By Yinka Adegoke
Even though U.S. cable companies have had success in winning customers
with all-in-one packages of video, Internet and phone services, they
still struggle with a reputation for poor customer service.
Top cable operators such as Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable
Inc. are expanding their customer service operations to make common
complaints -- like waiting all day for the cable guy -- a thing of the
past. But analysts say it won't be easy.
Cable's service shortcomings are one of the reasons satellite
television providers are adding more new customers than cable, even
with cable's success in offering competitively priced combined TV,
Internet and phone packages.
"Satellite leads because they place so much emphasis on customer
care," said Tuna Amobi, an analyst at Standard & Poor's. Cable
operators have done a much better job in recent years, but they still
have a ways to go, he added.
Comcast, the No. 1 U.S. cable operator, said it plans to hire nearly
6,000 new customer service staff and field technicians this year,
after hiring around 6,500 in 2006.
The expansion is a drive to keep up with rapid growth. Comcast sold
more than 5 million new services to customers last year and expects to
sell 6.5 million in 2007.
Time Warner Cable, the second-largest U.S. cable operator, said it is
also expanding its customer service, in line with a similar rate of
growth in products being sold to customers.
Annual surveys by J.D. Power and Associates show satellite TV service
providers DirecTV Group Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. have a
significant lead over cable providers in overall customer
Improving customer service has become increasingly important for cable
operators as phone rivals Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T
Inc. have become more aggressive in trying to win over TV customers.
AT&T's new chief executive, Randall Stephenson, said he hopes to
improve service over time. "Right now the installation time line is
very similar to the cable experience," he told Reuters in a recent
interview. "All of our technicians are brand new hires, so they're
going up the learning curve."
Publicly, cable companies say customer service has moved higher on
their agenda. For example, Comcast and Time Warner Cable say they have
cut things like all-day appointment windows to an average of between
two and four hours.
But privately, cable operators say customer service is a difficult
thing to get right because half the challenge is with perception. They
say that while 99 percent of customers get serviced without any
problems, it is the ones who have a bad experience who call the media
or write to their congressmen.
One of the most viewed video clips on YouTube last summer was of a
Comcast technician caught sleeping on a customer's couch as he waited
more than an hour for his office to verify the installation.
Cable operators are emphasizing new services to help improve their
Comcast has introduced a service called "Dynamic Dispatch," which uses
mobile devices and GPS systems to enable up-to-the-minute communications
between customer centers and technicians.
"Do we want to strive to get better? Absolutely. Are we doing a lot to
get better? Absolutely," said Comcast Senior Vice President of Customer
Care Suzanne Keenan.
As for Time Warner Cable, it offers a Call-To-Meet service in most of
its regions: A customer receives a call when a technician is en route,
reducing the time customers waste waiting at home.
"I would say that over time we have continued to put increasing
emphasis on customer care," said Tom Kinney, senior vice president
corporate customer care at Time Warner Cable.
(Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando)
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.
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