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A Cure For The Installer Blues

Mon, 03/31/2008 - 8:30pm
Traci Patterson, Web/News Editor

MSOs improve customer service with Jones/NCTI’s Qualified Contractor Program

Cable operators have been striving to fix their collective reputation for miserable customer service, but they have a limited ability to do anything about installations performed by contractors. Now there’s a way – a formal program for training contract installers that’s been proven out by two large MSOs.

Installers are often the only human representatives of a cable company most cable customers will ever meet, so having installers make a good impression can be critical. Cable operators have wrestled with the dilemma of how to encourage, or even require, their contracting companies to provide accurate and measurable training for contractors, to ensure that those contractors know what they’re doing when entering consumers’ homes.

In early 2007, Charter Communications and Comcast approached Jones/NCTI about the issue at the same time that the company was pondering a solution for the problem. And when Jones/NCTI approached contracting firms regarding the issue, those firms proved receptive to providing training for their employees.

“All the stars aligned at the same time, and things just came together,” says Alan Babcock, chief learning officer (CLO) of Jones/NCTI.

By mid-year 2007, Jones/NCTI had crafted its cable operator-specific Qualified Contractor Program, and in the fall it launched the program with both Charter and Comcast.

Qualified Contractor Program Web page
Jones/NCTI’s Qualified Contractor Program Web page.

The biggest benefit of the program is improved customer service, and good customer service is becoming critical in an environment of increased competition from alternative providers, Babcock says. And Charter’s John Heslip, VP of field operations for digital telephone, says that a better user experience, as well as highly skilled technicians, are the biggest benefits that Charter has seen.

In the past, Jones/NCTI had packaged its testing programs as one-size-fits-all, since at the time there was no movement, nor any interest, in changing the programs to custom fit what was going on in the industry. But, Babcock says, in the past eight or so years, Jones/NCTI has let MSOs know that the company is willing to change the programs and adjust to meet customer need to create custom training development.

With Jones/NCTI’s new Qualified Contractor Program, MSOs can set requirements for their contracting companies, providing them with a set of standards that need to be met by the contractors in order for the contractors to be certified in a specific area.

Charter “Charter-ized” the content so that it was not so generic, Heslip says, and most of the content is tailored to the MSO’s specific needs.

For Comcast, Jones/NCTI has created four different tests – one for core skills (which includes basic video installation skills), another for voice installation, one for data installation, and the last for the installation of business/commercial services.

Charter, at this time, is only testing on one line, and that is voice. But Jones/NCTI is in active discussions with the MSO for the other pieces, Babcock says.

As far as the actual testing goes, Jones/NCTI creates unique tests based on the competencies that an MSO wants to verify in the contractor workforce. The company then works with the MSO to define the most appropriate training resources, and/or to create new training if needed.

The training materials can be textbooks or online manuals, depending on the MSO’s preference.

Jones/NCTI can either provide instructors, or it can provide materials to sell to contracting companies if they have their own trainers. Some contractors have internal training organizations; also, Jones/NCTI is offering a Train-the-Trainer course to prepare trainers for delivering content to the thousands of contractors impacted by this program.

Performance Assessment Network Inc. (pan) offers the proctoring service for Jones/NCTI’s program. pan has about 1,200 supervised certification sites nationwide, making it easy for contractors to find a site nearby.

A contractor can go online to the pan Web site to set up a time for a particular test. The test is administered online, but it is done in the controlled environment of a pan center. MSOs can also proctor, if they prefer.

After contractors have completed their designated testing, they can print out individualized certificates. Jones/NCTI also keeps records of the certifications, and the company is looking into instituting a recognition program, where contractors would receive patches, or something similar, that they could wear on their uniforms.

Most of the MSOs that Jones/NCTI has talked to are willing, at least at the onset of the program, to provide some sort of financial relief to help contractors pay for the program. The length of time that MSOs are willing to contribute varies from three to six months, and after that the burden falls upon the contractors.

MSOs are realizing that it is in their best interest to help contractors achieve the desired qualifications in order to see improved service, Babcock says. “They’re willing to put their money where their mouth is, and that is really important for the initial success of the program.”
According to Heslip, Charter is paying for 100 percent of its contractors’ assessments.

The materials provided by Jones/NCTI are fairly inexpensive – less than $100 in most cases. If an MSO uses Jones/NCTI’s reference manuals for internal training, the manuals only cost about $50 a piece. But training courses can vary from $300 to $500 per course.

Right now, Jones/NCTI is looking at the opportunity for requiring recertification, and also at the ability to maintain a quality database of contractors who are able to work for more than one MSO based on their qualifications.

As for next-generation technologies, Jones/NCTI is watching them closely and deciding when it is appropriate to add new tests to its offering. Currently on the radar is commercial services, a business that could be seen as complex enough to require separate tests for data and voice.

And depending on where the industry goes with all-digital networks, this will also be a key piece of the puzzle, Babcock says, because even though voice, video and data are all digital offerings, they are delivered in an analog environment.

“As networks move toward all digital, we will see significant changes in the testing and training needed at that point,” Babcock says. “But depending on the MSO, that’s about five to ten years away.”

And in the future, Jones/NCTI wants to work with MSOs to collect service-call data, repeat service-call data and data regarding service calls for new installs.

“MSOs measure that anyway,” Babcock says. “But getting them to turn over that data to us, and figuring out how to publish it – that is where we’re at.”

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