Cablecaster, January 2001

Consumer Window

Installation apathy

Customers final front line is a difficult place to be



By Christopher Weisdorf, Rogers @Home Users Association

In my last article, I detailed the vital importance of maintaining a strong, efficient and helpful customer support department. There is, however, a department that yields just as much gravity with the provider as customer support does -- service installation.

Those who install the broadband service in question are the very first personnel associated with the provider that subscribers meet face to face, in their own homes. For this reason, the installers need to exude a positive and uplifting image of both the service, itself, and the provider. It's critical that these installers be well-trained and personable in order to address any customers' questions that may arise, in addition to performing a proper installation.

For some time this took place and installations were performed successfully, to the subscribers' satisfaction. The problem today is that as the popularity of high speed Internet via cable modem has grown, standards seem to have slipped and installations are becoming increasingly problematic.

Within the cable operator sphere, this dangerous trend appears to have first surfaced around the beginning of last spring and has accelerated since that time. Our organization has received several hundred reports of botched installations since then and the pace of these reports is not slowing. I have witnessed a few myself.

Over the past number of months I have received messages from ex-cable installers, who have opinions on what is ailing this part of the industry. These ex-installers worked for contractors -- not the MSOs themselves -- but since most installations are performed through contractors these days, the concerns are valid. They included:

a lack of proper training and qualification standards

a lack of sufficient support (i.e. telephone numbers were not supplied, no guidance was given on how to interact with the MSO, etc.)

a lack of time for an installer to successfully complete their task brought on by a shortage of personnel

long hours

low pay

a high installer turnover rate

installation dispatchers themselves are also overworked

It seems that installations are not detailed to the MSO, other than to state whether it was successful or not. No signal readings are taken upon installation and during the majority of them, connectivity is deemed a success if the modem is able to achieve sync. Often, further tests are not conducted or, it is not even verified if the subscriber is able to lease an IP address, or if basic IP connectivity is possible.

A way to start curing these ills, would be to find and train more competent personnel immediately so that the current workload may be reduced to reasonable levels. Simple and effective communication between installers and the MSOs must also improve. The details of installations should be noted and reported to the MSO so that further problems may be prevented or, at the very least, diagnosed more quickly.

On the more technical end of the spectrum, signal levels and their corresponding carrier-to-noise ratios (CNRs) should be measured, logged and reported to the MSO. This information would then be attached to the subscriber's account for later reference. The signal levels and CNRs should be taken for both the upstream and downstream channels. This is the only logical course of action, since either the upstream or downstream carrier may be too strong, too weak or too noisy for the service to properly operate. On numerous occasions, I have witnessed that when these measurements are taken, they are only compiled on either the upstream or downstream channel, but not both.

With respect to internet connectivity, diagnostic tools such as ping and traceroute should be used by the installer so that the stability of the subscriber's connection may be ascertained. It is never enough to just perform a visual inspection of the subscriber's cable modem, or some perfunctory web browsing. Actual performance numbers, such as average latency, number of packets dropped, and upstream and downstream throughput, should be obtained. These statistics would best be gathered by testing connectivity to a fairly local node, such as a server at the corresponding regional data center.

Failing to implement the items mentioned here will almost certainly result in further botched installations, only adding to the growing list of dissatisfied customers. In addition, such preventative action will reduce costs in the long run. The truth is that customers with positive installation experiences are less likely to experience problems with their service. That translates into a happier customer base and more referrals by that satisfied base.

Installations and customer support go hand in hand. The former initiates the first contact outside of the billing department with the customer, and will bear a direct impact on the customer's satisfaction and on how they view the service. The latter should naturally build upon the customer-provider relationship formed at installation and serve to aid the subscriber with the information which was initially gathered. Installation and customer support personnel should be well-trained, faced with a reasonable workload and appropriately compensated.

I ask all providers to look at this area of their operation as soon as possible. The current, dire situation will only alienate the existing customer base and present a negative image to customers-to-be.

Christopher Weisdorf is the president and technical director of the Rogers @Home Users Association. www.rbua.org.

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