Innovation in customer care is as important as it is in network equipment.

As the service packages offered by competing multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) come to resemble each other more and more, customer satisfaction is becoming an increasingly important variable in the competitive equation.

While the communications industry will forever have to devise new and better ways to increase the reliability and efficiency of network gear (quality of service/experience – QoS/QoE – will always have a direct bearing on consumer satisfaction), the industry is looking for more innovation in customer care, from billing to call center tools to installer scheduling systems to network management.

Every company in the world will tell you it is focused on improving customer service, but in the last year, several MSOs have gone out on a limb by issuing public pledges to make specific improvements.

Innovation in Customer Care...More than a year ago, Time Warner Cable introduced its Signature Home service, available to premium-service customers, providing 24-hour customer care.

Charter Communications has promised to give subscribers a better experience "from order to install to bill and beyond." When the program, called Customer Onboarding, was introduced in May, Charter CEO Mike Lovett said: "In this pilot area, we've seen reductions in trouble calls, truck rolls [and] billing repair calls post installation. We continue to focus on first contact resolution and have made meaningful improvements on that front. And now we are preparing to roll out various identify process improvements across the footprint.

"These efforts, combined with greater service reliability, product enhancements and increases in value, have resulted in significantly higher satisfaction scores by our new customers."

Last month, Comcast promised to cut the window for service calls from four hours to two hours, starting in Lancaster, Pa., and Salt Lake City, and it will extend that policy across its entire network by next year. The capability is being enabled by integrating a workforce management system from Ventyx with Comcast’s customer care/billing system, provided by CSG International.

Vendors are responding to the customer service needs of MVPDs in two ways: consolidation and innovation. In the past, billing support systems (BSS), operations support systems (OSS), customer relationship management (CRM), workforce management systems, policy control and other back office products tended to be sold separately. MVPDs liked it that way because they could get best-of-breed systems in each category.

A frequent problem was that even after those systems were all integrated (assuming they were all integrated), the data they held was not. The information about any given customer was likely to be distributed in different places in the back office environment and hard to piece together into a single, comprehensive view.

Thus pre-integration becomes attractive, and vendors have been consolidating to try to cover as many of those bases as they can. Thus we’ve seen Ericsson, which has a growing network management business, buying OSS specialist Telcordia for $1.15 billion. Billing/CRM vendor Amdocs is buying mobile/converged network management specialist Bridgewater for about $215 million.

Last year, ABB bought Ventyx for about $1 billion, Tekelec bought policy expert Camiant (for $130 million) and subscriber data management vendor Blueslice, and CSG bought CRM company Aaromba. In 2008, CSG bought Quaero, a company that specializes in customer intelligence.

The need to have any system work across all of the various services in a bundle is another motivating factor in many of these deals. So is the ability to quickly provide, package and promote services and features in any number of permutations that different customers might find attractive (aka, service velocity and monetization).

Getting that single view of the customer can lead to rewards.

“We can determine the value of a customer based on her behavior, her ordering and her propensity to churn to a competitor,” said Ron Vernon, vice president of product management at CSG International. “Is she nearing the end of her contract? Has she had a truck roll? We can get a sense of her behavior and predict what she might do next.”

Armed with that information, a service provider could decide to just let her churn; otherwise, it could choose to try to maintain the account, upsell her or make some offer. The CSG system can evaluate what the most appropriate offers might be based on what other subscribers with similar profiles have responded to.

Vernon said this capability has been beta tested, and the company has deals with two service providers to go into production with the system later this year.

Analysis of the value of each customer is rapidly becoming a common ability. Even more complex scenarios can be devised, but there are immediate benefits for simply figuring out how to select the appropriate offer to make to subscribers in specific situations.

Vernon posited two subscribers, himself and another named Elise.

“Say Elise is a high-value subscriber, but she tends to churn. If I tend not to churn, I’m going to see offers that are less valuable than the ones Elise may see.”

CSG, like most other customer care companies, has been giving service providers the ability to create value scores for each subscriber. Service providers can customize these analyses based on their own business rules.

