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Customizing Customer Care

Cablevision Systems Corp. has had a mandate over the past few years to bolster its customer-care operations so the company would be poised to handle new advanced services and products, like voice and high-speed data. In line with that, the MSO has been getting its call-center operations in order and has been making “self care” an option for not only subscribers, but Cablevision employees themselves, according to executive vice president of consumer telecommunications services Kathleen Mayo. She is responsible for Cablevision’s customer service, field operations, billing and collections, with 7,000 employees under her wing.

Roughly two years ago, the MSO went about standardizing both channel lineups and package pricing across its footprint in the New York metropolitan DMA, steps all taken with the same purpose, according to Mayo. And that was to make it easier for front-line employees to support the business.

“It’s hard to do that if you have 55 different channel lineups,” she says. “That was a first step toward shoring up the infrastructure, with the end goal of allowing the business the luxury of layering on growth, new products and features and functionality.”

During the past four years, the MSO’s call-center operations have undergone several transformations as well. Mayo is no fan of call-center outsourcing, and when she came to Long Island to head customer service in 2001, the company had third-party centers.

“I worked feverishly to get rid of them,” Mayo says. “It took a good year or two to wean ourselves off them. And if I have it my way we’ll never go back. I like having our own people supporting our own customers. And I like being part of the community.”

Mayo’s aversion to outsourcing is “a philosophical decision,” she says.

“We take a whole lot of pride in being able to support our customers with our own staff,” she says. “The relationship is just that much tighter, and it’s such an important factor in delivering the high level of customer satisfaction.”

Additionally, Cablevision, which once had 15 call centers, has consolidated them into one “virtual call center” that funnels calls to five actual facilities, according to Mayo.

The MSO now divvies up the duties of its reps; some focus on customer service and others on sales.

“We very much specialize,” says Rocky Boler, Cablevision senior vice president of customer service. “We have even gone one step further, in that we have billing specialists and we have troubleshooting and repair specialists. We have sliced in one additional slice.”

By the end of this year, “specialization” rollout should be 100% complete, Boler says.

“We have a virtual call environment; I am able to route calls that come in anywhere to any center,” he says. “We’re going to end up with half my centers that will be billing centers and half my centers that will repair and service centers — as opposed to everybody handling every call.”

The other leg of Cablevision’s customer-care strategy was making self-care options available to customers and front-line employees, says Mayo. For example, Cablevision pioneered using voice recognition for trouble-shooting for service and repair, not just using it to route calls.

“At the end of that process, we ask customers to take a survey … and our scores come back in the mid-90s percentile, in terms of satisfaction with the system,” Boler says. “We’ve had customers who have actually thanked the system after they use the system, because they feel like this is really a person. They say, 'Thank you very much, this has been really, really helpful.’”

Subscribers can upgrade their service through set-top boxes or Cablevision’s Web site, buying video on demand, having modems shipped direct to their homes, or going to one of Optimum’s 50 stores for the gear.

“Of the subscribers that are able to upgrade their services, about 45% of our subs will self-install for both digital and [high-speed data], and about 9% are choosing to self-install for voice product,” Mayo says.

Cablevision has also made changes to extend “self care” on the employee side. Now field-service technicians can add a new service, like online or phone, to a customer’s account using a computer out in the field, rather than have to call in to a central dispatcher, Mayo says.

J.D. Power and Associates released its 2005 Residential Cable/Satellite TV Customer Satisfaction Study in August, and Cablevision only ranked 11 out of the 15 companies listed. It scored 648 points out of a 1,000-point scale, below the industry average of 667 points.

But Mayo sees the glass as half full, not half empty. “If you look at the results, cable as a sector improved, and Cablevision specifically improved year over year quite significantly,” says Mayo, adding that she’s careful to separate customer-service perceptions versus customer satisfaction.

J.D. Power takes into account seven factors to arrive at its customer-satisfaction rating, Mayo says.

“One they said was the biggest driver of customer satisfaction was customer service,” she says. “And if you look at our customer-service rating, it was above the industry average, and it was much better than it was last year. I just want forward progress.”

While J.D. Power is one feedback mechanism, Mayo says Cablevision actively solicits direct feedback from customers. Within 48 hours of “a personal interaction” with a customer, Cablevision has an automated system that surveys them to general “service-experience” ratings.

“On field service, 30% of our customers take the survey and they rate us,” Mayo says. “They’re not thinking about price and image. They’re thinking about what happened two days ago. That allows us to keep our finger on the pulse of our service delivery.”

Cablevision also has a third-party vendor monitor its customer-service-rep calls, and commissions an annual customer satisfaction survey.