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Empowering the CSR

Wed, 04/30/2003 - 8:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor

New technologies, tools and training are helping customer service reps troubleshoot a raft of new broadband services and retain valuable subscribers

Thanks to the introduction of new, and much more complicated broadband services, the cable customer service representative (CSR) has evolved into somewhat of a know-it-all.

But that's meant in a good way. They must be able to think on their feet, troubleshoot a spate of technical problems on the fly, offer compelling sales advice, keep customers from leaving for what they might think are greener pastures . . . and all the while maintain a cheery demeanor with each and every customer who calls in.

Figure 1:
By mining and assessing available data, Auspice’s SVP platform can determine the context of customer problems in real time.
Of course, getting CSRs to a point of customer care Nirvana requires operators to prepare and equip them with the best training and tools available, empowering them to handle cable's triple play of voice, video and data.

It wasn't always this way, however. The importance of the care and feeding of the CSR didn't come to such a head until cable operators began rolling out high-speed data (HSD) services. Operators had control of the cable modem, but the PC, with its variety of specifications and configurations, was another story.

HSD "brought in a new complexity to the technical support environment that most cable companies hadn't had to deal with compared to other product launches," says Curt Champion, director of product and industry marketing for billing and customer care company Convergys Corp. "Digital was more complex, but the troubleshooting [environment] was relatively self-contained."

EXPANDING THE CSR'S KNOWLEDGE

CSRs can't diagnose and solve problems in a vacuum. Several vendors and operators have stepped up with tools that feed them the data they need in real-time and translates that information into an easier-to-understand graphical format.

Auspice Corp., for example, offers a Web-based Service Visibility Portal (SVP) application that rides on top of its underlying "TLX" platform. Instead of relying on a central database or a trouble-ticketing system, SVP pulls in, assesses and renders information supplied by multiple systems that already exist on the broadband network.

Figure 2:
Convergys’ Icoms platform gives
CSRsa comprehensiveview of
broadband customers.
Taking a step beyond just reporting that a service problem exists, SVP is designed to help the CSR understand the context of that problem.

Mining that information and presenting it graphically can help the CSR "determine the health or the state of the service or services on behalf of one customer," says Rich Berthold, chief technology officer and chief software architect for Auspice. "It's not just about determining the state of the server or the modem, but the state of the service."

Colorado-based SPATIALinfo, in a similar vein, correlates and integrates data ranging from several sources–property owner and land use information, aerial photography, demographics, and customer billing info, to name a few–to generate graphical mapping displays that CSRs can tap to determine whether a particular type of service is available in an area. The system enables a CSR to literally "see" what's going on, down to the customer's home on an electronic map.

Although the product can help operators better target their marketing for advanced services and give field techs a comprehensive view of where components of the network physically reside, it can also be valuable to CSRs by reducing "exploratory" truck rolls.

Scientific-Atlanta, meanwhile, is developing a new tool called the Cable Support Desktop. That product, expected to become available in the second quarter of this year, is designed to help CSRs diagnose video and high-speed data CPE and connectivity issues by culling technical data from the network.

Information supplied to a CSR "has to be quick and easy to understand," says Larry Bradner, president of S-A's SciCare Broadband Services division. "You don't want to provide a whole lot of carrier-to-noise measurements, but you do want to give them a checklist of things that help them isolate the problem."

S-A will complement its new offering with its existing SciCare Learning Exchange, a self-paced CSR program. Less than a year old, the training program is designed to help CSRs troubleshoot problems and learn when it's the best time to roll a truck. The product is deployed in about 38 sites so far, including those operated by Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

TRAINING TRENDS

While providing the proper tools to CSRs is a must as myriad new services enter the fold, providing the proper training on how to use them and how to talk to customers is just as important.

Figure 3:
Spatialinfo can pinpoint which homes have access to advanced cable services.
In addition to troubleshooting technical problems in order to avoid costly truck rolls, "there's a need to get CSRs trained on how to sell services and especially how to overcome objections against satellite and DSL," says Steve Naclerio, director of business development for NCTI's call center business unit.

That training, though important, can also take valuable time away from a CSR trying to do his or her job, especially if it takes several hours in a classroom setting. Colorado-based NCTI is approaching that problem by delivering training packages directly to the CSR desktop in sessions that last less than a half-hour. NCTI is beginning to migrate its paper-based distance learning courseware into smaller, more focused lessons that can be delivered via the Web.

