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Putting it all together in Omaha

Sat, 06/30/2001 - 8:00pm
Michael Lafferty, CED Associate Editor

He's only 28.

But, he has the professional demeanor and outlook one usually associates with someone who's been stringing cable for decades. It must have been that stint in the Marines. Most likely it's just his way– curious, inquisitive, pushing himself to learn new technologies and new techniques just because it fascinates him.

Jim Sinclair buckles up for a telephone install in Omaha.

Jim Sinclair, telephony field operations supervisor for Cox Communications in Omaha, Neb., has practically done it all in his five short years at Cox.

"My background was in electronics repair," explains Sinclair. "I was in the Marine Corps for electronics. And then after that, I worked for a local television repair company. I didn't actually like the work all that much, what with the labor charges and stuff like that.

"For me, it made much more sense to come here and do for customers for a minimal charge what we were doing for $150 or $200 at the other place. It just gave me a better feeling at the end of the day."

Sinclair says the move to Cox was a good one that got even better shortly after he started working there. "When I started out," he recalls, "we were just upgrading to 750 MHz, video only. Then, all of a sudden the technology started jumping and it really became an even more interesting job."

Competition's poster child

Cox's operations in Nebraska's largest city haven't always been this interesting, says Mike Kohler, vice president for public relations and government affairs for Cox Communications, Omaha. "I was here for the bad old days of cable in the '80s," says Kohler, "when if you were a cable guy, you didn't step out after work unless you were looking for trouble. By the late '80s, we were gasping. We needed to do something. We had to save our business."

The company buckled down, started to rebuild its system and its reputation both inside and outside its corporate walls. "We happen to be one of the success stories in the industry in terms of being a poster child for the 1996 Telecommunications Act," says Kohler. "We have approximately 180,000 cable customers here in the greater Omaha area. We've also got roughly 20,000 to 25,000 cable modem @Home customers.

"We have 55,000 customer households on our local telephone service. In fact, we're adding another switch this fall. The telephone service, as a percentage of penetration of our cable subscribers, is very strong and it keeps growing. Our digital cable (penetration) would be higher than it is, which is close to 30,000 digital subscribers, if we had the supply of digital boxes that we need to satisfy demand."

Kohler is particularly proud of Cox's call center, which he considers to be their "key to success." In the past, he says, CSRs were hog-tied, unable to act or respond promptly to customer complaints because of a complicated, bureaucratic approval process. Today, Omaha CSRs have much more discretion and power to solve customer complaints on the spot, whether it's with an instant credit or service freebies. "Now," says Kohler, "there's only one policy. Do whatever it takes...and they do."

Putting this kind of trust in their employees has paid off not only in the call center, but in every other department as well. Kohler notes Cox's Omaha employee rolls have practically doubled, to nearly 1,000 people, over the last five years. It's also probably no coincidence that Jim Sinclair joined the company five years ago as well, and to hear him tell it, he's seems to be having the time of his life.

Moving on up

Enroute to his first install of the day, he talks about how he got started at Cox. "I started off as an installer dealing with the video product," says Sinclair. "Then, as you get trained on that, you turn into a technician on the video side. I've been in the high-speed data department as well. I've also been what we call a CM, or a corrective maintenance tech. There was minimal exposure there, but we dealt with outages, noise, etc."

Sinclair sorts through MTU wires.

In Omaha, the pole is what separates the installers and the maintenance people. The demarcation, says Sinclair, is strictly operational in nature, and has absolutely no impact on the genuine camaraderie that permeates the company inside its offices and out in the field.

"We usually say the pole separates the two groups. You have the installers and techs that are in the field. They troubleshoot any problems back to the pole. From that point, it goes on to our corrective maintenance guys. We work together. Once the problem has been solved, they inform us and let us know what they did."

He pulls up to his first call of the day. It's a telephone install in a new apartment/condominium complex in western Omaha, on the rolling hills of eastern Nebraska. Before starting out, he checked the work order on his computer link in his truck.

Once on site, he pulls out a hard copy of the order to make sure he knows what services this customer has ordered. Reading down the list, he discovers the customer already had their cable service connected, but they've ordered Cox's telephone service with call waiting and voice mail, a cable hookup, as well as three wired jacks.

Approaching the condo, he works his way around a moving van parked in front of the garage. Three moving guys are huffing and puffing their way up and down a ramp as they move boxes and furniture into the condo. Sinclair knocks on the door and a slightly harried woman answers the door. He's polite and direct, letting her know why he's there and promising not to take up too much time.

Once inside, Sinclair quickly surveys the two-story condo. Working his way around stacked boxes and clusters of furniture on both floors, he inspects the walls, looking for outlets and cable runs. Satisfied with what he sees, he goes back outside looking for the point of demarcation and his company's NIU.

