With cable and satellite television providers trailing other service industries in customer satisfaction - and Comcast scoring below its rivals - Rick Germano has his work cut out for him.
Germano, formerly head of Comcast's California operations, was promoted last year to senior vice president, customer operations, for the Philadelphia-based company's national cable business.
In a recent interview with Mercury News Columnist Vindu Goel, Germano discussed Comcast's efforts to improve every aspect of customer service, from repair and installation visits to billing. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
Q. What's your view of how Comcast is doing on the customer service front?
A. We are excelling at great product development, whether it's video, online or telephone. We're excelling at rapid growth.
Those two good things are causing us to play catch-up on the customer service piece. We've hired 15,000 new customer-facing agents in the last year and a half, and we're rapidly trying to bring them up to speed on training and competency.
Q. Are you saying service issues are a relatively recent phenomenon?
A. I'd be lying if I said we have always been known as a great service provider. We have not. I think the whole industry has not been known as a great service provider. That's why I'm here.
You can go back 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and it was all about growth. Demand for our products seemed almost insatiable. We never spent as much time or as much focus on the service piece of the business.
Q. What are you doing to make improvements?
A. We've hired a lot of trainers to hold classes, welcome people to the company, give them a basic understanding of our products and services and a tutorial on all the tools that they have at their disposal to do their job.
It's complex because there are a lot of permutations as you mix and match different products. It's not like putting a guy in McDonald's and saying, "This is how you make fries."
We've invested a tremendous amount of money in what we call node health and capacity management: Is there enough bandwidth to handle all the phone signals, all the video-on-demand streams, all the online signals? We've seen our repair calls with our online and telephone products drop significantly. If it was 82 percent perfect before, it's now well into the 90s.
The challenge is the video product. Because it's been around for so long and gone through so many permutations and every customer has something a little different, we don't have good monitoring tools. We're just introducing video monitoring probes into various points in the network to actually measure signal degradation before it shows a tile or picture freeze on the TV.
I would hope that within a year, we could really knock down the number of reported customer incidents of "My TV is not working to my satisfaction."
Q. One of the things that drives people the battiest is waiting around in a four-hour window for a technician who doesn't show up. What are you doing about that?
A. We have tightened windows. In the old days, it was, "We'll be there on Tuesday." Then it became, "We'll be there between 8 and 12, or between 12 and 4." We are pushing very hard in 90 percent of the visits to tighten that to a two-hour window.
The second thing we're doing: pre-call every customer the night before and say, "I just want to confirm your appointment tomorrow."
Q. The Bay Area is a test market for some new customer service initiatives. Can you tell us about them?
A. California is a lot of our beta prototypes: dynamic dispatch, laptops in technicians' hands and home certification meters.
With dynamic dispatch, the technician goes out to his first job. He's under no rush. He will do a complete home certification with a new diagnostic tool. He will close out that work. While he's confirming his next job, the dispatcher is calling the next appointment and saying he will be there within the next 30 minutes.
If somebody is running late, then the dispatcher, like an air traffic controller, knows where the next available agent is.
I guess for places like FedEx, or UPS or even local cement companies, this is not a highly sophisticated thing. For us, it is yet another great, great improvement.
Q. What are the new diagnostic tools?
A. A technician will literally have a laptop that can access all kinds of diagnostic tools online about the premises.
He will also have a brand-new meter that will run a 150-point check of the house.
This is new for us. We didn't have it six months ago. We've tested the meter in San Francisco and San Jose, and it's working fabulously. The number of customer-reported incidents has dropped tremendously on a year-over-year basis.
Q. It seems that a lot of problems are related to poor communication with customers. Is there some way that Comcast can improve that?
A.Easy communication with the customer is something we can do better at.
We'll be introducing a new bill, for example, later on in the year that explains to a customer what a pro-rated month is or when their promotion will actually end. It's much more direct and formal.
Our challenge is - we're working on it in a project called Fusion - more self-service applications. You can go to Comcast.net or Comcast.com, view everything about your account. Again, that's not something we can do as well as other companies today.
I just sent to the VP of customer care in California a prototype of a new self-help site that we hope to introduce. We're actually testing it with customers now in some of our online forums and we're getting some good ideas.
That's another thing we're doing better now: listening to customers.
I've been on a listening tour, traveling around to all of our markets and talking to customers and talking to employees and asking them, "What can we do better? What did we do wrong?"
We're coming to the Bay Area on May 7.
Q. How can customers get in touch with you?
A. The office of Rick Germano (www.comcastsupport.com/forms/contact/RickGermano) is something new. If you have a problem and it's not getting solved, please send it to me. Or if you have an idea and a question, you can send that. We've been real good at quick turnaround on responses.