done every day. Our guys don’t go home until all the calls are done. Period. They are just here until it’s done, and that makes a difference.

Q: What is the biggest advantage in having a small, independent and contained customer service center?

A: I think the biggest advantage is knowing that somebody at the management level is really in contact with customers. There’s CSRs and then there’s the customer service manager. And I know that customer service manager is talking to our customers every single day. In fact, her unofficial title is being in head of customer happiness. If people aren’t happy, they talk to her. And for that matter, I talk to customers on a very regular basis. If someone calls in and they say they want to talk to the boss, every customer service rep knows they should transfer them to me.

Q: What’s the biggest disadvantage of having a small, independent customer service center?

A: On the downside, the hard part is I think we all suffer from the same problems of finding good people and training them. I am not alone in that. There is a mixed blessing being in a small market. People know we are going to be a bit more lenient in terms of accommodating the rest of their life. We’re not nearly as strict and demanding when it comes to how many phone calls are made, what the talk times and hold times are. I’ve heard stories about the strict rules in place at other call centers. For instance, you must upsell to every single person who calls, period. And if you don’t do that three times, you lose your job. There is a lot more stress in those call centers than in ours.

Q: Do you have a lot of employee churn?

A: In the last couple of years, it has increased, especially in our call center. For one, we have more people. So there are more opportunities for people to leave. We also have more new people. More than anything we have different types of people. Historically, it was just cable service reps. They were cable ladies. Not to be stereotypical, but they were all women. Almost every one of them was married with kids and it was the second income. They knew they were going to come in at 8 and they were going to leave at 5. They didn’t have to work weekends, and they knew they didn’t have to work overtime. They could set their watch by it. Of course, we were extra nice. They could take time when they needed it. We did a lot of stuff to keep them long term because they were our neighbors and friends. As we pushed into high speed data service and phone service, we picked up a lot of younger, single men. They’re in high school, they’re going to college, and eventually a lot of them decide to move on to something else. Typically, it’s not because we’re firing them or because they’re disgruntled. It’s because it’s time for them to move on.

Q: Have you created career paths for people?

A: There have been some opportunities. Part of the problem, is that there isn’t much movement at the top or in the middle. So there aren’t too many places to move them into. But we have had opportunities. We’re getting to the point where we need floor supervisors -- the expert that CSRs can call on for help. It’s a semi-middle management position. There is also some dispatch opportunities. The phone product offers some specialization and our credit department also offers some specialization. So there are places we can help move people.

Q: How do you measure your success when it comes to customer care?

A: We certainly look at call volume, abandoned calls, calls on hold -- those kind of things. More than anything else, it’s not so much a metric as it is an aid. We have a full-time trainer. We hired a woman who had been with Ameritech and we hired her to train our CSRs in how to be better CSRs. It started out as sales training. We wanted to move from a culture of order-taking to a culture of sales. But the first thing she told us was before we can teach them how to sell, we have to teach them to talk on the phone.

The one metric I do like to look at is availability. I’ve got my butt in the chair and I am logged into the system. How can I penalize someone when the phone doesn’t ring enough. Some centers want their CSRs to be actively talking to someone like 82% of the time. When you have 500 seats in a call center, you can probably predict that pretty well. It’s pretty hard for us to do. I can look outside and see that the weather is nice and figure we won’t get too many service calls today. Or the marketing manager didn’t send out the right direct mail message this month and customers aren’t calling in. That isn’t the call center employees’ fault.

Q: When it is slow, what is expected of the CSRs?

A: They do training and other things. We don’t do outward bound calls. I just don’t like it. It’s my pet peeve. I don’t like getting calls at my home, and I assume most other people feel the same way. There seems to be an adage in the cable business that says we need to raise customers to the level of their discontent. We don’t really need to do that. If a customer is happy, why push them into a package or service that they will eventually disconnect and become unhappy over all for a 50-cent profit.