Posts about cable

How to handle an ass (like me)

I want to love my cable company – honestly, I do. They bring me things I love and depend upon. I love TV. I really, really love the internet. (The phone? Well, I love that, too – but unfortunately for the cable company, it’s my iPhone I adore.)

So why don’t I love my cable company? We all know why: because it’s a marriage as ruined as the one in War of the Roses. It’s a relationship built entirely on aggression and passive aggression, on each party trying not to give the other one what it wants, on stonewalling or fighting. So how do you change that? I speculated in What Would Google Do? about what a cable or phone company run by Google (GT&T) would be like, but that’s only wishful thinking.

After my contretemps with Cablevision this week – and the ensuing lively discussion about it in the comments here, on other blogs, and in Twitter – I’ve been trying to think about it how this relationship can be rebuilt. Because I don’t like the relationship and I don’t like the way I am in it.

When my internet didn’t work. I called the company and its employee read off a script: ‘Sorry to hear that sir, let’s try this. Oh, that doesn’t work. We’ll see you in three days.’ I then operate off my script: ‘That’s unacceptable. I pay for the service. I want it fixed ASAP.’ Them: ‘No.’ Me: Get me a supervisor.’ Them, after much argument – because it always takes argument: ‘OK, tomorrow, but you have to wait home all day.’ Me: ‘That’s unacceptable. I have a life.’

I pay for the service to work and want it to work. They want to maximize customer service efficiency (is that a sufficiently nice way to say it?). We end up in a standoff that, in my experience, can be broken only by outlasting them and being angry. It’s still a script. But I don’t like the role I play. I don’t like myself. I’m an ass. Because it works. I end up victorious – the internet I paid for is working again – but sullied and embarrassed by what I had to say to get the service I need. How to break that cycle?

There are a few new factors in the cable business in recent times.

First, cable companies have competitors (yay!) – well, at least one competitor: the phone company. In Twitter, it took no time at all – less time, indeed, than it took Cablevision to respond – for Verizon people to smell the carrion of a dead marriage and to seduce me.

Second, we have Twitter (and blogs and YouTube). As I said in the comments on the post below, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have because your message can spread and so the smart company has to respond. The people formerly known as consumers are now media.

But the company also has Twitter. Witness what Frank Eliason (aka @comcastcares) has done to respond to customers and to humanize his company. Oh, Comcast still has problems – Eliason will confess that – but the fact that I got better service on my Cablevision account from a Comcast employee speaks volumes. It says there’s a lesson to be learned there.

At the end of my Dell contretemps, I wrote an open letter to Michael Dell with what I sincerely hoped would be helpful advice. They didn’t change their ways because of what I said. But what they did end up doing what I suggested and I’ve since written about that in BusinessWeek and in my book.

So I’ve been trying to think of advice for Cablevision.

First, throw out the script. Give employees the ability to take responsibility, to deal with us honestly, and to get things fixed. That’s one of the things Dell did and it made a huge difference.

Second, become human. Comcast’s Frank Eliason is a person. He’s not a bot with standard answers. We wouldn’t stand for that; as the Cluetrain Manifesto teaches, markets are conversations and we recognize when they are being held by man vs. machine. Microsoft, Dell, Sun, Comcast have all been enriched by enabling their people to talk with us as people. Not every employee will be capable of that; it’s the ones who are you want working and speaking for you.

Third, I’d invest in customer service as the best form of advertising possible. Zappos learned that lesson and it just earned them $900 million.

Fourth, create a service level agreement (SLA) so customers know what to expect when they call and so they can hold the company to it. That’s the real problem. We come loaded for bear because we know what’s going to happen, we know the script: the cable company is going to push us off as far as possible and we’re going to demand as soon as possible. The agreement becomes an assurance (natural disasters aside) we can count on and we know the consequences.

