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Policy

L.A. Gets Tough on Service

5/22/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Los Angeles city cable regulators have approved a long-pending set of customer-service standards, backed up with fines for rules abuses — and including a controversial requirement that providers operate call centers within the city limits.

The latter was added in response to consumer complaints alleging that workers in out-of-state call centers are unfamiliar with local rules and operating conditions.

During past discussions of the proposal, members of the city Board of Information Technology Commissioners (BITC) were critical of Adelphia Communications Corp.’s performance record, especially when executives tried to explain why some calls are handled as far away as Colorado Springs, Colo.

OPS: WE’RE ON BOARD

Operators said they join the city in the goal of improving the customer experience, adding that competition drives video providers to constantly improve internal service standards.

But they questioned the new measure’s fairness, noting that its provisions aren’t directed at all video providers. Direct-broadcast satellite providers, for instance, are not required to have local call centers.

The new standards are an update of the city’s 1994 policy on cable service.

The rewrite reiterates some standards, such as rules requiring 90% of calls to be answered in 30 seconds or less. But it also adds new ones, such as a requirement that local offices be staffed so that no customer has to wait more than 15 minutes in line.

A $10 customer credit for missed service calls mandated under the prior rules has been increased to $25.

The rules call for a service center in each franchise area, and a call center located in the city. Customer-service personnel must be fully trained in all charges and services, and a supervisor must be available at all times to talk to consumers.

Violations are now backed up with fines starting at $200 a day for the first violation, up to $1,000 a day for the third recurrence.

Fines per violation are capped at $3,000 a year, but the city can still seek liquidated damages beyond that.

In the short term, the rules could have the most impact on Adelphia Communications Corp. and Comcast Corp., whose operations generated the most complaints in the most recent city reports.

Long-term, Time Warner Cable should feel the effects, as it will obtain most of the Adelphia and Comcast franchises through its joint bid, with Comcast, for Adelphia.

But Time Warner already has the lowest complaint rate per capita in the city.

Regulations that cross the line from enhancing service and move into business operations, such as the staffing requirements, are “troublesome,” said Comcast Los Angeles spokeswomam Patti Rockenwagner.

The requirements need more work, she said, noting that some of the rules won’t necessarily mean better service.

For instance, the company does have an in-city call center, a 400-seat facility in Hollywood. But parking is in short supply there and rents are very high.

She stressed that Comcast has no plans to change that center, but if the need arose for more personnel, Comcast would like the flexibility to locate where they could provide a bigger center with protected parking for its workers.

“The industry and the city agree on the need for good customer service, but the industry disagrees with the means,” said Deane Leavenworth, spokesman for Time Warner and president of the Los Angeles Cable Operators Association (LACOA).

Operators have always asserted that the service standards should be part of refranchise negotiations. But those negotiations were taken out of the hands of the technology commissioners; the City Council will now directly handle the new agreements for all 14 franchises.

BITC’s charge, however, still includes control over service standards.

CHARTER HAS 60 SUBS

The rules, such as the city-based call center, could be troublesome for Charter Communications Inc., which serves one franchise area in Malibu with about 60 customers.

“I don’t think much of this applies to us,” said Craig Watson, vice president of communications for Charter in Southern California. The Los Angeles franchise will continue to be serviced from a call center in Irwindale, east of the city, he said.

The service standards are scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2006, or when the new franchises are approved, which ever occurs first. The City Council has yet to take action on refranchise negotiations.

September