High-speed data-over-cable. Telephony. Digital video and interactive TV. These are the new buzzwords of the '90s as cable network operators rush to take advantage of their high-bandwidth networks by deploying new, feature rich services in their drive to derive more revenues from their customers.
The hardware side of the house, which has had problems keeping up with it all, is nearing the point when it can offer interoperable modems and set-tops, creating ever-more demand for service deployments. From DOCSIS-compliant modems to retail availability by the Christmas selling season, it appears that the industry's installers will be as busy as they were during the halcyon franchising days.
With all this whiz-bang technology about to manifest itself, it's easy to forget a crucial part of the revenue equation: the installation process. Technology has been installed in the home to enable these services, and the features have to be explained to the customer to ensure he's satisfied. But it has to be done quickly and accurately. That takes time, money . . . and loads of training.
Given the industry's past lackluster reputation in the whole area of customer contact, education and service, operators have their work cut out for them. According to David Gibbs, executive vice president for business development at HSAnet, it's not so much that the new technologies may trip up operators, it's whether they can make that connection of trust with the customer. "Up until now," says Gibbs, "the installer went in and plugged in a one-way service. It wasn't interactive in any way, shape or form. And further, it was an extremely simple process.
"But now, operators are getting into somebody's personal, and there's a reason they call it a personal, computer, with all kinds of detailed information on it. The challenge for operators is to train their people well enough that customers are comfortable with cable personnel and confident that they know what they're talking about."Slow down, you're moving too . . .
The familiar lament of the '90s, that everything is moving too fast, certainly applies to the cable industry. Operators are rushing to deploy new technologies to generate new revenues. As a result, they often find themselves training their front-line personnel as they're rushing out the door on another new service truck-roll.
Cox Communications is one of the industry's leaders when it comes to launching new services like high-speed data, telephony and digital TV. But, while it often finds itself on the cutting edge of technology, like other operators, it finds itself playing catch-up when it comes to getting personnel trained to install these fast-developing technologies. Not too surprisingly, it seems to be the nature of the beast during these breakneck times.
"We started putting the training materials together nine to 12 months prior to the launch," says Mike Dyer, director of communications at Cox, speaking about the company's multi-service launch in Orange County, Calif. "But we didn't get them together. We were still putting them together when we launched.
"Part of that is because the vendors don't have a lot of the equipment, for example, like the set-tops for digital TV. They were still playing with that product as we're getting right up to launch date. So, even though we had a pretty good lead time on some things, like residential digital telephony, you need to start working nine to 12 months out in terms of what you think your (training) needs are going to be. But until you get closer to the launch, and you get vendor-specific information on the products you're using, you're kind of fine-tuning it right up to the end."
Dyer also notes that getting installers and technicians trained is really only half the battle when it comes to getting new services in the home. What is (or is not) backing up that installer can have a measurable impact on installation time and economics. "We were the first in the industry, in Orange County, to launch high-speed data, digital TV and residential digital telephone in one market. But the things that play into that are the methods and procedures you need to support your products and your field personnel, like your billing, your installation processes, and your orders to connect. We were re-doing all those right up to the last minute."Changing roles
It's certainly no surprise that new service launches are changing traditional job functions all the way from the installer to the headend tech to the vice president of engineering. While jobs inside the headend and the administration office are undergoing vast changes, it's the "lowly" (a descriptive term that won't be used much longer) installer or field technician who's undergoing one of the most fundamental changes.
The person who used to just run cable, make the connections and drop off a box is now the industry's front-line ambassador of goodwill and customer education. That person is having to learn and assimilate new technologies that were barely on the revenue radar just a few years ago.
Mark Enter, who directs Scientific-Atlanta's training arm, the S-A Institute, says these front-line people are having to learn new skill sets in order to be successful. "They need significant customer care-type training," says Enter. "And it has to be more than the typical customer care training. They may be in a customer's house for an hour. They may be there for two hours. They may be crawling around in their attic, basement or bedroom. They're going to be all over that house, and they need to know how to react in various situations.
"Number two, they need the capabilities of using higher levels of test equipment. The capabilities of troubleshooting communication protocols is much more significant now.