Fifth, you’re not going to believe that I’m saying this, but charge for better service. Yes, I would complain about that. But here’s the way I think it would play out: The cable company charges for a good SLA; its competitor, the phone company, sees the competitive advantage of advertising that you get that included with them; the cable company is then forced to meet the challenge. And we end up with the SLA. If we don’t, I predict that local governments and the FCC and FTC may impose them. So I suggest you figure out the way to get there on your own.

Sixth, make it a goal to have delighted customers. Yes, I know, that sound silly: fodder for needlepoint. But go back to the beginning: I want to love my cable company. If – surprise, surprise, surprise – I do, I’m going to talk about that. In the age of Twitter, that’s the best advertising you can get. This is how the investment in customer service will pay off: with advertising that’s better than anything you put in TV or newspapers … and it’s free. And it keeps customers from leaving for Verizon. That’s how a company takes advantage of the free economy.

This attitude also might motivate cable companies to change other policies that irk, like bundling in dozens of channels I have to pay that I never watch. But the issue that bothers most people about their cable companies is dealing with them for installation and service. That’s what I’d concentrate on first. Service isn’t a favor you do for customers, as various employees implied with me. It’s how you live up to your deal and delight customers.

You see, I’m not an ass. I only play one on the phone to get what I think I deserve in a business deal in which I have no power other than that. And, cable guys, I know you’re not lazy slugs trying to rip me off; that’s just the script they make you read from the policies they set in the front office. Can’t we all get along?

Drowning upstream

Here’s what I think is a pretty solid business tip: I wouldn’t back or bet on a company and industry that’s described this way in today‘s New York Times (my emphasis):

Like newspaper owners, media moguls are looking for new ways to protect their investment from the ravages of the Internet. And, as with the newspaper industry, the answer remains elusive.

I’d rather invest in a company that will take advantage of the new opportunities of the internet, not seeing ravages in the future but instead growth and profit. I’ve said often that protection is no strategy for the future. An industry whose strategy for the future is built on trying to keep us from doing what we want to do and resist the flow of the internet is an industry that is merely biding time. That should be the lesson they learn from newspapers and music.

Yes, I think that the tactic described in that story, put forward by Time Warner’s Jeffrey Bewkes, of enabling us to watch shows we’ve already paid for online makes sense. Indeed, I refuse to use HBO on demand on cable today because they want to charge me extra to watch what I’ve already paid for. So I’ll rush to the chance to watch my shows without having to go through the bother of recording them or paying for them twice.

But the real future is an on-demand future, an unbundled future. Once freed from the forced march of cable bundles, I will buy only the content I want to buy online, no longer being bribed into supporting the 90 percent of cable channels I never watch so I can get the 10 percent I want.

For that matter, what’s a channel? I was an an event last week with entertainment moguls of various camps and one asked another whether the channel would die. The second exec didn’t think so. At first, I agreed, as I pictured myself on the couch watching one of the channels I do care about.

But then I pictured my kids on the couch. They’re not doing what I do. They never just watch channels (tennis matches excluded). They live on-demand. They watch programming only through the web, Hulu, the DVR, on-demand channels. Some look at that future, our kids’ future, and see “the ravages of the internet.” They’re not long for this world; they’re only trying to delay the inevitable. They’re trying to swim upstream against the internet. But they’re only going to drown there.

Comcast spared the electric chair

Bob Garfield declares victory against Comcast from his ComcastMustDie shock & awe. What, so he installed Verizon?

No, he points to stories in the Times and Post about the new Comcast attitude and praises Comcast for having…

…institutionalized the practice of listening, in live forums around the country but especially on the internet, to resolve individual problems and learn about the (many, gaping) holes in its customer-service operations.

Does this solve the biggest part of their structural problems? No, not by a long shot. They acquired cable systems too fast and have been inexcusably slow in building network-wide infrastructures for installation, repair and the most rudimentary customer-relations management. In short, they still totally suck. (As Comcast quality czar Rick Germano euphemistically frames the situation, “There’s a lot of upside for us.”) But they are investing a lot of money to build those very structures, and have turned a corner in corporate culture.

