Comcast Wrangles Subscriber Queries

Apr 4, 2005  •  Post A Comment

While Comcast has spent $39 billion over the past decade to upgrade its plant nationwide to accommodate advanced services such as broadband, high-definition TV, digital video recorders and video-on-demand-$600 million of that in the Bay Area alone over the past two years-the real work has only just begun.

That work involves educating customers, and much of it occurs at the company’s 75 call centers, including three in the San Francisco Bay Area, Comcast’s second-largest market nationwide, with 1.6 million customers in nine counties.

Customers are often befuddled and confused by their cable service in general and about new services in particular. The best chance to educate a customer is that critical moment when he or she contacts the call center.

On a Monday in March, One Bay Area customer didn’t realize she had high-speed Internet access from Comcast, then asked, “Internet-is that for the computer?” Another opted for three months of free high-speed Internet and digital cable in her new home, then backed out at the last minute because “free” sounded too complicated.

Selling the Services

In the Bay Area, the responsibility for penetrating the market with new services falls on the shoulders of the 1,200 customer service representatives-whose wages start at $12.80 an hour-spread throughout the system’s three call centers. While Comcast markets its new services through cross-channel, broadcast, print, outdoor, radio and direct mail ads, the crucial link in the marketing chain is the moment when a customer calls in to the call center and asks “What exactly is VOD, HDTV or DVRs?”

“When you take a look at the customers who call in, some are very knowledgeable and others don’t know much,” said Pete Dang, one of the managers of the Concord, Calif., call center.

San Francisco is a high-profile market because tech-savvy clientele resides in much of the region due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and because as an old TCI system acquired through Comcast’s purchase of AT&T Broadband in 2002, the Bay Area was only recently rebuilt. VOD and DVRs were just introduced in the market last fall. Comcast now offers VOD to 85 percent of its homes nationwide and DVR to all its homes.

Customers may have seen an ad on a bus or a billboard that piqued their curiosity, but the person answering the phone must then be able to capture that customer’s interest and get him or her to upgrade to HD, opt for the $9.99 monthly DVR service or order a movie on-demand. Even if a customer is calling about an entirely different matter, a CSR is expected to look for an opportunity to talk about the new services.

“Our [CSRs] try to let them know at the end of the call that there is a new service,” said Charlotte Howell, another Bay Area call center manager. For instance, many customers think VOD is the same thing as TiVo, and a CSR needs to explain the difference. Explaining DVRs is easier because it can be compared with a VCR, said Jill Thompson, Comcast’s manager of human resources in the Bay Area. “But VOD [is] not like anything they have seen,” she said.

That means a good CSR should know the service well. Comcast held a VOD Awareness Week in mid-March for employees of its Bay Area call centers. Programmers set up booths to educate CSRs about their VOD programming. Programmers also joined in periodic “huddles” with 12 or so CSRs for 30 minutes at a time to show VOD clips and ask questions in a mock customer call.

The early efforts seem to be working. Within the first 90 days of launch, about 48 percent of Comcast’s digital subscribers who have VOD service were using it regularly.

That CSR education is key, since about 70 percent of Comcast’s orders are driven by the call centers, because they process new customers, transfers and upgrades, Ms. Howell said. In the Bay Area, the three call centers receive about 23,000 calls each day, and the average call takes about five minutes to handle.

Customers’ Major Issues

Here’s an overview of the major issues customers have called about regarding VOD, DVRs and HD:

When Comcast first introduced DVRs in the area late last year the company struggled with an unusual issue-some DVRs froze on the lower analog channels. The problem has since been solved, but many initial calls related to that problem. Other calls concerned audio not working properly when a show was recorded. CSRs walked customers through a fix. The rest of the calls were along the lines of, “I just got this box. How does it work?” Mr. Dang said.

Most VOD calls are simple: What is it, how does it work and when can I get it?

The HD questions illustrate the challenges in general with HD: Many consumers don’t realize they need to sign up for HD service when they get an HD set and vice versa. “Customers say, ‘I have an HD set. How come I don’t have hi-def? What channels are available and how come this particular one isn’t?’ And some customers will order the service with Comcast without buying the HD set,” Mr. Dang said.

Even though a CSR’s job is to sell when a call comes in, sometimes it’s not appropriate. For instance, on that Monday in March a CSR opted not to upsell a customer who was canceling a service call because she’d just gotten out of the hospital.