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Consider the business of commercial installations

Sat, 01/31/2009 - 7:40pm
Jim Barthold, Contributing Editor

Tougher customers, tougher guidelines face non-residential cable installs.

About a decade or so ago, Jim Carrey's "The Cable Guy" took a nasty swipe at the way cable installers do their jobs. While obviously fiction, the flick rankled the cable industry, which, some outsiders thought, was sticking its collective The business of commercial installations.head in the sand rather than face a customer service problem.

The movie, to be fair, would never have been made, and a chord would never have been struck, if there wasn't a smidgen of truth behind the silliness. Cable installers did not, and probably still do not, have the best reputation among strangers that people invite into their homes. While telephone techs were viewed, fairly or not, as professionals with crisp, clean outfits and white-gloved hands, cable installers were perceived as shirt tail out, tobacco-chewing, wall-drilling invaders who are only slightly more welcome than carpenter ants.

It's a tough persona to overcome in the residential space; it's impossible in the new commercial space, where business customers chew nails for breakfast and spit them at unwary installers who don't perform with Teutonic precision.

This touchy customer base is finding that cable telephony/data service is "not always cut-and-dried like it used to be with the phone companies," says Doug Marlowe, president of teachITnow, a Florida-based firm that develops instructional tools. "You hired any phone company, and you'd get a pretty good technician to come in and know what they're doing. The cable industry is not phone people."

That generalization, of course, fairly raises the hackles of companies like Cox Communications and Cablevision Systems, both of which have long viewed themselves as phone companies the equal of any RBOC - from a services and, just as importantly, service perspective.

"If you look at the services we offer, you go from traditional DS-0 telephone, you add on voice and all the way through multiple wave division links that you'll sell to a larger enterprise," says Glenn Calafati, director of product development for Cablevision's Optimum Lightpath, sounding very much like a Bellhead. "The area of expertise is pretty broad."

Pete Collegio
Collegio

SOMEBODY ELSE'S PROBLEM
A less-than-stellar installation crew, perhaps even staffed by contractors, is "probably more of an issue with some of the people who are less well established in commercial voice," says Charles Scarborough, director of product development for Cox Business Services.

Those people might do great installing high-speed data or residential VoIP but know next to nothing about firewalls and building codes, and they are not ready for fire-breathing business customers who count minutes as dollars.

"There are some growing pains here. What I've seen so far is the business install is just a scaled-up version of the home install, [and] for the most part it's not done correctly, not done the way telephony has been installed in commercial buildings over the last 100 years. There's a lot of room to grow, a lot of room to understand that and to accept the existing standards for installing telephony," says Pete Collegio, director of instructional design for Jones/NCTI.

Collegio has been handed the responsibility for steering Jones/NCTI's commercial instructional course for cable staff techs and, especially, outside contractors. Contractors, especially, frequently get a bad rep, so they need the reinforced training so that they are more than prepared before setting foot in a commercial establishment.

Neil Sullivan
Sullivan

SLOPPY WORK
"For ages, contractors have told cable operators that they have a trained workforce only to find out that some guys are doing sloppy work, and [operators] have to go out and do service calls," says Neil Sullivan, vice president of business development at Jones/NCTI. "In a non-competitive environment, you can get away with some things, but certainly in a competitive environment it becomes much more critical that it's done right the first time."

Jones/NCTI and other training organizations are, therefore, working with both cable operators and the outside contractors those operators use to make certain that things are, in fact, done right the first time. Jones/NCTI, for example, has already run 23,000 contractors through its program for both residential and commercial work, "and it's really made an impact on their quality of work," Sullivan says.

Commercial services, everyone agrees, present both a new challenge and a great financial opportunity for the cable industry. Cable is stepping up to meet the telco competition on its business turf, just as the telcos are invading cable homes, and to do it right means shoring up and tightening up both ends of the cable.

John Donahue, a former Comcast executive who formed a contracting firm, ProCom Services, knows both sides of the equation. As a first step, his crew is trained internally and externally in the nuances of residential installation through programs like Jones/NCTI's. But ProCom, he said, was formed with Comcast's blessing "to make sure we were well positioned to get into the commercial realm that was coming."

As a Comcast-approved national contractor, ProCom's contractors work mostly in small- to medium-size business (SMB) installations and service, and even there "we absolutely require additional training" beyond residential, Donahue says. "They have to be triple-play certified on the residential side, as well as demonstrate excellent customer relation skills, and then we'll add the training that goes with the commercial on top of that. Once they're commercial-certified, they can go back and forth."

Jones/NCTI workbook targets SMBs
A sample from the Jones/NCTI workbook targets SMBs.

Donahue knows it's important to train contractors until all the intricacies and nuances of a commercial installation become second nature.

"People think you can take a good residential installer and say, 'Go do a commercial.' I would disagree. They need additional training," he says.

INSIDE AND OUT
Most operators use both outside training organizations and inside programs to educate their field technicians. Some rely more heavily on folks like Jones/NCTI, which is using telco veteran Collegio to push a commercial program.

Most recently, even the most telco-centric of all training organizations, BICSI, has gotten into the act. Richard Dunfee, director of professional development at BICSI, estimates that "15 to 20 percent of our students in our classes these days are people from the cable industry."

That's a high percentage of non-telco students for an organization noted for hammering home the very basic tenets of a standardized, organized and, often, boringly repetitive phone industry.

"They come into our classes, and by the time they leave, their heads are spinning and they're taking Bufferin tablets, but they're very excited about it," Dunfee says. "They have a lot to learn; there's no question about it."

Installers, whether cable employees or contractors, must know how to properly interpret the National Electric Code (NEC) for communications cables, and must know which article to apply to voice and cable TV. In short, a commercial installation is more than drilling a hole, vacuuming the dust and running a cable.

on-premises telecommunications installations
Demonstrating proper techniques of on-
premises telecommunications installations.
commercial installation site
Working within a commercial installation site.

Photos courtesy of
Jones/NCTI's SMB installation course.

"There's a big difference there … in the way the cables are protected when they enter the premises," Collegio says.

The Jones/NCTI program "hopefully provides some kind of standard that the industry can look to for training their people and having that training accommodate a lot of MSOs, contractors, whatever, as the practice they should be using," Sullivan says.

It's certainly a step in the right direction - or at least a progression - for a cable industry that has always focused on the home and how best to deliver residential services through organizations like the SCTE, which, so far, isn't getting too involved with commercial matters.

"We talk about a business services installer, if there is such a term, and that's something [Jones/NCTI is] already addressing. We don't need to be there," says Marv Nelson, vice president of professional development for the SCTE.

WATCHING THE WIRES
There is such a term, says Marlowe, and it covers someone who can "understand wiring, where the wiring ends, where it starts, who owns the wiring, the building owner or the telephone company? We're getting into a business where a company's lifeline and reliability is huge," he says.

On the surface, it may not be clear whether Marlowe is talking about the customer or the service provider when he talks about reliability. Under the surface, it is obvious: It's both. If cable can't "deliver dial tone, the impact of our inability to perform is huge and could be detrimental to the business."

That message seems to be getting through to the cable guys' bosses, who, even in tough economic times, don't seem to be pulling back on giving their installers the right training to focus on a new customer base.

"I don't see that any cable company would take a residential contractor and throw them into commercial installations," says Cox's Scarborough. "That can't happen because the installation is just too different. They have to have a superset of training in order to do that."

And they have to pay for that additional training, even if the economy is as sour as an unripe lemon, because when it comes to commercial services, "the value that they add is service, and to the extent that their technicians and call center people and people who handle billing do the job well, the consumer is going to probably make a decision on which company to go to," Sullivan says.

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