"Obviously, they also need to be much more product knowledgeable. The products today require a significant amount of training. You just can't hand an installer a couple of manuals on these boxes and expect them to walk away and start installing. It's very intricate."
George Simon, vice president of training and education at TCI Communications Inc., concurs that customer service skills are absolutely vital in today's increasingly competitive environment. "To be honest," explains Simon, "it should have been that way all along. We should have had installers who were paying more attention to customer needs. It's even more important today.
"When you introduce a new product into the marketplace, whether it's digital or anything else, the salesperson, for one, has to spend a little more time explaining to the customer exactly what they're buying so that they can get full value, or at least perceived value, from it. And our installers are doing the same thing in making sure our customers really understand the enhanced value that's brought to the table by our digital product.
"The better the job they do on the front end, the more satisfied the customer is going to be on the back end."Selling the customer
Customer service skills in today's market are quickly coming to mean selling skills as well. For some, that can be a stumbling block. Cox's Dyer says he's found that while most can adapt to this new role of selling, some can't. "I think they've (installers) been pretty adaptive to it as a whole," says Dyer. "You know, you're certainly going to have some resistors. There is always going to be the 10 percent who will say this isn't what they signed up for. They don't care about selling or cross-selling.
"So, those folks have to decide whether they want to learn new things and adapt, or go look for something else that they can't get at Cox. But, by and large, the majority of our people, that other 90 percent, have responded really well to this."
Dyer says this new selling role for installers and technicians is not something that can be forced on staff members. It has to be explained logically, and it has to be rewarded appropriately.
"I think it's really important in terms of how it's set up," explains Dyer. "It has to be communicated clearly to these folks as to why it's necessary to do this. It has to be explained in terms of a business and how we raise revenues, and how we survive in a highly competitive environment. They have to realize that we have to maximize every one of our customer contact points. And these guys are out there with the customers every day, so they have a great opportunity.
"You have to let them know why it's important. Then you have to make sure all the systems are in place to reward and recognize those behaviors they show. So, not only do we want high-quality installs, but we want them to utilize cross-selling skills and customer service skills. There are incentives for them on all three fronts."
Dyer also likes to point out that the skills he's talking about are far removed from the harangue-them-into-submission tactics that many equate with sales efforts. "We have a program called the Field Service Rep in Charge of Sales Program. And we position sales as part of the customer service cycle. So, if they're really giving a person good customer service, if that customer has a need, the field rep will address that need.
"So our people do more of what I'd call a soft sell. It's not aggressive, in-your-face telemarketing sales. For example, they're in the house and they see a computer, so they'll bring up Cox's high-speed data service. They'll leave them sales materials, because we keep them well-stocked with all that information. And they'll have pricing information as well."The unitech solution
New technologies. New responsibilities. New job titles. For many operators, taking someone who has been a good analog cable installer doesn't necessarily mean they'll be someone who can handle a modem install or a telephone install. During this time of transition, as operators rebuild systems and ramp up new services, there's a role for both the up-and-coming techs and the rock-solid analog installers.
Reg Griffin, director of communications for MediaOne's Atlanta region, says it's been a big change for everyone involved in their launch of HFC telephony to about 1,000 homes in DeKalb County, Ga. Like other operators, they've taken advantage of the talent on hand to create what some call multi-purpose techs or "unitechs:" technicians or installers who can do it all.
"Generally, in cable, we have three levels of folks," says Griffin. "You have the installer, which is sort of an entry-level position. Then they move into the role of a service tech, which is someone who troubleshoots a little more and generally covers the tap to the home. And then you have the line tech who knows the main trunk lines of the network and the plant."
Over the years, as new technology has emerged, job titles have changed, too. "With so much fiber in the plant, we have what we call fiber techs who work strictly on fiber optic lines," continues Griffin. "Now we have what are called broadband technicians. These are folks who are multi-purpose technicians who can do not only cable, but telephony and high-speed data."
