My Day as a Cable Television Customer

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Or “How to ignore customers and then wonder why they left.”

Full disclosure: I worked for Comcast several years ago, and the following story sounds too familiar. I used to roll my eyes at the ceiling when I heard from customers in similar predicaments. I guess it was my turn a couple of weeks ago.

I came home one day a few weeks ago to find all but a few broadcast and shopping channels gone. Blank screens. Nada.

So, I called Comcast, and after a 15-minute wait on hold, they hung up on me (which is not the first time this has occurred). So, I called back and (again after a long hold) was finally able to speak with someone. He confirmed that I lost the channels due to a “realignment” and that I needed a new cable box to see them again.

There was no notification, no 30-second local ads on CNN, ESPN or Discovery Channel that they can use for free, nothing in the bill that I get for my high speed Internet, no separate post card like I sent Insight Communications and Verizon Wireless customers in another life when changes in technology were imminent. No, Comcast management apparently said to each other, “let’s surprise them!” It’s like the DirecTV ads with Ed Begley Jr. are real! It reminds me of the time a cable company moved their office in southern Indiana 12 years ago and didn’t bother to tell their subscribers. Is it forgetfulness, ignorance or apathy?

I get “expanded basic,” or whatever they call that now, included in the townhouse fees. Analog channels were dropped in the fall, but my Sony’s built-in digital “QAM” tuner could pick up all the digital channels crystal clear in 480i (which means “better quality than your old RCA tube TV”). When the company was on the property distributing boxes in August, every single person at the company, at my front door and on the phone, told me I wouldn’t need one since I had a digital tuner. OK, “cool!,” I thought.

I remembered Brian Roberts, Comcast Chairman and CEO, appearing on one of the cable news channels when the broadcast channels were switching to digital earlier in 2009, forcing anyone with an older TV and using an antenna to get a decoder box. Oh no, Mr. Roberts said, you don’t need one of those boxes with cable. Mr. and Mrs. Broadcast TV Viewer, come to Comcast. We will take care of you!

So, that night, the functionality of my Sony XBR’s built-in QAM tuner goes POOF! (or so I thought). And the cheap Motorola-branded “Digital Transport Adapter” set-top box they provide doesn’t work with any universal remote I have (and I have several). Folks on have been discussing this issue for months. Just a coax cable in, coax cable out. No HDMI. Not even a video/audio out. (Um, excuse me, Mr. Roberts? 1980 called. It wants its converter box back…)  Apparently, this thing is just enough to placate FCC regulations, and was obviously not tested to work with popular customer equipment like my Sony TV’s universal remote.

I was on the telephone with Comcast about these channels twice the next day, and neither representative could tell me why, when and how about anything, even after putting me on hold for interminable lengths of time. I thought I had finally found the answer about why these changes were made after Googling a March 2009 newspaper story from the Seattle Times, a city where customers can get two of the “DTAs” and one “advanced” set top box for free, as that story mentioned Comcast had plans to “encrypt” (or electronically scramble) all but a few channels. Hmmph… here in Atlanta, we get only two of the cheap DTAs. I feel slighted.

Why encrypt? It doesn’t save any bandwidth, as that occurred when they dropped analog channels. Beyond their public relations line from the Seattle Times of the “networks requesting it,” a story which I take with huge grain of salt, here are my thoughts:

  • to stop cable theft, but they end up penalizing their paying customers for failing to police their own cable plant
  • to effectively bar customers from using third party DVRs like TiVo and those in media center computers, and force them to use Comcast’s clunky DVR and even clunkier interactive program guide (compared to TiVo’s excellent browser), effectively creating a monopoly, especially for those of us where satellite reception is not feasible.

If they truly were concerned about customer service, the box would be switchable to:

  • allow downconversion to analog for older TVs, and
  • provide simple pass-through decryption of the FCC-mandated local HD channels and reception of 480i cable channels for use on HDTVs so customers could still use their equipment’s internal tuners.

They would also provide many more options for cable boxes with CableCARDs, which is a great idea that was never marketed the way it should have been, and was engineered poorly, since multiple truck rolls were often necessary to get it working and keep it working.

However, this Motorola box doesn’t pass the broadcast HD signals, so I had to jury rig the box for regular cable via routing through a VCR so I could switch back and forth between cable channels and local HD broadcasts that flow through the cable pipe.

I was also back to using 2 remotes, as the poor excuse for a “universal” remote that comes in the box is that in name only, since I can only get it to turn off my 2006-model HD TV that uses standard Sony IR codes… not turn it on or change the volume. The quality of the digital channels lowered dramatically by going through the “DTA,” as they were now analog and no longer 480i, and frankly looked terrible on the 40″ LCD.

