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Does IPTV need more technological miracles?

Or is customer service the answer?

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That should be no problem, because they'll be calling a help desk that has more attendants than customers. But what kind of customer to caller ratio is there going to be in the future?

Well, if competitor Comcast is anything to go by, and a story that is running around the US national papers this weekend, the story of a Comcast engineer falling asleep on the job. The full story was shown on a video posted on YouTube, the new public internet service for sharing videos with the world. The video is only one-minute long but shows the Comcast engineer asleep at a customer's home after he had called his office and been placed on hold for an hour, just like a powerless customer.

This is perhaps a measure of how arrogant Comcast is about its position as the foremost cable operation in the US, if not the world, with 21.5m customers. Comcast has not increased that customer base by a single new home in the past four years, and now it is an open secret just why that is.

DirecTV and the EchoStar Dish network have amassed 26m customers between them and are still adding them at a rate of around one million each a year. Given that they are increasingly up against the formidable triple play of the various cable operators, how is it that they can sign so many new customers?

Well, customer care might be part of the answer.

The first thing that incoming DirecTV boss Rupert Murdoch insisted on was finding the reasons behind the huge churn that represented an anchor on new sales. While only partly achieving his aim, Murdoch's combination of driving down churn and attracting high numbers of new customers, has driven the operation into profit.

Certainly he was working with the working classes of America here. Those homes that were outside the reach of cable or who thought they could not afford it. And the company has steadfastly cut off customers with poor payment histories and replaced them with customers that pay all their bills more regularly.

But knowing Murdoch, at least by reputation, we're pretty certain that one of the things he did was to find out what customers were saying about the service. Was it responsive to requests for changes, house moves, upgrades? How long did it take to repair a fault, or to answer a complaint? Was there an internet site dedicated to customers that had bad experiences with the company, and what, if anything could he do about it either directly, or through working with his customer care teams?

Americans will already know who which help desk they prefer to call, the cable operator or the phone company. But only one of them has had a major motion picture, or a dedicated episode of Seinfeld, made about them, and that's cable.

The telcos may be hated in the US for overcharging for voice, but at least they answer the help desk phone when it is called. The poor service record of how cable has set about keeping its customers happy, or not, stands out like a badge of honour among cable operators all over the world.

In the UK, NTL has a dedicated website called NTHell.com which updates with remarkable regularity the stories of horror at what happens when your cable connections fails. The same company wants to tidy up its image and hide itself under the brand name of the mobile company it has just bought, Virgin Mobile. So when it is called Virgin TV, which will win out - the impeccably powerful brand image of Richard Branson’s Virgin or the tardy, "customers come last" service record of NTL?

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