Executive Of The Year: 'Knock-Knock' Is No Joke

According to vice chairman and CEO Michael Willner, the secret to Insight Communications' unprecedented basic subscriber growth is right on customers' doorsteps.

Insight has achieved the strongest basic-subscriber growth in the industry in the past two years — 4% in 2006 and 5.4% in 2007 — and is on track toward another stellar year of growth in 2008 (it had 4.2% basic customer growth through the first nine months), through a concerted effort to improve its image and one of the most aggressive and successful door-to-door sales forces in the cable industry.

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Insight has between 190 and 200 people responsible for door-to-door sales, of which 160 are on the street selling on any given day. Each member of that sales force is expected to close 2.5 sales per day. And merely getting an existing customer to upgrade service doesn't count — they have to be brand new customers, said Insight executive vice president of operations Christopher Slattery.

Slattery said that Insight's direct sales strategy has “no great mystique,” adding that it represents about 30% of the business.

“It's a very big contributing factor to everything we've been able to achieve, but it certainly isn't the only thing,” Slattery said.

But he added that those 2.5 sales a day from each direct salesperson translates into about 8,000 new connects per month for the company. Although some of that is offset by churn, it has been an important part of Insight's basic subscriber growth.

“They're just a very reliable engine,” Slattery said. “Because of that we don't really see these sort of seasonal swings and downturns. They're a very dependable group.”

Insight had used direct sales on a limited basis in the past.

“We played at it a bit in a few systems where the district vice president may have had some previous experience,” Slattery said. “It was all a bit unorganized and not very well supported. It's definitely been a big contribution over the years.”

But the direct sales effort came to the forefront when Slattery joined the company from NTL about four years ago. Slattery had the full support of chief operating officer Dinni Jain, with whom Slattery has worked for most of his 15-year cable career.

Jain said that the pitfalls for many cable companies regarding direct sales are that they outsource the operation — meaning that they have no control over the execution — and they set the sales bar too low. Jain estimates that many cable operators on a comparable basis have sales quotas of 1 to 1.5 sales per person per day, compared to Insight's 2.5 daily sales.

“The magic behind 2.5 [sales] is not any genius on our part that said 2.5 is what they should do,” Jain said. “The magic of 2.5 is that is sort of the demarcation line between being a great business and being a mediocre business. If a direct salesperson can get 2.5 sales per day, for us the return on the investment of using direct sales as a channel to market becomes a very good bet.”

But banging on doors isn't the only way Insight attracts new customers. Slattery said that upselling has become a powerful sales engine for the company as well. While many reps were reluctant at first to push new services, they warmed to the idea when they realized that selling the bundle actually saves customers money.

“We're probably doing a good 10,000 to 15,000 more units a month than we did before,” as a result of upselling, Slattery said.

Around the same time Insight began beefing up its sales efforts, it also started a plan to soften its image. That included a humorous ad campaign featuring the CEO.

“We decided to make a concentrated effort to make us more likeable,” Willner said. “Cable companies historically are not particularly well liked. We made the determination three years ago to improve the brand perception, and one of the things that we wanted to tackle was likeability; and in order to do that we wanted to do it with some sense of humor, and even self-deprecating humor. Our research tells us that we completely succeeded at becoming more likeable.”

Willner would be the first to say that the road to improved likeability is first paved with strong customer service. And Insight has done that. The company has consistently strong customer satisfaction ratings from J.D. Power & Associates — it received “better than most” ratings from customers in television service and high-speed Internet service in 2008, after receiving below industry ratings in 2005.

“There has been a dramatic increase in the likeability factor,” Willner said. “There's a multitude of reasons, the least of which is the brand campaign, but it also is about answering phones and getting things done. I don't care how funny people think you are and how likeable people think you are, if you don't do your job, they aren't going to like you.”

Willner began starring in a series of humorous TV spots in Insight's local markets centered on the theme, “We'll Do Anything.” In the spots, Willner is shown walking through various neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking customers how they're cable service is. When they respond positively, he asks “What else can we do for you?” The spots end with Willner fixing a car engine, cooking chili, feeding a crying baby and washing a dog.

The spots are effective for two reasons: they're funny and they're believable.

That campaign has been replaced by a new one, which feature Willner and other employees and are focused on Insight's core values: real, innovative, passionate, proud, safe.

The new spots seem to be taking the Insight story full circle — after going through the pains of rethinking all aspects of its business, Insight is reaping the benefits with industry leading growth.

“We want people to respect what we've done,” Willner said.