“Every MSO has some sort of database of their own that they want to integrate into the system, and that’s great – the more data the better,” Vernon said.

One way to improve customer service is to talk to customers in the forum where they want to talk to you. That means going beyond the telephone line to include chat and social media.

Chat can be used for sales as readily as it can for customer service (and isn’t sales part of customer service?).

Firstsource Solutions has a client in the U.K. that calculates the cost of acquisition for a broadband customer at about 60 pounds. Introduce Web chat, however, and the cost drops to 11 or 12 pounds per customer, said Santanu Nandi, executive vice president of telecom and media at Firstsource. “That’s an 85 percent cost reduction. That is the kind of impact we’re talking about.”

But multiple channels really ought to be coordinated.

“We’ve got an explosion of channels – chat, retail, Web, avatars – we have two avatars, and we have to go pretty high up the food chain to find one guy responsible for all of it,” noted AT&T director of product strategy Mark Martinez, speaking at a recent event sponsored by Amdocs.

Simple things like password resets can be remarkably frustrating processes for customers, Martinez noted. “They forgot their password; they forgot the answer to their ID question; they’ve been online. Now they call, and they’re given to an IVR [interactive voice response], and they’re punching zero over and over, and they’re yelling, ‘Agent! Agent! Rep! Customer service!’ They’re pissed off, and we’re pissing them off more.”

For starters, an MVPD should be able to tell that a customer who is calling has already been online and will be frustrated by having to deal with an IVR. So send them straight to a live operator, he said. “You get that stuff down, then you can start upselling, cross-selling, giving them more options, increasing loyalty and value.”

There is an enormous laundry list of actions MVPDs can take, and services they can offer, to improve customer service, said Eli Cohen, Amdocs’ strategic markets product management director. They include network congestion management, introducing dynamic pricing and monetizing over-the-top video (perhaps charging originators for guaranteed QoS).

When doing network planning, the communications industry rarely works with companies that create the devices that will consume increasing amounts of data, Cohen said.

Empower users, Cohen suggested. Telling them they have consumption allocations of so many gigabytes is meaningless; you have to tell them what a gigabyte translates into.

“Innovation is the order of the day, on multiple fronts,” said Nandi. “Tools, channels, practices, the use of analytics. Today, it’s all multidimensional.”

Innovation is absolutely necessary, he said, because it is not economically feasible to keep scaling up call centers proportional to business growth.

Pontis is a company that specializes in systems that provide contextual marketing and selling – in other words, making sure sales and marketing offers are appropriate for each individual. The capabilities are similar to those mentioned by CSG and those that others are developing, as well.

Contextual marketing only starts with things as simple as making sure an offer to customers is being made in local currency (pounds, Euros, rubles). It also includes:

• Avoiding what the company refers to as cannibalization: Offering discounts to customers who don’t need them.

• Offering bad values: Why offer free texting to a subscriber who, if you just looked at their service history, you’d see doesn’t text much.

• Bad timing: You do not want to offer someone a deal on something they’ve just purchased.

After synthesizing 16 years’ worth of psychology and neuropsychology, eXaudios has created a system that can evaluate the mood a customer is in when they call customer service, determined through voice intonation and natural language analysis.

The system can characterize customers and give customer service representatives (CSRs) recommendations on what to say to each character type. “All you need to do is use three or four key words in each situation,” said eXaudios senior vice president of sales Arik Roztal.

Customer satisfaction, he insisted, can increase by 45 percent, and sales can be increased by 75 percent.

Firstsource Solutions is also developing speech intonation recognition; the company will even match customer profiles with CSR profiles.

The company’s system can also do speech analytics. The idea is to be able to tell if the same keywords come up repeatedly – for example, if the word “modem” comes up repeatedly in interactions with customer service – and then the CSR equipped with that information can respond appropriately.

Firstsource research says that only 41 percent of people will complain directly to the company they’re dealing with; 60 percent will complain on a website, Facebook or Twitter.

