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Training Cable's Front Line

Mon, 07/31/2006 - 8:00pm
Brian Santo, Senior Editor

The secret to keeping customers is keeping customers satisfied. That's especially true of the ones who are unhappy, the ones who call with a problem. That means your first line of defense is manned by customer service reps, installers and repair technicians.

'Training Cable's Front Line'

And that historically has been one suspect front line. Among U.S. industries, cable has consistently ranked dead last when it comes to customer satisfaction–although in a recent survey by the American Society for Quality (ASQ), cable is close to overtaking the airline industry.

Think about that for a minute: MSOs lag a barely solvent group of companies that overcharge you for the privilege of being crammed in cans with wings that habitually take off 43 minutes late, offering as sustenance only a tiny bag with 11 lonely mini-pretzels and $5 half-pints of questionable cabernet sauvignon.

And that's the recipe for a bad reputation: bad customer service. In the business market, customer service is the leading contributor to customer satisfaction, although other considerations have nearly equal weight. But in the consumer market, customer service is by far and away the single biggest factor.

"In residential, it's all service–47 percent of the weight is associated with service," says Steve Kirkeby, J.D. Power & Associates' executive director of telecommunications and technology. And in cable, customer satisfaction correlates directly to churn, Kirkeby adds.

In other words, every MSO is staking both its reputation and its business success on the quality of its customer service representatives (CSRs), installers, and repair technicians.

The cable industry by all accounts is making tremendous progress in improving its customer care operations. Indicative of that progress are recent surveys from J.D. Power & Associates and SupportSoft, a service systems software specialist that works with operators from myriad industries, that show customers more satisfied with VoIP from cable operators than with telephone service from incumbent phone companies.

ACSI industry quality ratings
In terms of customer satisfaction, cable and DBS trail many other industries by a large margin.
Officials with the American Society for Quality (a partner in creating the index) say the reason the
cable industry lags is that it has only recently adopted quality programs the manufacturing
sector began implementing 20 to 30 years ago.

"In the past–and this is what cable used to get gigged on–was that we were the only game in town. We'd take our time. Now, with competition, we have to be better than, not equal to," says Johnny Brasell, vice president of customer service learning and development at Comcast University, the MSO's in-house training hub.

"Manufacturing companies have been under competition for 20 years. The service sector has just woken up to competition and is only now developing an awareness of what that means," adds Jack West, past president of the ASQ.

The manifestation of that awareness is the cable industry's adoption in only the last two or three years of the types of tools, training, techniques and especially attitudes developed in the manufacturing sector long ago.

Tools are readily accessible. Amdocs has its Convergence Solution for Cable (added with its purchase of DST Innovis); Convergys Corp. has its Integrated Communications Operations Management System (ICOMS) designed for the triple play; CSG Systems Corp. has multi-module solutions for customer care; and SupportSoft has a variety of products for automating customer care.

One of the newest trends in the last two or three years is automation in customer care products–chat, e-mail, self-help Web sites, and voice recognition. MSOs are coming to the realization that customer care cannot be an afterthought, but everyone is still painfully aware that customer care costs, and costs a lot. Hence the automation.

"We did self-service for BellSouth three years ago; it was new then," says Marc Itzkowitz, SupportSoft's director of product marketing. BellSouth encouraged people who had problems with its DSL service to visit its self-service Web site. BellSouth had 150,000 visits during a one-month period, and 40 percent of them resolved their issues on their own.

"That's 60,000 calls BellSouth service reps didn't have to answer," Itzkowitz notes.

Cable operators quickly saw the value of that, and many have implemented similar sites.

Convergys has had an automated speech platform the company's clients in the financial sector have been using successfully for quite some time. Cable has embraced automated speech only over the last few years, says David Lemasters, Convergys' VP of cable broadband.

Several companies now provide chat tools. Chat is all the rage, and it's easy to see why. Compared to voice response, the average chat time spent with a customer is approximately the same, and sometimes less, according to Itzkowitz. The big difference is the chat operator is able to handle multiple customers simultaneously.

Cox Communications uses SupportSoft's chat tool, called LiveAssist. Cox chat responders average anywhere between 1.7 and 2.3 customers at a time, Itzkowitz says. After the average rises to 2.5 simultaneously, however, there's a notable degradation in service.

If some customers go the automated self-help route, then that's all the better from a cost standpoint. But from an overall customer satisfaction perspective, it's important to give customers a choice of help channels.

"We want to be there in every way that people want to deal with us," says Keith Crandall, Cox's director of customer care operations. "We recently implemented a self-service voice recognition service for HSD (high-speed data); it works great. And we still have a small–very small–number of people who still like to come in to our counters."

