Cable Operators

Passing the Baton

9/23/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Cablevision Systems Corp. may have been built by chairman Charles Dolan and may now be led by a long line of top executives. But it counts on many rank-and-file staffers to interface with customers at several different points in time, passing the “baton” of service and communication from one employee to the next.

JOE LEONARD, UNIFYING THE MESSAGES

Among them is Joe Leonard. Cablevision customers may never speak with him directly, but in his role as vice president of the company's marketing and advertising unit, Leonard and his 18-member creative team are charged with designing the marketing and advertising materials for the digital-cable, high-speed data and telephone services to draw consumers into the Cablevision tent.

The operator used to have separate teams for each of the products, with Leonard heading up the charge on behalf of iO: Interactive Optimum digital cable. But the company experienced such progress in bundling its multiple products that the business structure outlived its usefulness.

Leonard wasn't always on the operator side. He joined the industry in 1988 as a marketer for a variety of cable networks, with tours at Disney Channel and A&E Network, as well as Cablevision's own MuchMusic USA (now Fuse). He made his way to the MSO side in 2001.

“I was on the network side so long [that] I understand their challenges, their different perspective on things,” he says, adding that their reliance on ratings to measure success give network marketing executives a totally different business perspective.

“We should have an exchange program” between the programming and operations sides, he quips.

Now, as an operator, his biggest challenge is selling three products at once while creating a discrete personality for each. Because Cablevision is efficiently clustered in the New York DMA, with systems in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — and because the operator has a uniform programming lineup and packaging strategy — Leonard can efficiently use all the media available to him in the region.

When it's possible to have an ad on outdoor, cross-channel and in print — all advising consumers to find Home Box Office on channel 82 — “there's a lot of power in that,” Leonard says.

It helps to have a compelling offer, too. Currently, Cablevision is advertising its triple play at $29.95 per product for the first year. That represents an estimated savings of $500 a year, compared to what consumers would pay for the individual services offered by other providers.

Subscribers can also buy a double play of phone and high-speed data service. That bundle is promoted as a $240 savings from a la carte pricing.

The triple-play product brings customers in the door, and Leonard's team is designing a program to get them to stay: Optimum Rewards. Multiproduct customers will earn loyalty points, which will earn them premiums from other Cablevision companies, like tickets to events at Madison Square Garden or Radio City Music Hall. Cablevision may partner with companies outside the corporate family in the future, he says.

Leonard notes that sub growth has yet to plateau. Yet the marketers yearn to do a better job explaining all the features available to consumers.

Visitors still come to Leonard's home and marvel at the features on his TV, unaware they have them at home, too. He blames part of this on ennui — some people buy the bundle for the core offerings and are afraid to try any manipulations that might mess up access to basic services.

That's why one of the latest video campaigns advises: “Go ahead, push this button on your remote, try it. Nothing bad will happen!”

The company continues to provide ways consumers can learn about their in-home products, such as a robust Web site with tutorials and on-demand upgrade services.

MARY ANN LASARDO, SATISFYING CUSTOMERS

Once a consumer has decided which products they wish to buy from the company, it's time to call to order service. Workers at the regional call centers accept that handoff.

Mary Ann LaSardo, vice president of customer service in New Jersey, has spent about two and a half years with Cablevision, but she's an older hand at cable. She started in 1985 with operator Star Cable, which was bought out by Comcast Corp. She also did a stint with Time Warner Cable in Manhattan.

“Basically, I hit all the major MSOs in the tri-state area,” she quips.

What sold her on Cablevision was its values. The first time she entered one of its buildings, she saw that the MSO displayed its corporate tenets on the wall. LaSardo says she was impressed the company was willing to put its core values in writing for all to see. “I found that endearing,” she says.

She quickly was confronted with her first challenge: Cablevision had decided to consolidate five disparately situated call centers into one large facility in Newark. The change would mean some workers faced long commutes from rural areas to the busy metropolis.

LaSardo had to sell them on the benefits, such as the ability to go shopping at lunch and that public transportation was available nearby.

All of the local management agreed to stay with the company, as did the majority of the front-line workers, LaSardo says. She attributed the retention rate to good benefits, fair treatment and the company's firm direction.

Currently, LaSardo is focused on first-call resolution statistics for her 280-seat, 400-employee call center. Customers contacted during the day are surveyed each night, and internal statistics show a 90% satisfaction rate. But there's still room for improvement.

One tool that helps all departments work toward perfection, she says, is the Knowledge Data Base. Developed internally by managing director of shared services Larry Offsie, the software is accessible across the company, documents all customer contacts and includes all product information.

“Everything the [employees] need to serve the public is in the KDB,” she says. Each process is well-documented, she says, with instructions on proper execution. For instance, as a new executive, she was happy to find there was a specified process for allowing current employees to bid for a shift once another employee had vacated it.