Toa Technologies conducted a survey that found that more than 1 million people per week view Tweets related to customer service experiences with a variety of service providers, and that more than 80 percent of those Tweets reflect a critical or negative customer experience.

That’s why getting immediate feedback is becoming more and more important.

“After every call, we give the customer the option to comment,” Nandi said.

“Social media is like word-of-mouth on overdrive,” said John Morris, a principal consultant with IBB. “You need to go out and proactively engage with subscribers, hopefully flipping an experience that might be bad into one that’s delightful.”

That might include privately offering disaffected customers some sort of deal as a make-good. If successful, an MVPD could ask those customers if they could tell people in their networks about the ultimately positive experience – you end up leveraging other people’s networks to support your own marketing and sales, explained Scott Kolman, Amdocs’ director of customer management.

Kolman offered the following scenario as an example of what can be done with social media: A subscriber is watching video on mass transit, and the video seizes up. She immediately tweets about her negative experience.

The woman’s service provider, which is monitoring the Internet for mention of its service, discovers the tweet. The service provider does some cross-referencing of the tweet account with subscriber accounts and determines that the woman is a customer.

Next, the provider analyzes the customer’s account information. It’s known that a small percentage of consumers have a great deal of influence on the behaviors of their social contacts. Is this customer a high influencer?

If not, perhaps the service provider offers a small discount or a coupon or decides to do nothing. If she is, then maybe it’s a good idea to offer a more valuable make-good.

“Maybe,” because first the service provider wants to be certain this customer’s account is in good standing. Is her service contract almost concluded, and is she someone likely to churn based on past behavior? No? Then an offer may be in order.

Call the subscriber and make her an offer. Is she a tablet user? Follow it up with a push to her tablet.

Kolman’s example was to work through an automotive dealer to offer a free installation of an in-vehicle communications system, which would include free mobile service for two or three months. If she accepts, you can help her set up a schedule with her local auto dealer.

And if she accepts, Kolman said, send her an SMS survey right away. The key is to keep in contact and keep on top of the exchange, but make it as easy as possible for the customer to respond.

Once the three-month offer elapses, send another message to the customer asking her if she wants to subscribe to the mobile service.

Either way, follow up with another quick SMS survey asking her if she had a positive experience. If the answer is yes, ask if you can offer the same deal to other people in her social network. If she says yes to that, the service provider goes ahead and pushes the deal.

“You’ve just leveraged her social network for your marketing,” Kolman said.

The scenario is speculative, he acknowledged, but several companies are doing “pieces of this.”

The issue is taking the data that service providers already have and cross-referencing it to render actionable analyses. MSOs have the data they need, Vernon agreed, “but they don’t have ways to operationalize it.”

Today, he said, an MSO’s marketing department may dig into its subscriber list, pick 100,000 names, and then give that list to a CRM company or a direct marketing company and have them extend the offer.

“That’s the major challenge – to operationalize all that,” Vernon said.

MVPDs want to improve the experience of their own consumers, but why not offer to improve the consumer experiences of their advertisers?

People are doing more and more shopping online; but despite that, by one calculation, 90 percent of all sales are still closed in stores. Still, research indicates that about 20 percent of customers who intend to make a purchase don’t because they get tired of waiting for service, transaction times take too long and customer service is poor.

Q-nomy has developed a system that allows online shoppers the opportunity to schedule an appointment at a retail outlet. The service provider can create personalized brochures that viewers can print on-demand.

Currently used largely by ISPs, the model can easily be adopted by MVPDs, said Eran Reuveni, who designed the system for Q-nomy. “It’s an extension of personalized or targeted advertising.”

“For operators to thrive, they must create value, and to create value, they must become an advocate for the customer. They don’t have to provide everything, but they can earn peoples’ trust by showing them they know where everything is and can connect them to it,” said David Jacobs, CTO of Amdocs’ broadband, cable and satellite division.

CED’s Senior Editor Mike Robuck contributed to this story