Charter Communications is taking a top-to-bottom look at how it can improve customer service through its Customer Experience Transformation program, which included three pilot programs that got off the ground earlier this year.

The cable industry has been giving lip service to better customer service almost since the day the first coaxial cable was installed in a customer's home, but Charter is going to great lengths to make sure its subscribers are satisfied.

Customer service is defined as the provisioning of a service to customers before, during and after a purchase, but there are a lot of institutional-like disconnects along the way for operators. In order to remedy those issues, Charter has embarked on a program that is based on feedback from employees, including techs, third-party techs and call center staff, as well as customers.

John BirrerOne of the steps Charter took was hiring John Birrer as its senior vice president of customer experience back in February. Birrer came over to Charter from T-Mobile USA, which won J.D. Power and Associates' award as "Highest-Ranked Wireless Customer Service Provider" for six consecutive years during his tenure there.

"One of the things that caused me to get really excited about the opportunity at Charter was talking with [CEO and President] Mike Lovett and the senior team," Birrer said. "It was just a real desire that they had to do something different in the cable business and really focus on taking care of the customers. There has been a lot of talk about it, but it hasn't really been perfected yet. They were looking for someone who had traveled on that journey. The most exciting and rewarding years of my career with T-Mobile were when we were taking them from last place to first place.

"Looking at a lot of the 2009-2010 data on Charter, a lot of it felt the same as T-Mobile. Charter's scores from the customers were pretty darned low, and so to me it was exciting to see a leadership that wanted to do something differently and really not be afraid of the challenge of moving from where they were to where they wanted to be."

Prior to Birrer's arrival, Charter's Customer Service Transformation was already yielding results. To wit: The company has revamped some of its metrics that measure customer satisfaction and scored a 20 percent year-over-year increase in The Forrester Group's 2011 Customer Experience Index report.

Charter also instituted a redesign of its interactive voice response (IVR) messaging that reduced the amount of verbiage customers had to listen to when they called in, and the op launched a "voice of the customer" program last year.

Since his arrival, Birrer has spent a lot of time going on truck rolls with technicians and spending time in call centers working with Charter employees to find out what tools they need in order to perform their jobs effectively.

"I think one of the keys to success is empowering the front line," he said. "We've traditionally been very process-oriented, rigid and checklist-focused. It's almost kind of a command and control structure. What I've been telling my team is that we need to move from compliance by the front line to our policies to get them to being committed to taking care of our customers, so moving from compliance to commitment is a big driver for me.

"You have to find ways to create those moments of truth in a large organization."

In the past, a call center employee may have avoided speaking about a particular problem because they were afraid to lose a sale.

"Really, a lot of it is soft skills training," Birrer said. "It's not the technical side of it. It's how to engage with someone who is not totally happy with you when you show up at their house. How to make sure you cover all of the facets of the products, what the fees and taxes are going to be on their bill.

"We looked end-to-end on how to give the customer the best overall experience and explained to our team 'Here's the dialogue you need to have.'"

In February, Charter embarked on a pilot trial for customer onboarding in Ashville, S.C.

"Onboarding for us is when they join Charter from another organization," Birrer explained. "We define it as how do we get them into the fold of being a Charter customer, or if you're adding a new feature to an existing account. It's one of the key components were working pretty dramatically to change here."

Charter techs worked on role-playing scenarios with their supervisors in one of the pilots.

"If you've been in this industry for a long time, I'm sure you can imagine that having a tech supervisor do role-playing in front of his techs during a morning briefing session was not the most natural thing for these guys to do," Birrer said. "They started to share things that they had encountered, things that they had done that had worked well, and by the end of it, frankly none of them wanted to leave the session. They wanted to keep doing more role-playing.

"I don't want to overplay it, but it was almost magical to see the transformations that have happened with the teams."

Birrer said Charter also met with third-party companies that handled installations for the company to hear their concerns and to make sure they were a part of the customer service transformation.

"We've had great conversations with them, and while we'll treat them as partners, they have to deliver a great customer experience," Birrer said. "It was a great dialogue to see the leaders, both internally and from our contracted partners, have some real candid conversations on how to run the business differently, because a lot of the onboarding stuff is through third parties."

Charter also conducted a pilot trial in Madison, Wis., on Technical Issue Resolution. Birrer said that Charter's "welcome call group" that contacted customers two days after their services were supposed to be installed found that about 40 percent of the time, a service wasn't working.

Because it was following a rigid time schedule for installs, Charter technicians would show up at home for a new customer but then leave before the job was finished.

"What we've done with this pilot is we really started to break down the walls of different parts of our company and having the people in the call center interact with the techs in the truck and interact with the product marketing team," Birrer said. "We also started looking at what was causing us to frankly fail the customers' expectations of us. We weren't setting the right expectations from the call center on what was going to happen when the tech showed up at the house. When the tech showed up, we weren't having the right expectations with them as far as their productivity.

"We would actually encourage people to not take the time necessary to get the service totally up and running. We would do crazy stuff like get the service halfway up and then schedule another truck to come on another day because the first visit had taken too long."

Charter's third pilot trial in Irwindale, Calif., focused on customer premises equipment, which included showing up at a home with the right equipment to get the job completed the first time.

"We're looking at how our repair call centers and our repair techs work together," Birrer said. "We're looking at how to get the right equipment to the right house so that customers can experience the best from our services.

"One of the big advantages we allow our competitors to have is we don't always get the best equipment in our customers' homes. Maybe they're on an analog product even though they have an HDTV and we haven't done a great job getting the best high-def signal into their house."

The programs are up and running in the three pilot areas, and Birrer said they would be launched nationally starting in July, with full deployment across Charter's footprint by this fall.

In addition to reducing churn via happier subscribers, Charter also saves on truck rolls and other expenses associated with doing an install right the first time. Birrer said it was "early days" for the new programs, but the initial returns were positive.

"In this pilot area, we've seen reductions in trouble calls, truck rolls [and] billing repair calls post installation," Lovett said of the onboarding trial during Charter's May earnings conference call. "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."

Birrer said one of the crippling myths of customer service was the perception that it was equal to higher operating costs, but the untold story for all three of the pilot trials was an overall reduction in operational costs.

While Birrer admits to being new in the cable operator industry, he has lofty goals in regard to Charter overcoming the stereotype of cable providing poor customer service.

"We really have to get to the point where we're all one company, and we all have each other's backs," he said. "If we trust that everyone else is trying to do their best to take care of the customer, we can not only be the top in this industry, but one of those top service providers.

"That's where I want us to get to. I don't want to be the queen of the pigs here. I want us to be the top in this industry, but more importantly, one of those top service providers overall. We're being compared to Apple, Amazon and everyone else that consumers deal with. Consumers look at us through the same lens, whether we like it or not. The best way to defend our business is to just take care of the customers."