For starters, NCTI is evolving its CSR course for high-speed data–its hottest seller right now–into Web form. Plans are to have that ready by the first quarter of 2004.

"A CSR supervisor or manager is more inclined to take someone off the phone for a 20-minute module," observes Naclerio, noting that CSRs who train that way can bookmark their sessions and return to them later.

As part of its CSR training regimen, Comcast Cable Communications uses a system that mimics the real-time interaction between a CSR (or CAE, for customer account executive, in Comcast parlance) and a simulated customer.

Using voice recognition technology, the tool allows the CAE to speak to the computer-generated customer and to navigate the problem through a final resolution on the phone or by issuing a trouble ticket.

Although Comcast uses the customer care simulation for all of its products, the short-term needs involve digital video and high-speed Internet scenarios, notes Tina Waters, vice president of customer sciences for Comcast.

Comcast couples that tool with an internal knowledge base that CAEs can tap into online, and provides information that can also be shared with techs in the field. Updated regularly, that database "assures us that the agents are giving the most accurate and updated information," Waters says.

BATTLING CHURN

In addition to troubleshooting problems, CSRs are also being equipped with tools and techniques that protect against churn and help them up-sell customers to new services or more profitable tiers.

Figure 4:
CSG’s ProfitNow! application provides
CSRs with a “score” that indicates how likely a customer is to churn.
CSG Systems, as one example, offers a customer relationship management application called "ProfitNow!"

Up already in two Time Warner Cable sites (Desert Cities, Calif. and Houston, Texas), ProfitNow! leverages CSG's billing engine data to apply predictive analysis and models that help CSRs gain a better understanding of customer behavior.

That data is then used to kick out a customer "score" that indicates how likely a particular customer is to churn, and presents the CSR with a strategy he or she might use to retain the customer.

A CSR might offer a free month of HBO or a pay-per-view coupon. "The CSR can use those strategies and [note] if a customer accepts or rejects that strategy," says CSG Product Manager Meri Christenson.

If a customer accepts it, the CSR can enter the request via the billing and work order system, entering in any appropriate marketing campaign codes.

CUSTOMER CARE MEETS THE WEB

While many tools have been created for the human CSR, MSOs are also adding the Web to their customer care options. No more apparent is this trend than it is at Cox Communications, which is using the Web to handle customer service and to support the MSO's sales processes.

Instead of outsourcing everything, Cox handles its Web efforts through an internal services unit that creates tools that feed off information fed by its billing vendor, Convergys.

Cox's e-care portal supports the MSO's bundle of video, voice and data services, but the biggest increase in traffic over the past year has come from the company's cable modem customers, says Suzanne Foy, director of e-care for the MSO's customer care unit.

In addition to demonstrating to customers how to use the service and how to set-up multiple e-mail accounts, Cox's HSD portal also offers a chat feature whereby the CSR and the customer can talk directly.

Taking things up another notch, the site, at the request of the customer, can enable the CSR to see and work within the subscriber's actual PC desktop–a feature that can hasten the diagnosis and resolution of HSD problems, Foy says.

For Cox, using the Web as an ordering tool has resulted in some anecdotal upshots in the service area. In some markets, upwards of 10 percent of Cox's RGU products (voice, video and data) are being ordered online, Foy says.

Another developing area in self-care is the IVR, or interactive voice response system. Although traditional IVRs require customers to navigate menus by pushing buttons on their touch-tone phones, developments in speech recognition technology could eventually change that.

Putting the IVR into a more conversational mode "gives it flexibility . . . and is less threatening and easier to use from the [customer's] perspective," says Champion of Convergys, which last year acquired a speech recognition company called iBasis Inc.

Some MSOs, despite seeing the potential of voice recognition for the IVR, aren't completely sold on it yet. Cox began looking at voice recognition technology about a year ago. "But the quality of the experience was questionable, so we've proceeded cautiously," Foy says. "We're still asking how it makes it a more attractive and friendly experience for our customers," she adds.

Despite all of the self-care tools becoming available to customers, the human CSR is here to stay, operators insist, noting that many customers will always want to speak to a live person in lieu of any electronic or Web-based options that might be available to them.

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