Of course, they would rent me a HD box, right? Sure, if they had them in stock. But they didn’t. They’d gladly rent me a HD-DVR, though, at a much higher rate. Um, no. I wasn’t paying a dime for better quality TV signals and more convenience the day before.

When I marketed cable, one of the last major pluses of Cable TV we could tout was the fact “we” didn’t force our customers to put a box on every TV like the satellite guys did. Well, that selling point is now moot. Several years ago, I had TV from Dish Network and High Speed Internet from the cable company, and I see that in my future again. And I paid less than the full cable package.

Actions like this simply push some of their best customers away to competitors. Sigh.

They must have meetings to discuss how they will prompt more customers to get satellite dishes, just like a couple of my neighbors were doing the day after they turned on their TVs to find just a handful of channels left on their new whiz-bang LCDs and plasmas.

Cable, overall, is getting beaten handily by the satellite and phone companies (yes, the phone companies!) on JD Powers TV satisfaction ratings. I do applaud the cable operators that seem to care, like Cox, and are rated accordingly. But most of the country is served by cable operators that are, sadly, rated below average.

Wait! My story is not over. I got my channels back… stay tuned.

The cable went completely out at the townhouse complex the next day. Was fixed about 6 hours later. Did the same thing the next day after 24 hours of heavy rain just before I left for the Comcast office to pick up my cable boxes. After some poking around, I found it was probably a bad amplifier outside (analog channels 2-13 were snowy, the shopping channels higher up, and still on analog, were crystal clear). When I put a 2-way splitter in line, both the digital cable and Internet were kaput.

When I called to report the outage, and even though I identified myself as someone who knows more than the average bear and even likely correctly diagnosed their problem, they would not call it an “outage” and would not roll a truck. So, no service call was available until Monday “between 2 and 5.” I finally got things duct-taped together by moving the cable modem into another room and hooking it up there. But I still couldn’t split the cable in the living room to watch HD broadcast TV. Until two days later, that is, after the sun came out and dried up the water inside the amplifier. I hope it doesn’t rain again for more than a few minutes at a time!

And there’s more…

When I was picking up the boxes at their office in north Atlanta:

  • the line moved slower than the one at the post office. Really.
  • the automatic payment machine wasn’t working. No surprise there.
  • 2 of the 5 employees were chewing gum as they slowly assisted customers.
  • the sloppily-dressed security guard was talking to one customer service rep, saying loudly — for the 30 people in line to hear — how he “was really pi__ed” about something as she giggled at him.

Amazing. This kind of stuff would not have been tolerated at Calgary Cable tv/fm in the old days. Or Rifkin. Or Insight. Certainly not Verizon.

And, yes, I got my channels back completely by mistake… I was pressing buttons on the Sony’s remote, and hit the “reprogram” button when I was going for the “find other digital channels” button. Guess what? It found all the channels. Comcast had moved them. All of them, except for a few. The XBR saved the day, and I’m back to watching my favorite shows in decent quality.

Obviously, nobody at Comcast technical operations told their customer service people they had done this. No, it’s simply easier to inconvenience customers and tell them they need a cable box that diminishes picture quality.  I’m dreading the day that I turn on the TV and find them encrypted. When will this happen? Beats me. But it likely will. Apparently, Comcast doesn’t tell anyone that deep, dark secret, not even their customer service people.  If someone simply would have told me that they’d moved the QAM channels that day, we would have avoided all this, and you would not be reading this column now; the folks on the phone didn’t say this, and neither did the representative in person at the cable office.

This company just bought NBC??? I’m envisioning the new 2010 fall schedule promos: “Jay Leno! Tonight! Sometime between 8 and midnight… Maybe!”

Update January 26 2010. The Poor Service Saga continues:  The cable went off again over the weekend, but this time I didn’t report it; my neighbors did.  The following photos are Comcast’s handy work in fixing the problem; it’s been this way since early Sunday morning with no indication of when the problem that caused the outage will be fixed permanently; a technician at my home today couldn’t tell me.  Obviously, this is a safety hazard.  Not shown is a long line stretching across a commonly-used driveway for 8 townhomes that can easily be cut or trip someone.  These lines should have been secured via duct tape (or in some other fashion) to the concrete and these huge loops of cable should not be there.  If the service supervisors I know saw this, there would be a closed door session with the guilty party!

Comcast temporary lines and safety hazard stretching across the front doors of 4 townhomes, and the driveway to 8.

Update April 15 2010. I woke up to find all my digital channels encrypted without any kind of warning from Comcast.  Again. Forcing me to hook up the cheap cable box.  I’m now back to watching blurry channels.  Sigh.

