Cable and satellite operators' recent efforts to launch new products have a fortunate side effect: The same new technologies that can get customers excited about their service provider also help to motivate customer-care employees.
DirecTV Inc.'s new interactive-television services from Wink Communications Corp., TiVo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s UltimateTV offer the direct-broadcast satellite provider both incremental revenues and new challenges for customer-care agents.
"One of the great things about having these new products and services — even for the people who work here — is it keeps the call centers energized," said DirecTV Inc. vice president of customer service Rick McManus. "It keeps people's interests, because you have things that are constantly challenging."
That's good news for customer-service executives doing their best to retain staff, because the new-product introductions have increased the demands on call centers.
"We've been running double new-hire classes since the beginning of the year and are just barely keeping up," said Charter Communications Inc. Wisconsin call-center director James Jesperson.
Staffing up the MSO's prototype call center to meet the rapid demand for new services — such as digital cable and high-speed Internet access — has been a challenge for the MSO's human resources, training and information technology departments, Jesperson added. But "it's a good challenge to have."
Comcast Corp. takes an 18-month look at call center capacity to make sure the MSO will have enough staff on hand to handle increasing call volumes, senior vice president of customer service Suzanne Keenan said.
"If you have multiple products, you'll have more calls," Keenan added.
The average call time can also grow longer as operators launch new products, especially high-speed cable modems.
"The impact on contact centers can be significant because of the complexity of the products," said AT&T Broadband vice president of advanced services customer care P.J. Weyforth.
When a customer has a problem with a high-speed data service, it could be a hardware problem, a software application, a network issue or insufficient understanding of the product by the customer, he added.
Because there are so many possible factors involved, operators noted that a typical cable modem-related call can take several minutes longer than a video-related query.
"In the analog [video] world, [average] talk time was 3 to 3½ minutes," Jesperson said. "On digital cable, it's probably 5½ minutes, perhaps even longer for cable modems."
Cox Communications Inc.'s average cable-modem call time has decreased over the years from more than 12 minutes to about 7½ minutes, vice president of customer service Kimberly Edmunds said. A more stable network that supports high-speed service has helped reduce call times, she added.
In recently launched video-on-demand pilots, Cox is testing both the operational processes and the consumer product itself. The MSO found that the average call times for VOD customers were very much like those for other digital-cable customers, Edmunds said.
But ITV services will undoubtedly affect call centers. Direct-broadcast satellite operators have geared up for recent introductions ranging from enhanced TV to personal video recording services.
"There's no question that overall handle time for these issues is a little longer," McManus said.
But the good news is that current subscribers tend to be among the first to adopt the new technologies, he added. Having an existing relationship with a customer can help speed the process.
The addition of a new service can also influence when heavy barrages of phone calls hit an operator's customer-care center. Customers might use their cable modems or PVRs at a different time of day than when they watch television.
DirecTV's center tends to get busy on weekends and in the evening, but also in the morning before people go to work, said McManus. That's when many viewers set up their PVRs to record a favorite show that they would otherwise miss while they're at the office.
With cable modems, around-the-clock support is key.
"You have lots of people online at night after work, so if they have a problem, they expect that someone will be available to give them the answers they need," Jesperson said.
It's not just service-access related problems that generate customer calls. Others are driven by curiosity, and some callers just need more education about a new product.
Although many calls tend to come in soon after a customer signs up for a new service, some customers need to spend time with the new features before they inquire about them.
Some DirecTV customers buy PVRs as a VCR substitute, McManus said. Only after they gain confidence in the recording capabilities do they start to call about the added features.
Most operators do whatever they can to direct their subscribers to other sources of information so they don't tie up the phone lines unnecessarily. DirecTV, for example, has launched dedicated infomercial channels for TiVo and UltimateTV that will continue through June.
Most MSOs supply CD-ROMs, manuals and online support materials for their high-speed Internet services.
"We're seeing significantly more self-help applications," said Adelphia vice president of customer-contact operations Dan Bemis.
AT&T Broadband's electronic-care options are growing "by leaps and bounds," Weyforth said. They include customer electronic mail and live chats with service agents. The company's Web site also offers a customer-to-customer forum.
