Cable Operators

CSRs Often Help Most By Typing Answers Fast

8/11/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

To qualify for the hot new job in cable customer care, applicants need to demonstrate good people skills, solid technology know-how and an ability to multitask.

They also have to be able to type really fast.

Fleet-fingered employees are needed for positions where an online “chat,” rather than an old-fashioned phone call, is the medium of choice.

Alongside a move toward self-support tools like customer Web portals and automated diagnostic applications, online chat is becoming a favored way for millions of cable customers to fix problems and get information they need, without ever raising their voice.

SIMULTANEOUS SESSIONS

Customers connect with cable chat agents through MSO Web sites. At the other end of the mouse click is a new breed of cable customer service representative who typically handles an average of two or three customer chat sessions simultaneously, according to cable call-center specialists.

The agents use a combination of extemporaneous conversation, scripted answers and — with permission — even remote control of customer PCs to help solve problems.

Cox Communications Inc. employs several-hundred chat agents to support its high-speed data customers. Director of customer care strategy and support Suzanne Foy says the “e-care” specialists who bang out text messages combine technical savvy with strong communications and writing skills.

Spelling and grammar acumen are important, too, but Foy says high-speed Internet customers “are surprisingly forgiving” over the occasional typographical lapse.

Chat-based interactions aren’t about to replace traditional phone support. Only about 1% to 3% of Cox’s 2.8 million high-speed Internet customers make use of Cox’s chat-support service, says Foy.

Yet providers say the numbers are growing as more people become comfortable with online repartee.

“Customers are getting more technologically savvy, and doing something over the Web is not a major effort like it may have been before,” says Brian Cappellani, chief technology officer and vice president of engineering for Sigma Systems, a provider of operations support software.

Cable companies say the payback on chat comes from accommodating user preferences in a way that gives customers a sense of control.

BEING THERE FOR THEM

“The primary strategy is really to be where the customers are expecting us to support them,” says Foy.

But there are economic advantages. It costs service providers 90 cents to $1.25 per minute to accommodate a customer via telephone, versus “just pennies” for an online session, says A.J. Workman, a product management specialist for Denver-based CSG Systems Inc.

Slinging instant-messages to customers using chat platforms is part of a broader embrace of information technology applications designed to reduce pressure on call-center agents and to get customers quick answers.

These applications range from online question-and-answer scripts to live support routines in which customers can choose to yield “mouse control” over their PCs to a remote technician.

“If you call in and you’re somebody like my dad, who admittedly has challenges navigating his PC, rather than the representative having to try to talk you through your TCP/IP settings, they can offer to drive,” Foy says.

The range of self-care options is growing. In April, Cox unveiled a new interactive information repository dubbed “Instant Answers.” Developed with New York-based Conversagent, it gives customers quick responses to questions they type in on a screen.

Even though the tool is good at interpreting questions and can give the impression of an informal conversation, Foy says Cox is careful to label the feature as a pre-scripted search application rather than a live chat session.

Executives of SupportSoft Inc., a California software company that developed Comcast Cable’s “LiveAssist” online chat application, say customer self-care alternatives are growing in popularity as users get increasingly comfortable with online service options and as providers look for ways to solve inquiries without phone-agent involvement. That’s especially important as cable operators launch new services that could otherwise engulf call agents in phone traffic.

A typical cable customer calls in for service help two to three times a year, says SupportSoft senior director of product management James Morehead. Multiplied by an estimated 6.6 million cable customers, that means the industry’s call center representatives field hundreds of millions of calls annually.

“If you can deflect (the average) by even less than one call, or reduce a call by 50 seconds or a minute, that’s a massive impact,” he says.

Providers of customer-care infrastructure systems also are working to incorporate self-help routines into their products.

Sigma, which makes software to provision complicated service routines such as authorizing cable telephone service, has created an online self-service tool that lets cable customers run speed tests and diagnostic evaluations of their cable-modem service.

Sigma also has developed a self-service Web portal used by Canadian operators Rogers Cable Inc. and Videotron Ltee that lets customers add features to their voice-over-Internet protocol phone packages without CSR intervention.

OTHERS DOING IT, TOO

Cable operators aren’t alone in rendering more service solutions outside of call-center agents.

Verizon Wireless says Web-based self-service transactions increased 64% in the 2005 second quarter from the prior year. EchoStar Communications Corp. recently upgraded Dish Network’s self-care portfolio by adding new features to an interactive-TV portal and by adding a new customer-care search feature to its Web site.

At the same time, cable’s automation drive is accelerating in other areas. CSG Systems says it’s adding 3,500 cable and broadband customers a day to an electronic bill-payment service that does away with paper invoices and checks. “There’s a huge push to give subscribers as much control over their accounts as possible,” says Workman.

September