Can broadband do right by customers?

Cable operators and phone companies aren't just duking it out over speeds. Now they're trying to win customers over with great customer care.

As cable and phone companies slug it out in markets across the U.S., improving customer care is becoming a core part of their strategies.

For the past few years, cable and phone companies have been neck and neck in many markets. Cable companies have introduced new phone services to compete with phone companies, and phone companies have started offering competing TV services.

On the broadband front, cable and phone companies now offer similar speeds in feeds in many markets. While cable has historically been priced slightly higher than services offered from phone companies, these too are evening out in many markets with various promotional service offerings.

Now, more than ever, consumers seem to be influenced by their perception of a particular company and their own experience with customer care. What's more, the Internet has changed things. It used to be that a single disgruntled customer would influence only a few friends and neighbors. But with the advent of blogs and forums all over the Web, unhappy consumers can find a much wider audience, potentially reaching thousands or even millions.

"Customers are making choices every day," said Rick Germano, senior vice president of Customer Operations for Comcast. "They are trying to figure out which company to go with to get TV, high-speed Internet service, and now phone service. And their perception of who is offering those services is a big driver in who they choose."

Unfortunately for Comcast, its customer service has taken a beating recently. Just last month, the company got the lowest score it's ever gotten on the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, a major customer satisfaction study conducted by the University of Michigan. And last week, it ranked as the second worst company in terms of customer care in an MSN Money customer survey.

These results follow publicized tales of a technician sleeping while on the job and a hammer-wielding grandmother going crazy due to poor service. And it also follows accusations that the company throttled BitTorrent peer-to-peer traffic .

Germano acknowledged the company needs to improve its service and perception.

"Comcast takes full responsibility for what these surveys are saying," he said. "We don't disagree with the results. And we're listening. We get it. But we look at this an opportunity for us to improve. As a business we have to do it."

Comcast's main competitors, AT&T and Verizon Communications, have faired better in these surveys than Comcast. But that doesn't mean that there aren't pockets of dissatisfied customers.

In fact, my sister who recently moved to a suburb near Boston chose to get her Internet and TV service from Comcast even though Verizon's new Fios service was available in her town. Why? The reason was simple. The Verizon technician who was scheduled to set up her basic phone service didn't show up twice for his appointment.

"I knew from the phone incident that there was no way I was going to get Verizon's Fios service, no matter how good or fast the service was supposed to be," she said.

My sister isn't the only dissatisfied Verizon customer I've heard from. Several readers have sent e-mails and commented on the "Talk Back" of some of my blogs saying they have had similarly bad experiences when trying to get Fios service installed. Verizon executives acknowledge the company has experienced some growing pains, especially as it rolls out its new Fios service. But Tom Maguire, the company's customer service czar, says the company is making improvements.

"I don't think anyone wants to be known for providing terrible customer service," he said. "Everyone wants to do the right thing for the customer. So we have to figure out how to remove obstacles that are preventing us from delivering great customer service every time. If we can't deliver the best product with the best service, the customer will go somewhere else."

Winning customers over
So what are these companies doing to improve?

Comcast has hired 15,000 new customer service agents and technicians over the past 18 months to help the company answer calls and provide service to customers. It has also rolled out new high-tech diagnostic tools for agents in the field and at call centers to help better assess problems. Comcast has also started re-dispatching field technicians if it looks like a certain technician may not be able to get to his next appointment.

Customer service agents are also starting to work on Saturdays and Sundays to schedule and serve customers when it's most convenient for them. And it's offering real time online chat services so that customers can talk live with a customer account executive.

Germano said the company is trying to listen to customers more, and that includes establishing a special team within the company to follow blogs, like the Consumerist.com and online forums where many problems are often reported by customers.

Verizon's Maguire said that his company is doing something similar. Like Comcast, Verizon has a team that monitors blogs. And Maguire himself often answers e-mails from customers with complaints as part of what the company calls a "you touch it, you own it" philosophy.

The phone company is also starting to roll out a new text-messaging system that automatically alerts customers when a technician has been dispatched to a location. It will alert customers if the technician is running late.

In addition, Verizon has made big improvements in its customer care centers. One major change is that it has been staffing the fiber solutions centers, which handle technical issues with the fiber-to-the-home Fios service, with customer care representatives who can resolve billing and enrollment issues.

"It's more cost effective and better marketing to take care of the customers you already have than to go out and try to acquire new customers."
--Tom Maguire, Verizon's customer service czar

Verizon also has improved its voice response system to help customers resolve certain issues on their own. And it's given customers who would rather reach a human representative a way to navigate out of the voice response system.

It's implemented a new queue-busting system that monitors the flow of calls into call centers. If a center is getting overloaded with calls, more representatives are added dynamically to handle the overflow calls.

"Our goal is to make it easier for customers to do business with us," Maguire said. "It's more cost effective and better marketing to take care of the customers you already have than to go out and try to acquire new customers. And the magic formula for doing this is really the golden rule. Treat customers how you want to be treated."

Another major trend that seems to be filtering into every major broadband provider is a greater focus on standardizing processes. While local branch offices will continue to handle local service calls and dispatch technicians directly to customers, bigger service providers, such as Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable, say that it's important to make sure that best practices are shared throughout the company.

"If someone calls with a problem, chances are good that they are talking to someone in their town," said Alex Dudley, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. "But they will still have the big company experience in that we are sharing what we've learned from our 150 million calls a year to implement best practices that can be shared across the company."

Maguire, who took over as Verizon's head of customer care late last year, said he's already started seeing an improvement.

"Improving customer service is a journey that really has no end point," he said. "We're always striving to do better. But I do think things have gotten better. One indication is there are a lot fewer calls that get escalated to my level than there were when I started."

 

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