The New Era: Small Windows, More Demanding Subs

Dec. 4, 2013
Decades ago, a main reason that the cable industry got into deep trouble with its subscribers was a perceived lack of responsiveness. Operators' seeming indifference to its customers was fodder - along with cracks about the ethics of politicians and lawyers - of...
Decades ago, a main reason that the cable industry got into deep trouble with its subscribers was a perceived lack of responsiveness. Operators' seeming indifference to its customers was fodder - along with cracks about the ethics of politicians and lawyers - of late-night comedians. The cable industry, the thought went, had a monopoly and didn't care. Nowhere was that thought better illustrated than in the huge windows operators demanded for service calls - and the fact that they sometimes missed those windows.A lot has changed during the past 20 years. The industry's monopoly is gone, of course. And the industry has spent millions - perhaps billions - of dollars fighting back against the idea that it doesn't care. The industry has largely rehabilitated its image.The challenge is not over, however. Cable operators are facing intense competition and must live up to a bar set by companies with which they don't even compete. Of course, meeting these tighter windows isn't the only measure of operator responsiveness, but it clearly is the highest profile.It doesn't matter that these often are not apples-to-apples comparisons. "People are less tolerant of service delivery problems," said Mark Wilburn, the CTO of SkyCreek. "These are second- and third-generation customers. They are more technically savvy. They don't make a distinction between a Sears repairman that can give you an exact time and alert you when they are on their way, as opposed to a four- or five-hour appointment window."The bottom line is that operators must drive efficiency far deeper than in the past to keep pace. There are a great number of ways of doing this. These approaches - from more carefully tracking technicians through advanced GPS systems to changes in dispatch protocols to establishing closer relationships with subscribers that could make some visits unnecessary and thus accelerating responses to those that are necessary - together represent a revolution in field force management.A key, Wilburn says, is "getting noise out of the system." This is a purposely imprecise phrase that can refer to anything that empowers a more streamlined, unified and self-aware field force.For example, Wilburn said the reason for about 30% of repair call activity disappears prior to the tech knocking on the subscribers' front door. In many cases, the subscriber diagnosed the problem him or herself and was able to handle it without assistance. Today, however, the technician is likely to show up anyway. Calling subscribers the day prior to the visit and hours before the scheduled time will identify the visits that don't have to be made and make it more likely that time saved by the technician will be used in the most efficient way possible.The key is communications with subscribers. Susan McLaughlin, the vice president of strategic cable accounts at TOA, suggests that an old concept has new legs. "The idea is to allow customers to go in and find out where the tech is. The thought is, 'My gosh, if UPS can track a package, an MSO ... can tell a subscriber where the tech is.'"Harvey Shovers, the president and CEO of MSI Data, sees great efficiencies in breaking down silos between different functions. It is inefficient to have sales, installation and quality assurance teams working in parallel but without access to each other's data.The goal is an integrated approach to each subscribing household. "All these people can be touching the customer at the same time, and if they are not sharing data, it makes the customer experience very frustrating," he said. "The ability to use various technologies to gather and share data in a more efficient and cost-effective manner is something the cable companies we talk to are trying to accomplish."Though it seems to be an obvious step, the cable industry moves slowly. Shovers said the more proactive operators are getting the message and employing techniques to more flexibly and fluidly integrate data from the field. Others, he said, "are ... talking more about it than doing it."It is not entirely fair to judge the cable industry's on-time record with that of industries whose role, once they reach the home, is simply to drop off a package. After all, field technicians can spend hours at a premises performing complex tasks and then spending time training homeowners. The bottom line, however, is that whether the comparison is fair or not doesn't matter. The industry went to great lengths to get out of late-night comedians' monologues. It must try just as hard to stay out of them.Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at [email protected].

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