Cablecaster, November 2000

Consumer Window

Lean on me

The importance of customer support simply can not be overstated

By Christopher Weisdorf, Rogers @Home Users Association

In this day and age, where information rules and service deployment is key, it may be easy to lose sight of the customer's real needs.

Over the past few years, market research and public opinion firms have been used extensively to determine these needs. It is the customer- or technical support of a particular product or service, however, which has to be the most accurate barometer of customer sentiment. Where market research or public opinion polling might be conducted only a few times per year, customer service reps receive up-to-the-minute input.

Customer support is a two-way street. First and foremost, it's there to aid the consumer, but it also can better assess the consumer's requirements for the provider.

At least that's the way it should be.

Like it or not, but the customer service staff are the first -- and sometimes only -- line of communication between cable companies and their customers. If the avenues of communication between support and management are in any way blurred or inefficient, serious problems will arise.

It's usually a customer, not one of the provider's personnel, that will first notice a fault with their cable or Internet service. For this reason, the customer's complaints must always be taken seriously by support staff, particularly if the customer can explain the problem in any sort of technical detail, which is happening more frequently these digital days.

Too often, customer comments are instead brushed aside by staff. Even if many customer complaints or comments seem invalid, catalogued input and analysis can be performed to determine how widespread a particular problem really is if any of those concerns turn out to be valid.

Information on problems with a product or service should always be made available to support staff, without fail. This is the only way for a customer to be able to get the real story on a particular problem. Otherwise, CSRs won't be able to communicate the specifics of any problem to the customer base, which really isn't very fair or ethical.

Customers deserve answers about any problems, so technical support must be supplied with the necessary information in order to provide answers. Also, every attempt should be made by the service provider to notify subscribers of problems: through websites, newsgroups, any special software originally supplied to subscribers upon signup and e-mail.

While telephone waiting times and e-mail response times for technical support are definitely important to all customers, more important is the information given in response to questions and complaints. For this reason, pre-formatted or "canned" responses should be avoided at all costs. The information divulged should be specific and sensitive to the customer's needs. Canned responses rarely provide the customer what they are looking for. They also lack the feeling, support and reassurance which the customer is obviously seeking. When talking with customers, support personnel should be much more focused on solving problems, first.

Most importantly, though, is the way customers are treated by customer service reps. The customer must always be given the benefit of the doubt. Obviously if the customer lives in a problem area, they should not be asked to check -- let alone reinstall -- their TCP/IP stack, or the cables at the back of their computer. This is just common sense, yet it is something which is completely neglected across countless technical support departments throughout North America.

With respect to cable modem service, there are many places within the infrastructure where something can go wrong: in-house wiring, components (TVs, VCRs) connected to that wiring, splitters, drop cables, neighborhood trunks, client cable modems, headend cable modems, fibre nodes, reverse path nodes, distribution hubs, cable modem termination systems (CMTS), headend routers, distribution circuits, backbone interconnects, and the Internet backbones, themselves.

The last two are not directly part of the local infrastructure, but they will still greatly influence end-to-end connectivity. In addition, there are many places at or near the customer's computer where problems can develop: operating systems, applications, hardware (network interface cards and connecting cables), and the TCP/IP protocol stack. These items, although very important, should always be considered secondary to their counterparts in the service provider's infrastructure. Proper diagnosis of these problems is not always possible in the beginning, so that's why it is imperative that customers' complaints and comments be taken seriously and catalogued.

When problems plague subscribers' connections, as has happened recently, either for an extended period of time, or to such a degree as to render their high speed Internet service, for example, a mere fraction as fast as those of their peers', operators should issue credits if sought by those customers.

I don't believe in automatic credits unless major interruptions in service develop, which everyone is clearly aware of. Providers should be using those monetary resources, which might normally be issued towards a mass credit, to clear up the outstanding problem(s). Customer research studies have repeatedly shown that only a small proportion of customers will actually seek compensation when faced with problematic products or services. The same is true for Internet services. Many people never even think of it.

They are only looking for better service.

Christopher Weisdorf is the president and technical director of the RHUA,

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