With ongoing reviews and evaluations, MediaOne technical staff are usually able to pick out those installers, service techs or fiber techs who are interested in becoming a man-for-all-installs. Griffin says the training is very concentrated and contains heavy emphasis on hands-on experience with the new install regimens.
"We try to do as much hands-on training as possible," says Griffin. "We really want to get them out in the field to see the stuff. But first, they do a two-day intensive class where we bring them in and actually explain all the principles of telephony and the differences between our product and POTS (plain old telephone service).
"Then we put a lot of emphasis on hands-on experience. In fact, we're actually building something like a mini house as part of our training set-up. That's where we can actually show technicians what it's like to go into a simulated broadband home. They can get the feel for an NIU (network interface unit) and how it will go to the telephone connections and cable outlets in the home. They get the experience of putting in a modem as well.
"We also put them with the more experienced technicians and let them go out on calls. They do a lot of that. We like to get them out as soon as we can for this type of training. By the same token, we want to make sure they feel comfortable with it. After they have gone on several calls and walked through several different scenarios, they feel pretty confident."
Griffin says the way the telephone service is rolling out is also proving to be advantageous for the new unitechs. As the rebuild of their system is completed, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, telephone service is sold and installed literally door-to-door.
"Because this is literally going neighborhood-by-neighborhood," says Griffin, "we found there is a lot of backup support for these (new) guys from the more experienced guys who are out there in the same area. With this incremental roll-out, they have the time to do it.
"When you're doing cable with 540,000 customers, people are running left and right. You don't have that luxury. But with a new service like this, the way it's launching, we've got that advantage."Training tactics
With a larger, more far reaching roll-out of a new service, different training tactics may have to be employed. TCI's Simon says they've had success with a two-pronged approach in training personnel for the company's ambitious digital TV deployment.
"What we did, and still do, but not as much as we did during initial launch phase," says Simon, "is bring the employees to our regional training centers and train them en masse. At these centers, we pull employees in from various systems in the region. Our target, since we have many more employees than we do trainers, was to train at least 20 percent of our employee base through classroom presentations, and 80 percent through self-pacing with a facilitator.
"The difference is that with the instructor-led teaching environment, the instructor walks the employee all the way through the whole training experience. With the self-paced training environment, there's a facilitator who supports the employee's completion of the training outside of the classroom.
"Each facilitator has a number of employees they're responsible for managing. We're looking at a 20-to-1 ratio in this environment."
Simon says the facilitator is located in the same system as the employee who's undergoing training. The facilitator's role at any particular time is determined by the training module the employee is involved with. The facilitators are also charged with evaluating hands-on training.
"The hands-on components, such as demonstrating the use of the remote control, the hookup of the DCT (set-top) in the customer's home or the simulation of a hookup, are observed and evaluated one-on-one by the facilitator. But as far as the actual textbook learning, if you will, that's by the individual alone," says Simon.
Cross training is also a goal at Cox Communications, according to Dyer. "Our strategy in any of our markets," he says, "is that at the end of the day, we would have a large group of installers who can install across products. To get full utilization and productivity out of our existing group of people, the more we can cross train them, the better."
As far as the company's multi-service rollout in Orange County goes, Dyer estimates they have at least 30 to 40 percent of their installers cross-trained in at least two products. He also says both he and other company officials have been genuinely surprised at how well existing staff have made the changeover to multi-service installs.
"The experience we've had with our installers has been way beyond expectations," says Dyer. "Our folks have responded really well to the challenge of adding new services. And I think initially, we might have underestimated the capability of our internal people to be able to install some of these products.
"For example, on the high-speed data product and the modem hookup. In addition to opening up the back of the computer and installing software and stuff like that, we initially thought we were going to have to use one of our guys to come out and maybe do the modem hookup, which is really the no-brainer part of it. And then we thought we would have to contract with someone like CompUSA to bring one of their people along to do the software installation piece.
"We found out our guys can do the software installation piece, too, with a little training. There's really not a whole lot of magic to all of this. And if they have a little bit of technical competency, know-how and a willingness to learn, boy, they can go out there and do it. So, we've gone from two-people installs, in some of our initial markets where it's rolled out, to a one-person Cox install."