Takeaways to consider…

  1. Answer your phone
  2. Listen to your customers
  3. Train your staff to be always courteous, helpful and knowledgeable
  4. Communicate!
  5. Deliver on your customer service promises
  6. All of your investment in excellent marketing can be wasted if you provide poor service.

Should nonprofits get more "professional" in their branding and marketing?

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Recently, when I was involved in a discussion concerning mid-sized to large nonprofit organizations, someone wondered if there were things that these nonprofits need to do in areas of good marketing practices. Nonprofit organizations have been particularly hurting during this recession as donors stop donating and members stop joining or renewing.

In my experience when compared to well-run for-profit businesses, I find that there is a definite rift between good and bad marketing and business practices in many organizations, whether they are nonprofit or for-profit. However, problems are seemingly more apt to occur in the nonprofit industry. Is this out of complacency or a lack of (until now) years-long bottom-line business pressure?

I have found via my own experience that cost control is often atrocious, simply because nobody shopped around, or the accountants were either too inexperienced or too comfortable in their roles. I’ve uncovered ridiculous amounts of waste. And often, things simply don’t turn on a dime as they need to do in business. Whether they like it or not, non-profits are in business — a business of helping others.

Often, a nonprofit will be too inclusive: it will not bring in specialists — either outsourced or as an employee — to fix or consult on their problems. These nonprofit “leaders” would rather sit around a table in their own bubble to decide the best road to take on an issue without considering the bigger picture. If they do go outside for help, they usually bring in someone from the same niche in the nonprofit industry instead of looking for new blood and thinking. And, even if that disparate expertise is brought in, resistance to change is often huge: “We’ve been doing this for 20 years / using this vendor for 10 years, so why should we change now?”

I’ve seen CEOs hired by boards of directors that, frankly, would be middle managers in a corporation; they manage but don’t lead. To be a CEO, you need to be a leader, not a project manager, widget supervisor or engineer.

Often, if one person is not working out in a role, they will simply move in another person from a different part of the organization, even if that second person has no idea what they’re doing. “Oh, but they know the business” is the excuse. Real businesses do not play musical chairs with shareholders’ money, which should be the same with donors’ or members’ contributions.

Or, they’ll hire young people right out of college with zero business experience to be supervised by others that were hired the same way previously: the blind leading the blind.

It all boggles the mind. I’ve seen these kinds of things occurring to an extent in the for-profit world, but not as much.

Therefore, many nonprofits are much more difficult to change, which is a serious problem in times of economic strife, as they don’t know any better, nor have the experienced people on board to make required adjustments.


How marketing agencies, marketers and freelancers can help ensure success or survival during a recession

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The following question was asked in a LinkedIn group recently. “With many clients freezing spending or reducing projects to a trickle, what do you feel is the smartest strategy to keep business rolling?”

Companies everywhere are slowing marketing and creative to a crawl if it’s not tied to immediate ROI, just as many companies are putting the brakes on R&R. Marketing budgets are a huge target, especially if quantified results cannot be proven. Many marketers are being let go as the recession continues. Many companies are, frankly, simply reducing prices and hoping for volume to make up for margins (which is often ill-advised in the long run, but seemingly unavoidable in the CEO and CFO offices); marketing savvy and expertise are obviously not needed to slap a lower price on something.

During this recession, “warm fuzzies” and branding will not be as sellable as they once were. Companies will continue using their current branding if it is at least acceptable. Some branding may need attention, especially for products and services that need to refocus on the value of their product, or a lower price for it. However, there will not be as much branding occurring until the recovery.

The strategy in many CEO suites now is: get people to buy what we have on the shelves, and keep those customers until we can afford to market new product. Those marketers in branding and feel-good areas (the right-brained creative folks) will continue to suffer until the turnaround and those skills may not be as valued afterwards unless they can prove their ROI worth. Those professionals that will succeed, stay alive and indeed ferret out new opportunities will straddle both left brained rational and fiscal sides of business, the science of marketing, and the art of telling the story.

So, whatever you do, offering extended payments, credit, etc. (which shifts the burden to the agency and pretty much working on spec — or close to it), are not going to sell unless you can prove future payback to the buyer. For one, you’re running the risk of your client throwing in the towel. You’re also entering the collections business, and that can turn into a huge headache. Unless you’re a deep-pocketed agency or consultant, offering extended payment options will potentially kill your business in the long run.

The answer is? Showing benefits, benefits, benefits. The argument is the numbers you can generate for clients now. They’re looking for lights out of the tunnel, so if a good case can be made to generate dollars, the coffers might open.