More than tech required

Technology is only part of the equation. Customer reps, installers, and repairers need training to use those tools properly. That's why there has been renewed focus on CSR training. Some operators, like Cox, do their own training. Others rely on third parties like Convergys and Jones NCTI, among others.

"Training in general is becoming more professional," says Alan Babcock, chief learning officer for Colorado-based broadband training firm Jones NCTI. "Twenty-five years ago, tech training was conducted in someone's garage. Today, trainers are not only trained in technology, they're also trained in the latest training methods."

CSR training now includes sophisticated simulations. In some cases, new hires are put on the phones more quickly than before, working in tandem with mentors. Learning is now a continuous process.

Comcast U., for example, designed a training program with 40 to 50 computer-based modules; the company was in the process of inaugurating the approach with the first set of trainees in mid-July. Modules could be used for learning or reinforcement on an agent's desktop.

"If a product review takes only four or five minutes, why take an agent off the floor for that, and maybe let calls back up in the queue?," Brasell asks.

Another CSR trend is toward universal agents–agents who can speak knowledgeably about all the elements in a bundle. Comcast says its intent is to put a great deal of information into agents' hands, which allows them to be able to not only help support customers, but to sell services, too. Jones NCTI encourages operators to develop a sales culture with CSRs.

A profound aggravation for consumers is getting inconsistent instructions. So customer care operators and technical operators are more frequently getting cross training.

"We make sure our service training is consistent between our tech force and our call force," says Comcast's Brasell. "If someone calls, the CSR does with their voice what a technician does in their home with his hands."

Part of the evolution is to systematize the entire process, from training to the calls themselves.

Jones NCTI, for example, has a product called LogiCALL which provides CSRs with a sophisticated decision tree. If a CSR follows an appropriate sequence of questions, he or she can sometimes determine whether a truck roll will be necessary or not in less than a minute, the company claims.

"You get your best CSRs, and they'll sometimes stay on the phone for 10, 15, 20 minutes. If they'd asked the right questions, they might be on the phone for 30 seconds," says Babcock. And if a truck roll is necessary, the amount of time the service call takes is reduced because the CSR has already asked the relevant questions and has communicated that information to the technician.

"Adelphia has saved millions and millions of dollars with this," Babcock says.

The point isn't to do it fast. "The focus should be on getting it done fast right," says Comcast's Brasell.

"When field techs are incented on how many installs they do a day, that's incentive to crank, and if there are problems–let the CSR deal with it," notes SupportSoft's Itzkowitz. "If the CSR is measured on average handle time, they're going to say 'screw that,' and send a technician to fix it. That all just leads to more truck rolls."

"You want to minimize total time to resolution, not minimize each of the buckets," he adds. "It should be okay to add 10 minutes to an install to avoid spending hours later on the phone or with truck rolls. And if a CSR spends 10 minutes more to avoid a truck roll, that's worth it."

Itzkowitz says SupportSoft had one customer that added somewhere between two and three minutes per truck roll and reduced total truck rolls by 14 percent.

SupportSoft also developed tools and procedures that make sure CSRs and installers use the tools they have, and use them correctly. Fifty percent of the time when the technician left after a video install, there was something out of spec, says Itzkowitz. Not all of those installs resulted in a problem, but a problem is more likely.

Before an installer leaves (or before a CSR rings off on a phone call), there should be verification the service is working and working correctly. Itzkowitz says Time Warner Cable uses this in some of its regions, and Charter Communications does it company-wide for its high-speed data service.

Becoming systematic about customer service is one of two keys to customer service. "You can't fly by the seat of your pants. You have to have a system," says Comcast's Brasell.

Other U.S. companies have long since adopted performance standards associated with the Baldridge National Quality Program, Six Sigma, and Lean.

Comcast, for example, is applying a system called Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation (ADDIE), a model that instructional designers and training developers have used with success. "It may not be Baldridge or Six Sigma, but you have to start by putting a quality structure into place," Brasell says.

Lemasters notes that Convergys tries to take its experiences with customers in other sectors and advise cable customers on some best practices, including some derived from quality standards programs. He said none of its cable customers has selected any of the formal standards programs, "but they all have customer initiatives. They're all taking a lot more pro-active approach, and that will bode well for cable. Cable is taking this seriously."

The other key to successful customer service is that it become a legitimate management priority.

"Management buy-in is still developing, but it's more obvious than it was even three years ago," says Jones NCTI's Babcock. "We're working with a couple of major MSOs to help develop that. Five years ago a lot of managers were giving lip service about it. But now there's pretty wide recognition that if managers don't take care of supervisors, supervisors won't take care of CSRs, and CSRs won't take care of customers."

The upshot is that no one can allow customer service to be an afterthought, and given cable's late start, improvement had better be in every cable operator's business plans.

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