But enthusiasm has its limits, says Dyer. The operator's core video business still takes the lion's share of attention and care. And he and his peers have found they need to temper a mania that seems to attract those who are anxious to be part of the new service install wave.
"The new services are the sexy stuff," states Dyer. "If a guy has been doing basic cable installs for a long time, they're biting at the bit to get out there and do the new stuff.
"The challenge for us is to maintain our core video business, where the bulk of our work and demand still are. Then, we should address cross training people so as the number of subs starts to rise for these new products, we have enough installers trained to meet demand.
"I think they want to do it faster than we probably can accommodate it right now. The people are really motivated and highly enthusiastic about it. They just can't wait. Even the markets we haven't launched in can't wait to get it."Lessons learned
While experience may be the best teacher, the knowledge one learns, especially in an industry like cable, doesn't do a whole lot of good if no one knows about it. Several operators have taken this to heart and developed sophisticated networks to spread the word when something worthwhile has been learned in the field.
Dyer notes that his company's experience with early adopters and digital TV installs is a perfect example of learning on the job. "When you do the initial launch, the high-end users are the ones who want digital TV hooked up right away," says Dyer. "These are the guys who usually have very complex entertainment systems.
"In fact, I went out on an install in Orange County and we were there for four hours! But three of those hours were really working with the customer to get his sophisticated entertainment system going. And our guys won't leave until they get it done. I mean they're there to fix it.
"With a lot of these early adopters, it's like you're going through a learning process. Everytime you go out, you run into something new because there are so many ways to hook up an entertainment system. You can't provide a simulated training environment back in the training center that can tell all the different situations you're going to run into."
Whether it's a digital TV install, a cable modem or hooking up a telephone, Cox installers have become walking libraries of useful information that will save time and money on future installs. Dyer says Cox has instituted several methods to make sure that knowledge is passed along.
At the system, this is typically done daily, usually at the beginning of the day or the shift. The system shares that information with the learning center, and it's integrated right away in Cox's training material.
Dyer says they've also taken some high-tech steps to share information from system to system. "We have some public folders set up on our intranet. Those public folders are the responsibility of the operations people, who go in there and keep them up-to-date.
"We also have a 'product champion' in Atlanta for each one of the products we sell. They have weekly phone calls with every system that's launching a particular product. They talk about what's going on and what they've learned and what they're doing differently. They gather the information and disseminate it, also in the public file, and they facilitate regular conference calls, as well.
"That's how we try to pull it all together. When we need to, we'll do a video conference call with participants. We're pretty good at trying to insure that we're sharing that information as quickly as possible."
TCI's Simon says his company has a similar dissemination plan. "TCI has its own intranet that every system has access to, and all our trainers do as well," says Simon. "So, when we update content, we merely put it on our server and provide a notice to our field organizations that the content for a particular (training) module has been updated. They pull it off the server and have the material right there for incorporation into their current lesson plans. That's a pretty efficient and quick way to make sure everyone has the most accurate information."Success breeds success
Both vendors and operators alike are spending a lot of time and money on developing effective, yet flexible, training programs. As deployments increase, more information is being compiled to make these programs even more effective.
Dyer notes that Cox's experience has paid off already by generating interest in their training experience from both vendors and operators alike. "We're really proud of what we're doing," says Dyer. "Some other cable companies are buying some of the training products we've developed. We've had a lot of inquiries in terms of the training we developed around our high-speed data product.
"In fact, the vendor even wants some of the training we've developed. But we haven't let it out yet. We're going to start marketing it once it's fully developed.
"We also want to have it available over the Internet. We've got a big initiative here, called Cox University, to develop our virtual university with more of the learning being done via the 'Net and available at the desktop. We'll be activating that by the end of June."
When it comes to installing new services quickly and economically, information is the key to success as far as Cox is concerned, says Dyer.
"The whole name of the game is getting information to your people in a timely manner. Because if you get them the information, they'll do the job for you.
"If the working environment is there, if the compensation is there, if the recognition is there; if they have all that and you've done some training, and you can get them all the data they need, boy, they can knock your socks off with what they can do."