John Higgins Corporate VP, Customer Care Charter Communications

John Higgins was appointed corporate VP of customer care for Charter Communications in January 2003. Before that, he had been executive VP of government affairs and franchise relations. Shortly after taking the customer care helm, Charter undertook a massive overhaul of its customer care operations. Higgins spoke with Focus on Customer Care about Charter’s customer service initiatives. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What prompted Charter’s decision to overhaul its customer-care operations in 2005?

A: We stepped back and looked at Charter and said, ‘We want to look at our customer experience and our customer service and we need to give our customers what they want.’ We looked at a lot of customer data and we said we needed to do some things to better service our customers. We needed to have the right call go to the right agent all the time. So, we needed a routing plan to make sure the call went to the well-trained sales agent all the time or the retention agent or the billing agent or repair agent. That’s really from the customer’s eyes and viewpoint why we took the route that we did.

Q: What needed improvement?

A: We had different opportunities. 2005 was a building block year. We voted to focus on foundation elements such as workforce management or routing plans. In other words, to get the right call to the right agent, you had to be able to deliver that call to the right agent. We focused on training and call flows. We do not script our agents. I believe in call flow standards so you develop guidelines -- guardrails so to speak. But then you let them use their natural abilities to fill in voids to best serve that unique caller every time. The workforce stuff was fundamental call center workforce management and we saw tremendous benefits from that.

Q: What’s the next step?

A: This is a couple-year plan. And so this year we need to invest in high-value projects. We need to continue to look at root-cause issues, look at what the customer wants, what the customer experience is. And we need to invest in things that are good for the business such as our sales queue and retention queue -- high-value projects or quality assurance teams as we outsource some of our calls, we want to make sure the customer experience is standard and consistent and is great no matter where that call is handled.

Q: Did you meet your goals last year? How you measure your success?

A: We put into place numerous metrics. We have a holistic performance management plan that is consistent with customer expectations. We have a variety of metrics but they are cascading metrics. They either roll from the CSR all the way up to me or from me down to the CSR. So we’re completely aligned against the customer experience defined by the customer surveys we do. We do comprehensive customer data surveys continuously throughout the year. We benchmark ourselves and see where we’ve come from and where we need to go to meet customers’ expectations, not my expectations. Let me give you a good example of that. Many people monitor handle time and time targets. We don’t have handle time targets. If it takes a caller 12 minutes to be completely satisfied then it takes 12 minutes. If the next caller can be completely satisfied in four minutes, then we take four minutes. So we do not stress handle time as a metric because we want the agent on the phone long enough to meet the consumer’s demand.

We are exceeding our expectations. We continue to ratchet up key metrics. Are we where we want to be from our perspective or from our customers’ perspective? No. I think there is always room for improvement and the customer experience changes with the business. So we have to change as well. But I am pleased with our progress.

Q: What are your expectations?

A: We used to have one large queue -- billing and repair. In today’s marketplace, bills can be three times as complex and with repair, we have all kinds of new devices and intense consumer equipment. So we broke those queues apart. We said these queues deserve their own training and their own resources to best serve the customer. It’s things like that we’ve done and seen great success in. From an efficiency standpoint, just looking at workforce management, we created a centralized workforce management team. We’ve optimized our network. We created the equivalent of adding 700 full-time employees just in driving greater efficiency. We added the efficiency of 700 more agents to the phones without having to spend the money to add those agents.