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After February 17, the call deluge

Thu, 07/31/2008 - 8:35pm
Traci Patterson,Web/News Editor

MSOs prepare for viewer activity after the digital TV transition

The switch to all-digital signals is only six months away. What happens if thousands of terrestrial-broadcast viewers switch to pay TV? Are MSOs prepared if millions do?

There could very well be a tremendous – but temporary – spike in demand for services on February 18. Convergys is letting cable operators know that the company can help, not so much with the technology aspect, but with providing the capability for operators to acquire new subscribers, and with simply keeping customers informed and content.

About 40 million U.S. households will be affected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)-mandated digital transition, set for Feb. 17, 2009, when broadcasters will no longer be able to send out analog signals. Approximately four million of these households will turn to cable companies for new service, and about three million of these households will expand their current service, according to Convergys’ calculations.

Figure 1: Projected increased call volume
Figure 1: Projected increased call volume due to digital TV conversion.

And one of the biggest problems that cable operators face regarding the transition is additional call volumes, says Rick Baca, vice president of account management for cable and broadband at Convergys.

With consumers calling in with questions and concerns about the conversion, cable operator call centers could be facing the equivalent of an extra month’s worth of calls, calculates Convergys, which provides outsourced customer care and billing services for nine of the 10 largest cable operators.

At first, cable operators did not anticipate having to field many calls from consumers regarding cable’s role in the conversion, Baca says, “but now they are expecting more confusion with the digital transition and digital conversion.”

There are indications that the digital transition may not go as smoothly as it could. There are still millions of consumers who have not yet applied for coupons for converter boxes for their TVs.

About 40 percent of those who asked for coupons have let them lapse, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) reported in June. Some people simply cannot find a retail outlet that provides the converter boxes, while others may be choosing, for unknown reasons, not to redeem the coupons.

Others expect that some viewers who install converter boxes may still not get proper reception if they don’t have appropriate antennas.

The developing situation points toward a sizable population of consumers who may be confused by, or disillusioned with, the process. Some may call MSOs out of a desire to finally sign up for pay TV (or get the benefits of a bundle), while others may end up calling cable operators because they can’t imagine who else to call with their questions.

In order to handle the influx of these confused customer calls, as well as to continue to serve the needs of current customers, Convergys says that cable operators need to build capacity in their call centers and improve their multichannel communications. In turn, this will allow the digital switch-over to serve as a unique opportunity for increased sales for cable operators, rather than as a source of widespread customer dissatisfaction.

The sales potential related to the conversion comes from the fact that down-converted analog signals on cable networks will be among the four to five potential solutions available to owners of televisions currently relying on analog over-the-air (OTA) signals, C onvergys says.

Even though the majority of the increased call volume will occur within a few weeks of Feb. 17, cable operators need to be prepared for the invasion, or else they risk clogged call queues, poor service levels and lost sales opportunities. Oh yeah, and unhappy customers.

The company is already helping some cable operators prepare for the conversion by building short-term expansion of call center capacity, developing technology solutions to analyze incoming calls for optimal routing, training customer service agents, and developing multichannel customer communications that take the burden off of the operator when it comes to informing customers and handling field inquiries regarding the transition.

Regarding the short-term expansion of call center capacity, Baca says, “Operators have so much capacity, they don’t want to build a brick and mortar, new center.”

Convergys can provide value-based call routing, whereby incoming calls could be prioritized and routed based on their potential for generation of new revenue or impacting the retention of high-value subscribers. To free-up capacity for such calls, Convergys suggests that operators should investigate alternative approaches, such as interactive voice response (IVR) deflection and call-backs, for handling other lower-value calls during periods of peak call volume.

The reason that Convergys is the man for the job, Baca says, is because of the company’s scale and worldwide reach. The company has centers located worldwide to do backoffice, non-voice work, and calls can be taken offshore if the operator so desires. Convergys can also send e-mails and enter orders offshore for operators.

“We can work around the clock,” he says. “In the Philippines, their night is our day.”

Of course, this is an opportunity for Convergys, too. The company hopes its customers – the MSOs – will keep relying on Convergys’ products and services after the transition is over.

At some point, obviously, the digital confusion and customer questions are going to diminish. But by offering more services to operators in niche areas, the operators will be more efficient to handle call volume centrally, Baca says.

There are a lot of studies and surveys circulating that emphasize the confusion that the digital transition is causing for TV viewers nationwide. According to a survey from Consumer Reports, released in January, 74 percent of consumers knew about the switch to all-digital signals, but those consumers had serious misconceptions about the impact.

The survey also found that more than one-third, or 36 percent, of citizens living in TV households were entirely unaware of theFCC’s mandate to phase out all-analog signals.

And in February, theNielsen Co. reported that more than 13 million households across the nation were not ready for the transition to all-digital signals. Those 13 million households had TV sets that can only receive analog signals, while another six million households had at least one TV that would no longer work once the analog signals cease.

But aside from all of the confusion and all of the reports about the confusion, the one thing that operators can be sure of is that this confusion will manifest in increased call volume, and that they need to be prepared in order to pass by February with flying colors in all aspects of the transition.

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