MSOs Answering Call, This Witness Testifies

If Witness Systems Inc.'s cable clientele are any indication, the cynical belief that MSO customer care is an oxymoron may be headed for retirement.

The Atlanta-based provider of customer-relations software has found increased traction for its products among cable operators, according to director of strategic planning Kevin Hegebarth.

Witness, which provides customer-care analysis and management products to a wide range of industries, has recently seen an uptick from among the cable ranks. The company can't release names of all of its cable customers, but some of the MSOs that have tapped its products include Charter Communications Inc. and Canada's Rogers Communications Inc. Adelphia Communications Corp. was also a customer, but the MSO's bankruptcy idled that contract.

Witness's eQuality software gathers information and data from customers' interactions with call centers. Cable MSO customers can set up the specific items they want to monitor — be it a conversation regarding a product or a specific troubleshooting issue — and the system then sorts the calls.

The resulting audio files are then typically stored for three to six months on standard data servers, giving managers time to access and analyze customer service and better train their call staff.

But the system is more than simply a glorified tape recorder, Hegebarth said.

"Our system automatically categorizes these conversations based on what went on in the conversation or what triggered that call to be recorded," he said.

Witness's software costs run about $90,000 for a system that can manage about 100 customer-service representatives, with discounts given for higher volumes. The company also charges a percentage each year for upgrades and maintenance.

Contrary to the age-old criticism that cable operators are lousy at customer service, Hegebarth said that MSOs of late are showing increased interest in service quality.

"In working with our cable customers, they see the value in providing good service to their customers," he said. "It's not a monopolistic kind of thing — consumers have choices, and our customers do want to provide superior service. And they want to provide value-added service."

The technology is also progressing. Witness is working to add speech-recognition software to its product to spot key words and phrases within a conversation, allowing a manager to scan through entire interactions for subjects of interest. It also plans to add a customer satisfaction survey element.

There is a trend away from rating an agent's response by how fast they answer calls and the speed in which they dispatch those calls, Hegebarth added. The new goal is to eliminate the need to call back because the customer's issue wasn't resolved the first time around.

"How many times have you talked to a call center rep and you got the feeling they were rushing you through the contact? Well, that is because they have an average handle time bogey that they have got to meet," Hegebarth said. "What we are seeing instead is our more enlightened customers — our cable companies — are getting into the mode of first-call resolution and customer satisfaction."

With cable operators not exactly leaping to make new capital expenditures these days, Witness has seen sales grow steadily, Hegebarth said.

"What we are seeing is cable companies are seeing it less as a capital expenditure like they would plant and much more as a CRM initiative," he said. "We're getting better traction with the cable operators."