Transitioning Is Hard to Do

You know you've got customer-contact challenges when some of the systems you've acquired aren't even listed in the local telephone book.

That was one of the lesser challenges for Comcast Corp. as it assumed control of AT&T Broadband operations following the two companies' merger.

In addition to rechristening the systems it bought, Comcast had to reorganize operations to eliminate service deficiencies in such markets as South Florida and Georgia, while also making operational changes to bring the systems more in line with Comcast's business style.

To that end, unwieldy operations like the San Francisco and Atlanta regions were chopped into smaller systems, a move that puts management closer to customers and staff.

And upgrades were accelerated — sometimes by a whole year.

Calling in now

Perhaps most important, Comcast terminated AT&T's call-center outsourcing arrangements. Customer contact will be moved back in-house, handled by employees who are trained and compensated by the MSO.

"AT&T outsourced a fair amount," said Comcast executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service David Watson. "We prefer local management, and we are in the process of bringing that back to local markets. All sales calls will be in local markets by the end of 2003."

Comcast will open eight new call centers and expand seven existing ones. That's meant to address what was frequently the top beef against AT&T Broadband in such disparate markets as Jacksonville, Fla., and Los Angeles — the operator's seeming inability to answer the telephone in a timely manner.

"It's already improving," said Watson. "It won't happen overnight, but early returns are promising."

Jacksonville horror

Howard Conner, municipal cable-franchise manager for Jacksonville, Fla., backed Watson up. In 2002, consumer complaints against AT&T's Jacksonville system soared. Subscribers there called city officials when they couldn't get through to the operator, with complaints in some months numbering in the thousands.

Relations between AT&T and Jacksonville deteriorated so badly that by year-end, the city council was on the brink of revoking the cable franchise.

"We've noticed a significant and consistent improvement," Conner said. Complaints now average about 40 a month — "very minimal, compared to the size of the operation," he added.

Comcast serves 200,000 subscribers in the city of Jacksonville. The problems in Jacksonville made it the first former AT&T system to don the Comcast brand.

"We rebranded two days after the close [of the merger last October], for the AT&T brand didn't have a lot of value here," said Doug McMillan, area vice president and general manager, Jacksonville.

McMillan's first task: Remove barriers to potential customers, and improve relations with subscribers already on board.

"Our phone number wasn't even in the phone book," he said. "Techs weren't allowed to take CODs … so, you'd have to figure out how to call me, then find an office and pay in advance.

"You couldn't just change the logos on the shirt. You had to fix everything."

The first step for all the formerly AT&T Broadband systems was to become "Totally Comcast."

The regions each hosted a branding event attended by Comcast Cable Communications Inc. president Steve Burke, Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts and corporate chairman Ralph Roberts.

Namath pep talk

The personal appearances by the three executives had a big impact on the rank-and-file, regional executives said. The Jacksonville meeting also featured an appearance by New York Jets great Joe Namath.

At those pep rallies, Burke relates this tale: When he was an executive at The Walt Disney Co., he always wished he could have had just a half-hour with the man who dreamed up the company. He has that experience every day at Comcast, working with the senior Roberts.

Ralph Roberts "is amazing talking with audiences, relating accomplishments dating back to 1963," said Reg Griffin, spokesman for the Atlanta region.

"Our employees were really impressed they'd take the time. That speaks a lot about the family nature of the company," added Mary White, senior vice president of the Colorado market.

One of the next steps was carving up AT&T Broadband's operating units into smaller systems.

For instance, California — where Comcast has 3 million customers — will operate as five regions, each with a separate vice president and operations and marketing team, and each accountable for its profit and loss.

Divisions were set up based on technical, demographic and geographic criteria. The San Francisco Bay area system, which serves 1.7 million homes, was split in two.

San Francisco, the Napa Valley and Oakland will now operate separately from the San Jose-Monterey area, said Western division president Joe Fischer.

Comcast is oriented more toward basic subscriber growth than was AT&T Broadband, executives said, so regional executives receive bonuses for boosting those ranks.

"We're gaining traction there," said Fischer. "We're slightly ahead of budget" in terms of basic growth.

Upgrade pressure

Western division management also hangs its shingle in California — at an office in San Ramon — rather than in Denver, Broadband's former home base.

Fischer will be challenged by a statewide upgrade schedule accelerated by two years from his predecessor's calendar. This year, Comcast will spend $500 million to complete upgrades throughout the state by 2004.

The pace for the first quarter was "slower than I would have liked," but Fischer said he expects to reach the proper clip in the second quarter.

"We have 8,200 miles of plant to be upgraded this year, managing multiple upgrades simultaneously … We're getting workers up to a pace that's more Comcast-like," he said.

Call-center expansion is also underway in an effort to answer all video product-related calls from in state by the end of the year.

Comcast is building call centers in the San Francisco Bay area and central California. The Bay Area will have three centers when the project is done. Two will be located in Sacramento, including one that's being enlarged. Southern California will be served by two already-established centers.

Fischer believes the improvements will boost "contentious" relationships with regulators, such San Francisco officials, who've criticized the slow pace of infrastructure improvement and poor service under AT&T Broadband.

Colorado changes

Comcast has staffed up its community-relations departments, said Fischer, because the Philadelphia-based MSO has "not seen the environment of cooperation we're used to operating in."

Colorado operations have also been divided into five regions: the "snow properties," including Vail, Breckenridge, and Aspen; Pueblo; two 250,000-subscriber systems in metropolitan Denver; and the Fort Collins-Greeley area.

Colorado isn't wrestling the phone-center issue, having always handled its calls in-house, White said.

The 500 employees there provide "24-7" care for the local systems and handle nighttime overflow from Dallas and Salt Lake City, White said.

"This care organization is one of the top performers in the country," she said, adding that her executives have shared their best practices with other regions as they expand their own operations.

Instead, the focus in Colorado is on upgrades. The state's operations should be fully rebuilt in a maximum of 18 months. Of that, 71 percent of work is now complete "and we're activating customers every week," said White. "Before, it was on a monthly basis."

White said the Colorado region hopes to launch HDTV and video-on-demand in the second half of the year.

Jacksonville won't split up into smaller systems, said McMillan, but he's made other changes.

First of all, the system obtained a phone number that spells "Comcast" and he includes it in every print, radio and TV communication. He also made customer friendly moves, like shifting the popular The History Channel to a lower tier.

And all supervisors were put through a two-and-a-half day Comcast leadership training program.

It's no Augusta

It's all been quite a change for McMillan, who used to be a general manager in Augusta, Ga. Despite pressure there from a wireline overbuilder, community relationships were good. "I went home at 5:30 and slept well," he said.

Now he has to sweat out an upgrade promised to the city by July 1. High-speed data calls were moved in-house as of March and video calls would be handled in Jacksonville by the end of this year.

He can already see the community's perception changing. He repeated an incident recalled by four-year dispatch supervisor, who froze in a local convenience store when she realized she'd worn her uniform in public.

"She said she never wore her AT&T shirt out," McMillan said. But when the clerk noticed the employee was from Comcast, he and other store patrons started complimenting the dispatcher on the change in responsiveness.

"I think the public perception has changed radically," Conner, the franchise manager, said.

To help Comcast adhere to its promises, the city rewrote its cable ordinance to ensure that in the future the city can enforce its customer service and technical standards. But so far, Comcast has been good to deal with and committed to do the things the city wanted, according to Conner.

"We're very pleased with what we've seen," he said.