Glad he pointed that out. The only real solution to bad customer-service and public-relations problem is to have a great product and service. No — no — cable company is there yet because I argue that they are still built around telling us what we cannot do (no, you can’t watch what you’ve bought whenever and wherever and on whatever you want; no, you can’t just plug in your expensive and sophisticated TV but you have to put this clunky, stupid box inbetween you and the world of possible entertainment and information; no, you can’t host anything to the world because we don’t think you’re creative; no, you can’t download that much; no, you can’t upload that much; no, you don’t have a life and so you have to wait all day for the cable guy). Cable companies are still built on fucking us. But at least now they’re grinning while they do it.

Nonetheless, give credit where it is due: Comcast has made a number of important changes in its relationship with its now-empowered customers and, like Dell, it has benefitted as a result. They also vow to take a next step and within a year play host to a ComcastMustDie on their own. But why wait a year? In the spirit of cooperation, I’ll suggest that they can do it now with — which they apparently are using, with Comcast employees interacting there — and with an equivalent of MyStarbucksIdea and Dell IdeaStorm — where people can make real suggestions.

In any case, the cause of vendor relations management marches on.

Time Warner Cable chokes customers

Time Warner is testing throttled — severely throttled — tiered pricing for internet access, putting it at odds with its customers, with the media industry, and with the future of the internet. I’d like to discuss how they could think differently about their business and customers. What if, instead of a gatekeeper, they saw themselves as platforms or technology innovators or catalysts or enablers?

The AP reports (via PaidContent) that TW will charge subscribers in Beaumont, Texas, will be charged $29.95 a month for slow service at 768 kilobits per second and a 5-gigabyte monthly cap up to $54.90 per month for 15 megabits per second and a 40-gigabyte cap; going over will cost them $1 per gig. For scale, the AP points out, a standard def movie is about 1.5 gigabytes and a high-definition movie is 6 to 8 gigs.

So Time Warner could end up charging customers more for watching a movie than the service selling the movie, whether that is iTunes or Netflix. I’m sure that’s quite on purpose. It is TW’s FU to the net neutrality debate: If we can’t gouge both ends of the pipe, we’ll doubly gouge the one that is stuck with us.

I happen to know that cable companies were making roughly 40 percent margins on the internet access a few years ago. Since then, bandwidth costs to them have been doing down but those savings have not been passed onto customers. Meanwhile, equipment and marketing costs are being amortized. So I’m betting the margins are only getting better. Their poor-mouthing is disingenuous at best. Still, they say that 5 percent of customers take up half their bandwidth and they say that’s not fair. So some cap may be reasonable. Note also that Comcast considering a cap of 250 gigs/month. The problem to date has been that cable companies have not told customers their caps or their recourse (witness the throttling of Dave Winer by cutting him off).

TW’s cap is unreasonable and it is nonsensical as a business strategy.

Start with the basic lesson Tom Evslin taught us about internet usage. He, as I’ve pointed out here before, is the unsung hero who made the internet explode when he offered $19.95 flat-rate, all-you-can-eat dial-up access at AT&T Worldnet. Here is his view of subscription pricing and caps. From the AP story: “‘The metered Internet has been tried and tested and rejected by the consumers overwhelmingly since the days of AOL,’ information-technology consultant George Ou told the Federal Communications Commission at a hearing on ISP practices in April.”

We the customers don’t like worrying that we’re going to go over and so we use a metered service less and resent it more. It’s just not good for TW’s relationship with customers — all customers not that 5 percent they hate — to make them all try not to use TW’s service. That is a conflict.

TW is also in a conflict with media models — and you’d think they’d understand that since they are coming out of a media company (though, believe me, having worked there, synergy is not a goal, it is treated as an evil; Warner fought TW Cable hard to try to stop them from using the Roadrunner brand). The essence of the media model is that you want your customers to consume more and more: more pageviews, more shows, more podcasts, more, more more. TW Cable is making itself the enemy of more.

