It's a hot, muggy June afternoon in Milwaukee, and Joe Parise is on a ladder high above the street, trying to find out why the cable signal's weak. He's on a service call, generated as a result of a subscriber who called in saying her digital music service sounds weird. "It's got a nice beat, but you can't dance to it," she quips as Joe tunes through a few staccato-laced channels.

Earlier, while balanced on a milk crate in the basement, Joe found a symptom at the ground block–low signal level on the high frequencies. Now that he knows the problem, he's on the prowl looking for the cause, hoping it's isolated to this single home.

A few minutes later, after powering up his on-board laptop computer to find the nearest line extender on the system map, he's testing the output of the amplifier. It's weak here, too.

Joe Parise of Time Warner Cable 
in Milwaukee helps keep the sprawling system up and running.

Joe and his team of techs in Time Warner Cable's sprawling Milwaukee system are still dealing with the effects of a severe thunderstorm that rumbled through the area three nights earlier. The storm was nowhere near as bad as the one in 1998 that broke trees, snapped power poles and wreaked havoc in the system for nearly three weeks, but a few, spotty outages have kept the techs hopping, nonetheless.

As an area team tech leader, Joe's days are typically atypical. Unpredictable. Filled with surprises. It's his job to map out how the day's trouble calls will be handled by his team. It's his responsibility to roll up his sleeves and help fix problems.

So far today, Parise has replaced a broken remote that rattled like a maraca, calmly tracked down the cause of an inoperative digital set-top (it wasn't plugged in to the extension cord properly), and replaced an electronic A/B switch on the back of a General Instrument analog set-top that went bad–probably because of the storm.

Parise tests the return path.

Joe's a cable operator's dream. He loves his job, and it shows. He's even-tempered, eager to help, team-oriented, and actually listens to his customers. His friendly demeanor is non-threatening, and his clean-cut appearance leaves a solid impression with every Time Warner subscriber he comes in contact with.

"I lead by example," Parise notes. "Impression is the name of the game." To make the best impression, Parise takes a three-step approach when it comes to dealing with people: Listen to the customer, answer their questions and fix the problem. "This stuff isn't rocket science, but people are usually pretty happy once you get in there and fix it," he notes.

As the team's designated leader, Parise helps his charges in myriad ways. He provides advice and encouragement; presses them to excel; rides along occasionally to make sure their procedures are up to snuff; and helps clear the day's trouble tickets. He doesn't favor the heavy-handed approach, choosing instead to act as a team.

"I like being the quarterback," he notes. "I call the play, but I need the others to join the team, too. There's really no room for egos in this job. We need to work as a team, or it won't work at all."

Parise opens a tap, looking for the source of a problem.

He says he derives particular pleasure from clearing "open" appointments–those trouble calls that aren't scheduled within a specific two-hour window. "That way, people don't have to wait around for us all day. We can get in there, get the problem solved, and let those people get on with their day," he says.

"I tell my guys to give (our customers) good service–and if they do, even if there's competition, they'll stick with us."

Parise's vehicle even leaves a good impression. A ride-along guest, upon entering his cab, notices that it gleams from Armor-All. The floor's as clean as a dance floor at a junior high social. The cargo area is better organized than the FBI property room.

"This (van) is an extension of both me and the company," he explains. "This is all leased equipment–it's not mine. (Time Warner) provides me with all the tools I need in this war to provide service." That includes a well-equipped van, tools, clothing and test equipment. "They take good care of us. I try to let that show to my customers."

In the 16 years since Joe joined Viacom (Time Warner later acquired the system), he's been in the cable industry–all of it in Milwaukee. He spent his first 2.5 years as an installer; another 18 months in the construction division; and the balance has been occupied tracking down problems.

These days, with the system's upgrade to hybrid fiber/coax technology about 85 percent complete, most of the problems he encounters are a direct result of something that's gone wrong within the home, Joe says. People who insist on buying their own coax and splitters represent the lion's share of the network's problems. Anytime there are exposed wires on a set-top, for example, there's an invite to mayhem. "That makes things interesting," he notes.

That's why Joe's developed a routine at every stop he makes. First, there's a visual inspection. Then, he tests the integrity of the network: is there enough forward signal level hitting the set-top? Is the reverse signal getting through to the node? By doing those two simple tests, he can usually isolate the cause of almost any problem.

Joe's day started at 6:30 a.m. today at the system's Greenville office. First, he organized the day's scheduled service calls, doling them out to the other nine members of his team. He typically schedules about two per two-hour timeslot–anything more could overload his crew and force them to miss appointments. When that happens, the company has to credit $20 to the subscriber. "We don't give out too many credits," Joe says matter-of-factly.

After picking up a visitor at 9 a.m., the first stop takes Joe to a house where the set-top hasn't been working since the storm passed through. Ultimately, it turns out that a few older analog boxes had automatic A/B switches put on them because Milwaukee was an old dual-cable system. After the upgrade, channels on the "B" cable were dropped. An electrical impulse from the storm probably caused the A/B switch to go to the "B" cable–and it had nothing to tune. The solution: remove the switch.

At this house, though, Joe hears more than just set-top problems. Turns out this homeowner's marriage is breaking up, too. "I almost feel like a counselor at times," Joe admits. "I try not to get too in-depth with the customers, because you can end up talking for a good long while, but sometimes, you just gotta let 'em vent. You gotta have a knack to know how far to go."

Joe follows that same inherent intuition when it comes to using his gift of gab to sell more services. He refuses to be pushy, but if he sees a clear opportunity, he'll make the most of it. One customer he visits today recently upgraded to the digital tier. "You told me to," says the subscriber, only half in jest. "No," corrects Parise later. "All I did was tell him about it and explain what it is. I didn't push it because I don't like to sound like a high-pressure salesman. I think the product sells itself."

That said, Time Warner does reward its front-line personnel if they're able to upsell subscribers to new, additional services. Employees might get $10 if an existing customer upgrades to digital at their suggestion. New installs net the employee $25. The company also developed an incentive program to encourage employees to note which houses had satellite dishes–those homeowners then became targets of an aggressive dish buy-back program that was used to entice them to become Time Warner customers.

After a late lunch, Joe's headed back out to meet a fellow tech, and they'll team up to find the root cause of that low signal. It might be that there's a problem back at the node. But with Joe on the hunt, the problem won't stay a problem for long.


Staying in touch

Guys like Joe, who have the right attitude to go along with the right aptitude, are worth their weight in gold to their employers. But it's important that the system's executives stay in touch with their front-line employees' needs and desires, too. So, what is Joe most appreciative of?

  1. "Give me the tools I need. That includes test equipment, hand tools and all that, but give me a good outside plant, too."
  2. Quality product. If a system's management doesn't show pride in the product it's offering, guys like Joe won't have pride in their work, either.
  3. Open communication. Installers, techs and customer care personnel have some great ideas and are willing to share them. System managers need to constantly seek that input through open-door policies and by creating task forces and staffing them with front-liners.
  • Time-Warner Milwaukee at a glance

    • Roughly 9,000 miles of plant, stretching 120 miles from just north of Racine, Wis. nearly to Green Bay, covering about 130 communities.
    • Passes 850,000 homes with 750 MHz HFC plant and services about 425,000 subscribers.
    • Served by two headends that are conjoined and provide backup to one another.
    • Five-year upgrade about 85 percent completed. Remainder targeted for completion by end of 2001.
    • Available services include analog and digital video and Road Runner high-speed data-over-cable.
    • Analog set-tops provided by General Instrument (now Motorola); digital set-tops provided by Scientific-Atlanta and Pioneer. Boxes from Pace Micro Technology set for testing and deployment later this year.