It's quickly located. He opens the box, making sure to identify the correct wires for this particular condo. He finds the cable and telephone wires, and makes the necessary adjustments so that Cox's telephone service is now operational.

Back inside, he tests the phone and activates the added services. While testing the three jacks in the house, he finds one isn't working. He removes socket plates on each electrical outlet, looking for the splitter where the main cable connection comes into the house and is split for multi-room service.

Diving behind boxes, he quickly removes the cover plate on every electrical outlet in the living room, the kitchen, the dining room and the den. No luck. He follows a rocking chair and a sweating man upstairs. The kid's room comes up empty. The master bedroom outlets don't have it, either.

Rubbing his chin, he surveys the room, pauses, then heads straight for the walk-in closet. It's quickly filling up with boxes and the racks are already full of clothes. Patiently, he moves the boxes to inspect the walls. Nothing.

Finally, he starts sliding the hanging clothes from one side to the other. Bingo! There it is–a rather large metal plate in the wall, obscured by dangling winter jackets and sweaters. Sinclair quickly removes the screws and pulls out a huge tangle of wires. Sorting through the spaghetti-like mass, he quickly locates the errant connection and makes the necessary change.

Working his way down the stairs, he finds the lady of the house directing the distribution of even more boxes. He politely lets her know the job is done.

She signs the required form where he indicates and he hands over a brochure on her new telephone service. They both smile, and he heads out the door. Once inside the truck, he grabs the keyboard and types in the completion order that's transmitted immediately back to dispatch. Elapsed time? 45 minutes.

Number please

Despite his big appetite for new challenges, Sinclair's initial foray into telephony was not a slam dunk. "I actually really didn't think I'd like it at first," he says. "I was in the data department and doing all that stuff. But now, I love it.

"I don't want to say anything against computers, but if you want to fix a problem all the way down to the core in a computer, you have to learn like five different languages and codes. Or, you just bomb it out and reload it.

"In telephony, if there's a problem, you can fix it. There are lots of interesting challenges. I like that aspect of it."

He likes it so much, he and a former supervisor went to their managers and made their case that the multiple dwelling or tenant facilities (i.e., MDUs, MTUs, etc.) deserved special attention and a dedicated crew. Today, Sinclair helps supervise a 14-man crew that specializes in MTU installs and service calls.

"We do more of the MDU stuff today," says Sinclair. "There's a lot more wires and a lot more interesting stuff. And we have less tolerance (for error) because of competition. There are certain things we can and cannot do. We look at things a lot differently. Everything is exact, and we do things a certain way."

In addition to having experience in digital, data and telephony installs, Sinclair also enjoys his role as one of Cox's frontline representatives and salesmen (a term he doesn't like to use). While his natural personality may be enough to accomplish his promotion of Cox services, he's also had some coaching.

"We definitely have classes for that," says Sinclair. "All of our ride-outs include people who are good at both installing and 'selling.' To me, I don't really consider it being a salesman.

"You get to know the customer. You ask them questions based on what you see. Plus, it's also an opportunity to get the customer talking.

"There are a lot of people who may not share a problem they have. You pull them out of their shells, you get them talking and you find out things about them. And then, they might say, 'You know, I have this television that just has this weird problem,' or something like that."

Team spirit

Like others in the Omaha office, Sinclair is a big believer in providing support for whoever needs it, whenever they need it. "The support is uncanny here," says Sinclair. "In every crew, you have a lead and a supervisor who have their phones on all the time. I've served in both roles now. There's always support. If you can't get ahold of one sup(ervisor), they'll call another one. I think we have a help desk for every department. Even dispatch has a help desk. Our IT group has a help desk."

Sinclair tries to meet with his crew every day that he can. There is a "formal" weekly meeting where he shares information and encourages his crew members to talk. "That's because we need to know when they don't know how to do something," says Sinclair.

Keeping it simple

When asked if today's installers have to be more intelligent because of the multiple service offerings, Sinclair shakes his head in the negative. It's not about intellect, he says, but more about being a thoughtful, patient problem solver.

"Since I started," says Sinclair, "there are two questions that always come to mind when I go out on a trouble call. 'How many is it affecting?' and 'Where am I bad and where am I good?' If you keep those two things in mind for everything, you're in good shape.

"Say you go to a house and they have all three services. If it's not affecting Cox@Home, don't mess with the Cox@Home. If it's not affecting the telephone, don't mess with the telephone. If it is affecting one outlet, then mess with just that one outlet.

"This kind of work requires a more thoughtful person who can actually slow down and ask themselves questions like that. Those are the two questions that have always sort of followed me ever since I started in cable."

Obviously, they've served him, and his company, well.

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