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Going out but not overseas

Mon, 05/31/2004 - 8:00pm
Karen Brown, Senior Editor


The next time you call up a cable operator, the customer service representative who answers probably won't be sitting at a desk in Bangalore, India. But he or she may have spent more time in the classroom than ever before.

Unlike other sectors of the U.S. economy, the cable industry doesn't appear to be outsourcing much of its customer care services overseas. But with competition fierce and the complexity of cable services high, they are demanding more out of the outsourcing partners they tap, requiring a higher level of training for customer care and field installers.

In the field, companies that supply contract installers now have to keep up with cable's diversification into more complex technologies such as Voice-over-IP. No longer is the installer just "the cable guy"–now he has to be the data and voice guy as well.

C. Scott Hisey
C. Scott Hisey of GFC
says field technicians must
be technically proficient.
"There is a trend right now where our customers demand a higher caliber technician and a greater degree of customer service offered in the installation experience," says C. Scott Hisey, chief operating officer at Conshohocken, Pa.-based General Fiber Communications Inc., which provides contract installers in several markets throughout the U.S.

The need for greater technician expertise prompted GFC to establish its own training program for not only new installers, but also for its veteran field technicians. GFC relies in part on the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' (SCTE's) certification programs to supply the technical expertise.

"We certify our technicians to that program, as do most of the MSOs," Hisey says. "The SCTE platform is adopted by GFC and most of the larger contractors because it mirrors the MSO standards."

That demand for increased training among installation contractors is showing up in SCTE's training sessions, according to Joel Welch, the association's director of certification and program development.

"There are actually a couple (of contractors) across the country that require their technicians to become certified," Welch says. "Sometimes it is a requirement of the operator that they are working for, and other times, it's more just quality assurance and concern internal to the organization."

They also are looking to stay up to speed on the newer service offerings, particularly IP telephony. "With Voice-over-IP, it's another area where I've seen a number of installation and networking organizations attend that training, because they recognize it as something that either will be added to the job that they are already doing for an operator, or they want to get into the cable environment from some place else–like data networking, for example," Welch notes.

But it isn't just technical know-how they're receiving. GFC also adds a fair amount of customer service skills training to the mix, given that they are now expected to teach new subscribers how to use more complex services.

"What's more important is that they have customer service skills so they can teach the customer how to extract the value out of the new service," Hisey says. "Because if a customer is uncomfortable with the new service that they've received, and therefore they don't use it, then the revenue is not going to come in."

All of this comes at a time when the installation contractor sector is going through a consolidation phase. GFC itself has already acquired seven other installation companies in the past 16 months, and Hisey thinks the trend will actually benefit cable operators.

"I think that as a whole, as the contractors begin to consolidate, and there are larger, well-funded companies...that the trend will continue to move toward outsourcing," he says. "We have to be able to offer a service that is consistent with the in-house program to make it a value-add to the MSO."

Cable operators also are turning to network systems support from other outfits. That has proven to be a bread-and butter business for Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s SciCare Broadband Services, the company's design, installation and management service bureau.

There, too, the increasing complexity of cable systems is prompting MSOs to turn to outside sources for network support and service.

"Clearly, we have been outsourcing for a number of years," says Larry Bradner, SciCare's president. "It seems with the increasing level of complexity in service offerings that they are offering out there today, they are probably a little bit more interested in attracting subject matter expertise to supplement or complement what they are good at."

SciCare's network support operation consists of a large, Atlanta-based staff of technicians available to MSOs around the clock, providing support for virtually all of S-A's 250 installed digital systems, and some analog systems as well. Bradner says cable operators are looking to SciCare for technical support more and more.

"It's clearly increasing, no doubt about it," he says.

At present, SciCare's service is limited to helping MSOs with day-to-day technical issues, but the next logical step is to develop operations support systems and tools to take over running the network system directly, Bradner says. S-A has already begun this work, recently forging a partnership with SupportSoft to build a video support automation suite. That product is in two trials now.

"If you are going to do that, you've got to go in with a far more efficient model than they've got or else they'll never give it to you," Bradner notes. "And the best we can do is to develop these types of tools, develop an understanding of how they impact the operations, use the consulting expertise and then we're able to go in with an offering that says: 'Hey, I can do this for the same or less than what you are doing it for, and even with that, I can give you enhanced quality, and I'll be able to make money on the deal.'"

SciCare could also extend that model to include call centers, Bradner says. It already has a small operation that provides customer service call support for its retail cable modem sales, and it has considered adding a larger call center service based on that experience, Bradner says.

For the companies already providing outsourced call center services, there also is increased demand that their CSRs beef up the technical expertise.

Cox Customer Care
Cox emphasizes
customer care.
Take the relationship Cox Commun-ications Inc. has with Sitel Corp., which provides customer service assistance, mostly handling overflow if a Cox call center goes offline because of weather or a natural disaster. As with many contract installers, Sitel's customer care representatives go through the same quality monitoring that Cox uses on its own call center representatives.

"We have our own employees who are on site at their call centers managing the program as well," says Steve Klahn, Cox's manager of business operations.

Still, Cox prefers to have the bulk of its customer calls handled by its own employees. The MSO's overall philosophy is to use the outsourced call center to help keep its own call centers staffed at the lowest level possible. In that way, Cox is staffing not to handle peak or emergency periods, but rather more toward the normal call load.

That probably costs Cox more than if it outsourced more of its call center operations, but "it's worth it for the quality," Klahn says.

"You are closer to them to manage that quality. Although we don't have any less of an expectation from the outsourcer than we do ourselves, it is a little more of a comfort level with our internal CSRs," he adds.

Nor does the prospect for moving CSR operations to India appeal to Cox, which has a long-standing philosophy of keeping call centers relatively local to the systems they serve. For example, Cox has approximately 2,200 employees in San Diego County alone. So taking operations overseas is "not in the cards," Klahn says.

Curt Champion
Champion
Convergys Corp., which has a significant call center business, does see more cable operators turning to outsourcing for products such as high-speed data and telephony, says Curt Champion, Convergys' senior director of marketing. One of its major clients is Comcast Corp., and it operates the MSO's call centers for telephony and high-speed data services.

But so far, that has not included much interest in offshoring–sending customer care to cheaper, overseas call centers. While Convergys does have call centers in India and overseas, the vast majority are in the United States, Champion notes.

Convergys’ outsourcing center
Convergys’ Orlando outsourcing
center answers cable calls.
Some cable operators are still taking baby steps with CSR outsourcing, he adds. "These are companies that are just now really starting to outsource. They tend to have that very local presence, so they're just looking at alternatives to assist them with call center consolidations, really allowing them to leverage scale, enhance their training, introduce technology."

There is a political element involved as well. Cable operators often distinguish themselves from their nationwide satellite competitors by emphasizing their local ties, so outsourcing call service operations–particularly overseas–would be contradictory.

"What's tough about outsourcing is, quietly, our outsourcing in the cable market has grown very fast, because companies have found that it does help them come to market quicker," Champion notes. "It does help them introduce new technologies faster and cheaper, but nobody wants to announce that they are closing down call centers and outsourcing it to another company–because politically, when you are a local company, that's a difficult proposition."

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