So now both ends of the pipe will hate TW Cable, though TW cable won’t care because it is still a monopoly in most markets. But here comes competition from Verizon. And someday, I still hope that we’ll get mesh and mobile networks to compete with the duopolies. So the monopolistic screw-your-customer model is not a strategy for the future.

So what is a cable company to do?

For starters, it’s a hopeful sign that Comcast is working with Bittorrent to figure out how peer-to-peer can be a friend, not an enemy. Comcast is still reportedly secretly throttling P2P and certain other classes of traffic; that’s evil. But if cable companies used P2P to make their networks more efficient, that’d only be smart.

It’d also be smart if they became technology innovators bringing mesh networks to their own communities before new players bring in wireless competitors. What if I could get online anywhere in my town or my state thanks to my cable company? I’d have a deeper, more loyal relationship with them. But not if they tried to throttle my use of their service unfairly.

Next, if cable companies thought of themselves as platforms for local content creation and media, they’d increase usage and under their current business logic, that would be bad. But if they were built to take advantage of local media, it would be good. What if they encouraged and enabled churches, schools, clubs, sports teams to broadcast over their network? What if the cable company sold local advertising on that? What if they shared revenue with the locals to encourage them to do more? The cable company would explode uploads and downloads and but they would make new money on that traffic and build a stronger relationship with customers and the community. That’s a different way to think about the cost or the benefit of traffic.

What if the cable company became a host for media and content created in the community. They could charge me a reasonable rate for storage and bandwidth or, again, they could monetize my media and make us both money. Why haven’t cable companies been thinking like Amazon and now Google have to create the means to enable people to build content, services, and businesses atop their services? Because cable companies think like closed, monopolistic utilities and not platforms.

Now I look at my cable operator as the company that tells me what I can’t do, that has a bunch of rules and is always breathing down my neck to stop me from doing what I want to do, that is trying to nickel-and-dime me at every turn and charge me for things I don’t want.

What if, instead, I looked upon my cable company as a platform: a platform that helped me create content and benefit from that, a platform that connected the community better, a platform that served local businesses in new ways (beating newspapers and radio stations to the punch), a platform that kept me connected all the time, anywhere, easily? What if?

: Here’s the BBC getting internet customers to track their bandwidth and map it. The same issue is underway there as the BBC iPlayer is changing the way people watch TV and using a lot of bandwidth. The ISPs, a whining bunch, are complaining that some of the Beeb’s license fee should go to them. Maybe they, too, should look at new technical solutions that allow them to P2P the BBC’s programs.

It’s about frigging time

Jeezus H. Cable, what took them so long? The Wall Street Journal reports that TVs may soon be able to get TV without those damned cable boxes that do so little for so much with such bother:

Sony Corp. and six of the biggest U.S. cable operators announced an agreement to create digital televisions capable of receiving cable service without a set-top box.

Sony signed a pact with Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Cox Communications, Charter Communications Inc., Cablevision Systems Corp. and Bright House Networks to develop technology that will allow consumers to eliminate set-top boxes, yet still receive basic as well as advanced cable services, such as pay-per-view movies.

The new technological standard should enable a new generation of TVs to include video-on-demand, digital video recording, interactive programming guides, and other services, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said Tuesday. By eliminating the set-top box, cable companies can simplify installation and reduce costs, while consumers can worry about one less component in their home theater systems. . . .

Sony and the cable operators will adopt a Java-based application called tru2way as the nationwide interactive standard, which will allow for the manufacture of new “plug-and-play” interactive devices that can be used with TV sets.

The technology could also make it easier for consumers to receive the full range of cable-based services on other devices, such as laptops, MP3 players, and cellphones.

It’s not as if this took a single technological breakthrough. It simply took cable companies realizing that they make it too fucking difficult to get the service they offer and it’s getting far easier for us to watch TV via the internet (witness the incredible popularity of the BBC iPlayer in the UK). The cable box should have been dead at least a decade ago. The only thing that kept it alive was cable companies’ business model built around control and restriction. But you can no longer make a business on telling us what we can’t do.