Frankly, discounting (beyond something like 5% off professional services for immediate payment) often damages your value. There are many competitors spinning their wheels working on spec right now — which is a huge mistake in my opinion. If it’s not generating income, do something else. If you’re worth it, and can prove it, clients will pay… maybe not today or tomorrow, but will when they see value and get a green light to spend money.

Take the time, too, to increase your value: a new coat of paint on your website, SEO, SEM, professional networking, pro bono work for charities. What goes around will eventually come around. The agencies that stay top of mind will get the first calls once the brakes come off, just like the companies that don’t stop marketing will come out much further ahead after the recession.

Another opportunity is filling voids of those that have been laid off. When companies cut their marketing expenses, they also created huge chasms in their resources and capability to react. With positioning, you can help fill that void.

direct mail

Should non-profits and businesses stop direct mail campaigns in tough times?

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It may be easier for businesses and non-profits to stop direct mail campaigns in tough economic times, but is it a wise long term decision to stop mailing to current and potential customers or donors all together?


It’s not a good idea to stop mailing. You need to keep telling your story, because things will eventually turn around, and those that have told their story correctly will benefit much more in better times than others that will be beginning all over again.

It is a good idea to target your mailing more scientifically by merging your house data files with other lists of people more inclined to give, or mine your data for similar information.

Bill Clinton touched on this during a recent CNN interview with Larry King when discussing his foundation. He sees the only real possibilities of success during this downturn coming not from the major donations he was getting before for his causes, but more smaller donations from a wider group of people: the Obama model. People who care should continue to give something, and there may be others that have not been targeted with the right message that can give $10 or $20 when previously they were put off by the $100 requests.

Now is not the time to pull back, but to get more intelligent and frugal about it.

direct mail, direct marketing

Direct Marketing in an economic downturn

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I just responded to this question posed on LinkedIn, and thought it would be a good first post here:

“Can anybody point me to reliable statistics on overall industry trends in direct mail volume and response rates?
Even before the downturn, I’d been hearing from clients that direct mail response rates are dropping. This is a very broad generalization and I’m sure actual results vary by industry, audience, use of data, etc. But anybody can point me to some reliable numbers, I’d really appreciate it.
Also, I’ve also noticed fewer offers in my inbox and friends of mine report they often come home and find nothing in their mailboxes. Again, are there any reliable statistics on falling mail volumes or even volume per household / company.”

My response:

DM News, August 13 2008: “According to the USPS, total mail volume was down 5.5% in Q3 of 2008 (ending June 30)… The USPS said that the decrease in volume is the result of a slow down in the economy, ‘particularly the financial and real estate sectors, which are heavy users of the mail.'”

Who’s Mailing What will tell us what the industry is doing and where it may be going, or what the industry is testing or striving towards. Response rates and cost effectiveness by company, product, industry and target are not available in any central database; at least, I’ve never seen anything like that. There are some benchmarks, but nothing comprehensive that has truly helped me with DM planning decisions for a specific product or company. It’s micro and macro studies of history at a particular company, and in an industry (if that data is available), that will help form a direction for future DM efforts. Any other data is gravy. Analytics will become of huge importance, as will being able to quickly test various versions of DM messages and pieces to arrive at the most cost-effective creative (for example, multivariate testing instead of AB splits).

With new technologies, and even tighter customer targets being forced upon businesses by the economy, effective DM will no doubt experience an increase in both results and the size of the marketing pie. The trouble is that more and more effort will be needed to determine the right paths and messages to use. Businesses that cut DM budgets and resort (or regress) to using a shotgun approach to marketing will no doubt suffer, and will not understand why things are working — or more importantly — not working. Now is the time to put even more resources towards DM, whether it is mail, email or mobile (or even such guerilla marketing tactics as targeted and tracked door hangers), even if the overall marketing budget shrinks.

General advertising will decrease further as I see it, and become less effective. The science, combined with the art, of direct marketing will become of much greater importance, along with data and analytics bedfellows.

Direct mail has been falling in volume for the past few years, but the most cost effective mail will continue and thrive. As expressed by John Greco in a letter to DMA members this month, businesses need to fine-tune their relationships with their customers even further. Branding, often thought of as a separate entity, will need to become almost as scientific as DM. A logo, company name and slogan will have to sell, not just be a “warm fuzzy” that looks nice to a board of directors. Everyone in the company will need to be a marketer to a degree. Everything a company does must have the customer in mind, and not just count the customer as an “accounting unit.” Keeping that customer — and keeping that customer happy — become paramount.

Finally, consumers will become even more selective. It’s our job as DMers to identify who will respond, and devise the most effective offers that will get the phones ringing, customers licking envelopes and “order submit” buttons being pressed.