Cable fails to focus on customers

TV firms are struggling to switch on to service, says Chris Rowsell

Since they first started digging up the roads to lay their networks, cable firms seem to have had a bad reputation. Everyone had their favourite horror story, be it the loss of trees killed by the trenches or salesmen who refused to take no for an answer.

Now these same cable firms would like us to believe they have grown up. The industry has consolidated to leave only a handful of big players - Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC), NTL and Telewest. That is set to dwindle to two with NTL buying CWC. This rationalisation has brought more sophisticated marketing to promote them as hi-tech, cutting-edge, customer-focused companies.

But the Comparable Performance Indicators statistics collected and published on the service quality of telecoms operators, including the cable firms, suggest otherwise. Figures for the second half of 1998 show that in several key customer service areas most of the cable firms performed poorly against BT, which remains the industry benchmark. In the four main areas - prompt connection of new phone subscribers, number of faults reported, speedy handling of complaints, and accurate billing - CWC and Telewest lagged behind BT. Only NTL's figures bear comparison.

Anecodotes bear out the statistics. Tess Sullivan's phone was out of order for 13 days last month. Cable London, owned by Telewest, promised on three separate occasions to have the fault fixed that day. But the fault was only fixed after a fourth promise. Tess said: "I was given pounds 10 compensation and free line rental for three months, but it took over 10 phone calls to sort out, several from my mobile."

Although BT's service has im- proved over the past five years, it is worrying that only NTL among the cable companies can boast the same. But cable experts put this down to history.

"It is not the result of incompetence or disregard for customers," said Richard Woollam, ex-director general of the Cable Communications Association, the industry body, and now a managing partner of the European Communications Network consultancy. "It is due to the technical issues of combining all the customer service systems as the industry has consolidated from about 50 companies." But problems don't just lie with customer service or phone faults.

The picture quality of cable TV can also leave a lot to be desired. In March this year, Which? magazine revealed that its technical experts had checked the picture quality at 10 homes with cable TV. Bob Harrison, a senior scientist at Which? and the Consumer Association's lab, said: "The picture quality was poor in all 10 cases. A good aerial in an average reception area would have provided a better picture."

In 1995, Steve Tetchner was tempted to sign up to Telewest by the promise of a better picture. He spent three years trying to get problems with his cable reception sorted out. After several visits from Telewest engineers, it was eventually found his set-top box was tuned incorrectly. Mr Harrison said: "This was a typical problem in the homes we visited. It should have been spotted quickly and sorted out."

A spokesperson for CWC said: "We've recognised for some time that our customer service is not as good as we would wish to provide. That is why we've invested pounds 100m in customer service in the last 12 months. But it's not a quick-fix problem."

Stephen Powers of Telewest pointed out that in the past 18 months the company had reduced churn, the rate at which customers leave, by 7 per cent. At the same time, penetration rose to 35 per cent.

"This demonstrates our commitment to customer service." he said. "We're continually investing in and working on improving our customer service."

The good news for frustrated cable viewers is that these problems are likely to become a thing of the past as digital cable replaces analogue.

So far, competition among cable companies has focused on price and cheap TV-phone packages. But consumers want more than just low prices; quality of service and reliability matter. After all, despite the plethora of cheap phone deals, 84 per cent of subscribers are still with BT. Until the cable companies are able to match BT's service, they will not be viable competitors. It can't be coincidence that NTL had both the best service record and the highest penetration rate in the cable industry.

Chris Rowsell is the senior researcher for communications services at `Which?' magazine

COMPARABLE PERFORMANCE INDICATORS

BT NTL TELEWEST CWC

Connecting new subscribers in the promised time (%) 97 98 90 83

Number of faults reported (per 100 customer lines) 4.1 2.3 4.5 6.6

Percentage of complaints resolved within 20 working days 99 95 92 71

Number of billing complaints (per 1,000 bills) 2.4 0.4 3.5 4.7

NTL has franchises in Northern Ireland, South Wales, parts of Glasgow and various parts of England. Telewest serves much of Scotland, as well as various parts of England. CWC operates mostly in London.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Equity | New York

Not specified: Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Global Equity | New Yor...

Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation

Not specified: Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation This top tiered investment...

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect