DBS, Cable One Top J.D. Power Survey

Direct-broadcast satellite providers held onto their lead in customer satisfaction over the past year, according to the results of a study released by J.D. Power and Associates last week.

EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network scored the highest for the second year in a row, running neck-and-neck with DBS rival DirecTV Inc.

Cable One Inc. scored highest among cable companies in the 2000 survey. It was also the first year the MSO had enough customers in the sample to make it into the study at all.

Cox Communications Inc. slipped from first to second place among cable providers, but it still scored above the industry average in customer satisfaction.

This year, J.D. Power did not publicly rank the seven cable MSOs that scored below the industry average. In alphabetical order, they were Adelphia Communications Corp., AT & T Broadband, Cablevision Systems Corp., Charter Communications Inc., Comcast Corp.,

MediaOne Group Inc. (which has since merged with AT & T Broadband) and Time Warner Cable.

Dish plans to continue to use the award in its advertising, EchoStar vice president of marketing Mary Peterson said, as it adds credibility and "a stamp of approval from the folks we care about most-our customers."

Cost of service helped Dish to win out over DirecTV among DBS customers, according to the J.D. Power survey. And Dish plans to continue to play to that strength. EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen has been "very vocal about our keeping our costs down," Peterson said.

J.D. Power director of telecommunications Kirk Parsons noted that both Dish and DirecTV exceeded customer expectations in the survey.

"We're pleased that we continue to be identified as well out ahead of the cable industry in the way we take care of customers," DirecTV president Odie Donald said last week. "We're putting a lot of emphasis on refocusing all of our attention on the customer."

The study showed that cable customers who have been upgraded to digital service "appreciate their service more," Parsons said.

Ironically, however, the top-ranking MSO in the 2000 study just started rolling out its first digital-cable boxes two or three weeks ago. "We have achieved this award on the backs of analog cable," Cable One president Tom Might said.

Cable One plans to make digital cable available to 90 percent of its customer base by the end of the year. Customers who self-install will be eligible for free digital upgrades and 12 months of free digital service, including an interactive programming guide, access to additional pay-per-view and premium feeds and digital-music channels.

"We can't afford to run truck rolls if we're offering this for free," Might said. Instead, the MSO is asking customers to come to its facilities for orientation sessions on how to self-install the digital boxes, which they carry home with them.

The company also recently launched a high-speed-data service in four systems, and it has signed nearly 1,000 customers to date. Cable modems will be available only through retail distribution, Might said.

When the MSO changed its name from Post-Newsweek Cable three years ago, Cable One made a deliberate effort to improve its customer image. "We put in about 30 changes to improve customer satisfaction, and we worked like dogs to make this happen," Might said.

Since 1996, Cable One has conducted 1,000 customer interviews by telephone each month, and every associate at every system is eligible for bonuses once per quarter based on the results of those surveys.

"We just handed out $350,000 [in employee bonuses] in July," Might said, adding that the two best systems in the company today are Ada, Okla., and Columbus, Miss.

Might also mails out confidential surveys to all of his employees and goes through the results himself.

"We decided three or four years ago that the only way to have excellent customer satisfaction is to have excellent employee satisfaction," he said.

The ninth-largest U.S. MSO, Cable One serves about 760,000 customers.