LaSardo attempts to keep her employees happy by managing with wisdom and judgment.

“Every person here has a back story. If you have one person who seems to be late every Tuesday, it might be something like a child-care issue. If you talk to the person, and just tweak the schedule a bit, you keep an otherwise good employee,” she says.

Though LaSardo has bounced around cable a bit, she says she's at Cablevision for good.

“I love getting up and coming to work. I have a fantastic team,” she says.

DEVAKI JEAN, SALES MENTOR

To ensure that customers know the benefits of the triple play — and the rest of Cablevision's products — the company has instituted an extra layer of training between orientation and the sales floor. That's where Devaki Jean, a Cablevision sales mentor, fits into the customer-contact mix.

Jean, who can virtually connect to any representative in the company, provides an extra 30 days of training on salesmanship to new hires, and skills-improvement training for older workers. She helps them overcome a potential subscriber's objections to buying a service or package. Through role-playing and call monitoring, she helps fellow employees find that fine line between the strong sell and being too pushy.

Jean is a two-and-a-half-year veteran of the sales floor, who used to spend seven and a half hours a day selling telecom products to consumers. She became a mentor in June after completing an interview process that included a research presentation on all Cablevision's competitors, their products and price points.

She says she misses that phone time, but tries to get in at least an hour a day taking calls so she can “feel the pulse of our market.”

JOE GREENE, WHIZ KID

Once the call center talks the consumer through their service order, it's up to skilled technicians to install and, most importantly, explain the new services to the customer.

Senior field-service technician Joe Greene first started considering Cablevision as a career as a teenager. He was working at a YMCA summer camp in New York when a camper's parents, who were both Cablevision executives, touted their company.

The company hired him in 1998, but not in cable. He started out in the company's now-defunct The Wiz retail electronics stores.

Greene says he's always had to buy the latest electronic gadgets. “Some people know cars I know technology,” he says.

But the retail job was not a good fit: He spent more time stocking product than demonstrating it. When he got the opportunity to move to the cable division in 2000, he took it. Now he's a technician, based out of Hauppage in Suffolk County, N.Y., serving the MSO's biggest territory in that county.

He executes repairs and installations, and the latter is his favorite part of his job.

“I enjoy the social contact. I'm personally excited about Optimum Voice, so I'm like a little kid with a new video game,” he says. “Virtually every month there's a new feature [to explain] … My family makes fun of me; I'm always talking about it.”

Greene says he does not get sales commissions, but he recognizes that customer education is the most important part of his job.

“I think of myself. If someone just came and threw down a box in my house, and I didn't know what to do, I wouldn't appreciate that,” he says. Though he's always quite busy (his shift runs from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.), he always takes 15 to 30 minutes per call to explain the technology and benefits of the products he's just installed.

Among his friends, Greene has become an ambassador of sorts on behalf of Cablevision. He's led at least two of them, victims of downsizing in their chosen fields, to get jobs with the company.

Cablevision's field reps will see added competition soon, as Verizon Communications Inc. is upgrading its plant to deliver video services in the tri-state area. Greene says he hasn't seen an increased presence on the street, but he's reading press accounts to keep himself up on the potential competition.

BRIAN BRANDOW, INTERACTIVE GURU

Once a customer's products have been installed and they've familiarized themselves with what they've bought, Cablevision executives anticipate that they'll experiment, sampling the broad video-on-demand offerings provided with their service. That's where the technology team enters the picture, and among them is Brian Brandow, director of interactive services.

Brandow started out his career in a classroom, teaching television production for five years. But he soon recognized there would not be a lot of opportunity for advancement in the field; schools are cutting back on non-core curriculum areas.

So he made the jump to Rainbow Media Services' master control room. And in his 11 years with the company, he has worked his way into the job, overseeing the 12-person staff that ensures video on demand is just that.

He's responsible for the production system that delivers content from a location in Hicksville, N.Y. The nerve center is capable of remotely monitoring 21 different receiving locations.

At that center, the bulk of the day is spent scheduling content and keeping the system rolling as scheduled, he says. In addition, the team plans for future capacity needs by tracking peak usage times. The team also executes new-technology integration with the goal of keeping end users from detecting glitches, he says.

Programmers have noticed growing interest in the product ever since its launch, which came at an unfortunate time: Cablevision planned to light up VOD product in September of 2001. They went ahead with the launch even though it followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York by only a few weeks.

Brandow takes great pride in the fact the VOD enterprise is efficiently run by such a small team, yet the product segment is as big as it is.

The greatest challenge to VOD growth is the learning curve, Brandow says. Kids get it, but adults who don't understand the service are often loath to ask questions. They don't want others to know they haven't figured out the product.

Every time he's in a social situation and explains his job, Brandow is quietly peppered with questions about product ordering and navigation.

“That's why the free services are so important. They encourage sampling,” he says.

September