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Tammy Esser, Vice President, Customer Services Scripps Networks Interactive

Customer service is something cable operators talk about all the time. But generally speaking, it isn’t something cable networks have much of a reputation for spending much time on. One exception is Scripps Networks, which is the only programmer with a consumer-focused customer-service department in the industry, according to Tammy Esser, VP of customer services for Scripps Networks Interactive. Her department of 12 customer-service agents answers thousands of e-mail messages a month and delivers 32 e-newsletters for a total 62.4 million e-mail communications per month. Esser sat down with Focus on Customer Care earlier this month and spoke about how Scripps’ customer-service department has grown and morphed over the years. An edited transcript follows:

Q: Why did Scripps create a customer service department?

A: Everything we do is for the customer or the viewer. My role is to manage the customer-service department, which has been the portal for all our customers to touch base with our brands — be it our message boards or generating content, which we’re touching on now with our recipe reviews on The Food Network.

The latest online channels we are launching — kitchen vertical, bath vertical, woodworking vertical — [let viewers] contact the networks with questions about what they have recently seen. So we try to keep our finger on the pulse of what our viewers are saying or wanting and turning around and feeding that same group with more of what they’re asking for. We take that opportunity with the newsletters to market our message.

We’re fortunate enough that we have that brand recognition that we can give the advertisers and make it a business that can stand alone. But it all comes down to the content and our branding. We all do well. We have a great team. The content is there. And the viewers want it and they can’t get enough, which is why we recently began embarking on spinoffs of the brands with weekly newsletters.

For example, the Food Network has recently launched a mini newsletter on grilling. It’s a four-week stint. It had really taken off. We have been fortunate enough to have an over-30% open rate.

Q: What does that mean?

A: I believe that anything over 25% for any type of newsletter is a good open rate — people that are actually opening your e-mail. We have the analytics and the metrics behind our newsletters to track that information. So we know what kind of lift we’re getting or whether we have the good e-mail addresses. We are fortunate there because we don’t have to buy lists from third parties. Our subscribers come to us for this free subscription. We are enjoying an open rate on a brand new, testing-the-waters-type mailing and it’s generating a lot of positive feedback. The advertisers respect that and that is how we get the buy-in from them.

Q: What do people ask when they e-mail you? And how do you answer them?

A: That’s another role of the customer-service department here. We manage the newsletters but we also we have an outlet for viewers or visitors to come to the Web site and e-mail us to ask questions.

For example, we just had an e-mail a couple of minutes ago about a program we’re introducing in the third quarter called Jump Brothers. It’s an acquired show we are getting and starting to air in July. So somehow along the way, a viewer of HGTV or the show contacted us and asked if and when the show was going to be on HGTV. We replied and told them it was premiering in July and to check back on the Web site when the show will air.

We’ll provide people with information and a link they can use to figure out how to get around the channel and Web site and we make sure we tell people to contact us back if they have any more questions. It works. Ken Lowe [E.W. Scripps’ president/CEO and founder of HGTV] constantly mentions the fact that Scripps Networks brands are the only cable networks that have a customer-service component that can answer viewers’ questions.

Q: What prompted you to create a customer-service department?

A: It was an idea of Ken’s when he first launched Home & Garden Television. It went back to when he was remodeling his home and he wanted to do some landscaping and he was frustrated that there was so little knowledge — one stop shopping, if you will — for this kind of information. So when he had this idea for a launching a cable network that was totally dedicated to the home and garden genre, he also made it a point and a goal to make it so that if viewers had comments or questions, that they could contact us. So behind every program that aired on HGTV, we put our P.O. box up there.

That first year, we had over 50,000 letters and we answered all those questions.

But we were also very aware that we needed a process to catalog these questions that were coming in so we could be prepared the next time that question was asked. It was following the onslaught of mail that we looked at our programming more strategically and divided it into two categories — one half being how-to and the other component being resource-driven. Some questions were easy — ‘I missed the book you talked about on such and such episode.’ And that is what started the brain child of having a call center. We started out with an 800 number to test to see whether they’d call. They did and the mail dropped off significantly. It didn’t by any means go away but it did cut back to being more manageable.

Then along came the Internet and we started testing the waters with that.

Q: How many customer service agents handle all this and how are the responsibilities broken down?

A: We have a staff of 12, including myself. We rotate people based on brand. We try to keep things fresh. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve not had significant amount of turnover in the last 10 years. So they have the knowledge of the brand and the content. It takes about a year in this world to get a customer service agent up to speed to where they feel comfortable in their job without having assistance constantly.

I have two call center managers. I have one newsletter coordinator. The remainder are customer-service reps and to keep it fresh and keep from burnout, they rotate between the brands each week with one of those weeks being phone duty for a half a day. One CSR in a six-week period will be on the phone once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The rest of the time, they are responding to e-mails.

It works for us. Having everyone cross-trained in all brands and in all areas serves our purposes. Not only from the burnout perspective, but from the knowledge that they have as well. We played around with the schedules and we found our happy place. We’ve been doing it this way for the past year and half.

Q: What is the advantage having a customer service department gives you as a program provider?

A: From the corporate standpoint, we are hearing back from our customers. So we hear the positive and negative and it’s really been to our advantage as we have been growing other areas on our Web site. We’re taking out website and maximizing what we offer to our visitors.

We recently launched a universal player on HGTV and Food [Network] and you can watch videos. It’s still in its infancy stages, but it’s like video on demand. You have it right there on your computer. The advantage we have by having a customer service department in place is the fact that we can get feedback on these.

Q: How much does technology play a role?

A: Technology is huge. It’s difficult to juggle at times because technology is changing all the time. There are so many ISPs and browsers. To have our newsletters delivered in a format that everyone can access and read is a challenge. So we have to be careful about our testing before anything goes out.

Last month, we sent out 62 million e-mails in a newsletter capacity. So we have to have the throttle behind us to push that many newsletters and yet still maintain that fine line and not be classified as a spammer. We have to be on our toes so we aren’t blocked by an ISP and that our systems are running properly and that our databases are running properly. One kink in the armor and the whole thing can come to a stop. And it’s a nightmare to get everything back on track.

Technology also plays a role on the customer service side of the department. Last month, we had 28,000 e-mails come in. So that in itself is a challenge. We’re not always fast. We try to keep replies within a week. Food emails are generally easy to answer. They mostly revolve around recipes. DIY and HGTV e-mails are more resource driven and canned answers don’t work. We get more Food e-mails, which we can answer fairly well and quickly. We don’t have the volume of e-mails for the other networks but they are more labor intensive and take more time to answer.