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Forum: The Seven Laws of Customer Care

Gone are the days when cable operators can take theircustomers for granted. As competition increases from satellite, video-on-demand and othersources, cable providers are being forced to take a hard look at ways to differentiatethemselves, and they are rethinking a stereotype that has plagued the industry almostsince its inception -- poor customer service.

Providing exemplary customer service can help to buildcustomer loyalty, which can help to maintain, and even grow, your company's bottomline. Industries faced with sudden competition -- including telecommunications, utilitiesand, now, cable television -- are discovering that customer care is critical to acquiringand retaining customers and, thus, to growing the business.

Enlightened marketing managers understand that loyaltycomes from truly serving customers by addressing their individual needs -- sometimes evenbefore they know what they are -- and making each interaction between the customer and thecable company a positive experience. To that end, the following "Seven Laws ofCustomer Care" can help to build loyalty and increase revenues.

Law 1 Core Competency: When re-evaluating yourcustomer service, you must first determine how it fits into your company's corecompetency. As a cable operator, your core competency is providing cable-TV services toyour customers. How does customer service fit into this category, if at all?

In the past, a cable operator had a customer-service staffin each market where it did business. Today, operators are looking to consolidate thesecenters to better realize economies of scale. But at the same time, customers aredemanding more and better service. As competitive pressures increase, cable providers areturning to outside service agencies to help them to better serve their customers.

Tip: Consider whether teaming up with outsourceproviders can free your own resources to focus on your strengths and allow a partner tohelp you care for your customers better than you can alone.

Law 2 Conversation: On what occasions do youinvite your customers to tell you how they feel about your company's services? Nearlyevery cable company invites customers to provide feedback, through comment cards mailedwith bills, etcetera. You probably also have a hot line that customers can call to askquestions or complain.

But do you truly listen to what they are saying?

Many operators invite customers to talk, but all too often,they don't really listen to what they have to say. Whoever is on the receiving end ofany communication from a customer should be prepared to talk and listen. They need to betrained on the proper procedures of customer service. Also, they need to be given thepower to take action to address the customer's problem without delay.

In addition, keep in mind that many customers need you toinitiate the conversation. Think about how you might proactively service your customersand solicit feedback in a more direct method than a suggestion box on the counter.

Tip: If you manage your customer-service operation,whether it's in-house or outsourced, don't just monitor what your staff isdoing. Get on the phone and take and make calls yourself to get a first-hand view of whatyour customers are thinking.

Law 3 Flexibility: Perhaps the most importantcomponent of flexibility is availability. Imagine that one of your customers can'tsleep, and she decides to watch a pay-per-view movie at 2 a.m. If she calls yourcustomer-service line to learn how the process works, will she be disappointed? Will shestart shopping for a satellite dish?

Cable companies need to be conscious of how their ownactions will affect the needs of their customers. For example, if you run a specialpremium-channel promotion, you might get a lot of calls requesting the service. But willyou be prepared?

Tip: If you're not willing to support yourcustomers beyond typical "banker's hours," due to expense, a service agencycan give you the ability to ramp up and ramp down. This becomes especially significantwhen you need to provide coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- when you areintroducing new products or services, or dealing with seasonal-viewing-pattern shifts.

Law 4 Technology: Before you jump on the latesttechnological bandwagon, be sure that you have a reason why, as well as a specific paththat you plan to follow when technology takes its next leap. Progressive cable operatorsprovide multiple methods for customers to ask questions or report problems, managingtelephone, e-mail and traditional mail effectively to serve a wide range of customerneeds.

For example, interactive-voice response is a technologythat provides automated answers to frequently asked questions, such as billing inquiriesand PPV questions, freeing up customer-care representatives for more"high-touch" needs.

Tip: New technologies offer opportunities to buildmarketing knowledge, in addition to better serving customers. For example, look for waysto "reward" customers who visit your Web site, and use the information that yougather during the exchange to find ways to better serve your online customers.

Law 5 Multiplication: When you partner withanother company for customer care, be sure that you choose a firm with a similar cultureand work ethic. Choosing the wrong partner means that the two companies might haveconflicting goals, resulting in pain and lost customers.

Tip: If you decide to partner with a service provider,look for one with a similar culture to multiply your resources, rather than dividing them.

Law 6 Memory: You have to make sure that yourcustomer has no reason to consider your competition.

Tip: Critical systems-integration issues often get inthe way of good customer service. You must not forget about your customers, or forget whatyou know about them. A third-party customer-service interface with a centraldata-collection point will go a long way to not only save time and money, but also tooffer value in future transactions.

Law 7 Growth: Every contact with a customer isan opportunity for growth. But how do you get more products in the hands of yourcustomers?

Much of the opportunity for promoting premium-cableservices comes from exposing current customers to other products and services that theydon't currently use. For instance, if a customer calls to inquire about a premiumchannel, be sure to tell him about the bundle of channels that you offer -- he might bemore interested in your package deal.

Tip: As customers rely more heavily on your cableoperation for premium services, they build more affinity with your company and show moreloyalty when a competitor comes calling.

The "Seven Laws of Customer Care" are crucial forcable companies that are facing increasingly tough competition. To better serve yourcustomers, first decide what your company can and cannot do, and then work with yourcustomer-service agency to make these laws an integral part of your customer service.

David F. Dougherty is president and CEO of MatrixxMarketing Inc.