Moving customers to Web sites or automated voice-response systems can help cut down on an operator's overhead and free agents to talk with other customers. But it also provides a perceived benefit to tech-friendly customers who are just as comfortable online as they are on the telephone — or maybe even more so.
"The folks that have the most complex service issues and are the neediest in terms of customer service are the ones who tend to lean towards electronic billing and procurement," said The Yankee Group analyst Ryan Jones.
Comcast is rolling out a redesigned billing statement that incorporates both data and video and is also designed to be easier for customers to read.
"You get fewer calls from customers if they understand the bill better," Keenan said.
But operators are also careful not to discourage customers from calling, if that's the most comfortable way for them to get their questions answered.
"Calls are a way to create customer loyalty and satisfaction," Jesperson said.
They're also a way for marketing-savvy operators to get regular feedback on how customers view their new services. That's something that Adelphia considers in weighing when to cut calls short, if the customer starts to talk about their overall computer experience rather than a specific problem with the cable modem.
By listening to technophiles talk about their PCs, "we learn something about our customer base," Bemis said.
Unlike most other MSOs, Adelphia doesn't outsource its more technical cable modem service calls to partners such as Excite@Home Corp. or Road Runner. Adelphia believes it can best manage high levels of customer care "if we own the process," Bemis said.
For its other MSO partners, Excite@Home takes "tier two" — or tech-related — calls, transferred directly from affiliates' call centers.
"It's a fairly seamless handoff," Excite@Home senior vice president of customer care Eric Goffney said. Operators tend to handle calls related to billing, e-mail passwords and cable-access issues, while @Home takes network and software-related calls. Excite@Home agents answer those calls by the name of the specific cable affiliate, Goffney said.
"That's really important, because different organizations have different procedures for handling calls," Goffney said.
Dealing with third-party partners makes cable-modem customer care issues more challenging than typical cable-television queries, Edmunds acknowledged. But calls related to Cox's digital-telephone service can be even more complicated.
The cable company must deal with its direct competitors — the incumbent local-exchange carriers — to resolve customer queries related to phone-number porting.
As Time Warner Cable begins to test-market multiple Internet-service provider partnerships for high-speed data, spokesman Mike Luftman said, customer-service agents must become versed in different pricing and promotional offers for the various providers.
DirecTV's call centers have test labs where specially trained customer-service agents can try to simulate problems callers may have with their new ITV services. But sometimes DirecTV must forward a call to a hardware manufacturer.
Rather than have a customer bounce back and forth between the companies, DirecTV agents can set up conference calls with the manufacturers.
But that's not always possible in the wee small hours of the morning, because unlike DirecTV, many vendors don't operate on a round-the-clock schedule.
"The majority of calls don't require that kind of help," McManus noted.
Wherever the problem ultimately lies, customers tend to think of their service provider first when it comes to calling with a question or a complaint.
"The cable operator is the primary point of contact for the customer," Jones said. "They have the most to lose in terms of losing the customer."
Some operators will venture beyond their scope of responsibility if it means keeping a customer satisfied — especially if they're buying incremental services.
High-speed Internet providers are challenged with handling calls from PC owners who try to get answers to technical questions outside their responsibility, just because the callers know it will be harder — and perhaps more costly — to find the answers from Silicon Valley.
"If it's something we can help them with, we try to err on the side of helping the customer," Keenan said. "If it goes way beyond, we give support numbers" for the appropriate hardware or software vendors.
"There's a tendency to want to solve every problem a customer might have with a computer," Jesperson said. "We could spend hours with each call. You have to limit calls to Charter-related items, or no one else could call in."
Keeping call times in check also helps callers who are already on the line and may have dialed because of a time-sensitive problem.
"If you respect your customer, you want to treat them as efficiently and as effectively as possible, because you respect his time," McManus said. When a PVR customer spends too much time with a customer-care agent, for example, he could miss half the TV program he's trying to record.
Caller expectations are higher now that pay TV providers serve a broader customer base, Bemis said. Early adopters are often more tolerant because they realize they're on the cutting edge of a new product, he added.
Older customers who are new to the Internet may require more consumer education, Jesperson said. As they become more familiar with the Internet over time, he added, "that talk time will decrease."
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