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Should Bright House, Verizon customers be worried?

Charter and Frontier rank low with current customers, who aren't shy with complaints. [Times file]

Published Jun. 15, 2015

What happens when two cable TV companies ranked as having superior customer service are taken over by firms whose record of keeping consumers smiling is inferior and, according to some, wretchedly so?

If you currently get your Internet or cable from Bright House Networks or Verizon FIOS, you may soon find out.

Charter Communications announced last month it plans a merger with Bright House and Time Warner Cable, a combination Charter's chief boasted will lead to improved service. Earlier this year, Frontier Communications said it was buying the regional Internet and cable TV assets of Verizon FIOS, including Verizon's Florida business.

Neither Charter nor Frontier have fared as well as Bright House and Verizon in surveys of customer satisfaction, such as the annual report by J.D. Power & Associates.

Charter especially has come to resemble a bloodied boxer, with recent media reports of irate customers warning of poor service to come should the merger with Bright House go through.

If and when these worlds collide, the companies involved insist residents will face no decline in service and may hardly notice that the name on their billing statement has changed. Not all consumer advocates are convinced, with some pointing out that in American business, the "bigger is better" mantra might mean lower prices at the expense of customer service.

"It's like any business," said Shep Hyken, a customer service expert and author on the topic of the customer experience. "In order to truly do it right, it's going to cost a little bit more money. … You can't offer the lowest price and create great service. It's almost impossible."

Others suggest it is all a guessing game.

"There is no way anybody can know," telecom analyst Jeff Kagan said. "But the same people running the Bright House operation today should be the same people who will continue to run it under the Charter name. Theoretically, that is good. So the customer service should be the same."

One thing is clear. The cable TV and Internet industry remains one of the least-admired in the nation, often ranking at the bottom or near the bottom of surveys, a fact acknowledged by providers. Consumers like former Charter customer Jim Andersen have diminished expectations.

Andersen recently moved from Oregon to San Diego, ending his Charter service. But it continued to bill him, Andersen said.

Still, he doesn't want to pick on Charter.

"It's the whole industry, really," Andersen said. "All the cable companies are a lot more interested in signing up a new customer than retaining the ones they already have."

• • •

Bruce Temkin, who founded the Temkin Group in Boston to work with companies to improve customer service, said the industry got that bruised reputation for a simple reason.

"They earned it," he said.

Temkin said Charter and Frontier cannot simply meld their organizations with Bright House and Verizon and rest on the assumption that nothing will change for the customer.

If that comes to pass, he said, "The consumer should expect poorer service."

In any combination, whether it involves cable and Internet providers or companies making cruise missiles, Temkin said the acquiring company often imprints the stamp of its processes and procedures on whatever it acquires.

"And that usually isn't pretty," Temkin said.

Spokesmen for both companies insist local customers will come to admire their service. They said they will keep Bright House and Verizon employees and existing customer service infrastructure if the deals happen. The merger and sale require federal approval, which may come by early 2016.

"This is not a 'come in and change the employees' situation," Charter spokesman Justin Venech said. "The employees of the company are part of the transaction."

He said Charter had hired 7,000 customer service employees since 2012 as it moved to shutter call centers outside the United States and terminated business with third-party firms so more service would be provided by Charter-trained workers.

"Charter is focused on changes we believe are not just surface changes but institutional changes" that will lead to better service, Venech said.

A Frontier spokesman said the company already ran all customer service operations in the United States, with no call centers in other nations.

"We have a local engagement philosophy," spokesman Steve Crosby said. "Instead of decisions being made back at our headquarters in Connecticut, they're done locally."

• • •

Analysts say the big cable and Internet providers know they have to get smarter about customer service. In an industry with roots in a monopolistic past, new competition has emerged.

Consumers can now ditch some or all of the cable TV offerings by signing up for services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. Even HBO will allow consumers to pick up their programs via the Internet without requiring customers to have an existing cable account with Bright House or Charter or anyone else.

"It's important for all the cable TV companies to get better because they have competition now," Kagan said. "The reason they never cared before is that they didn't have anything to lose. They didn't have to care."

Unhappy customers, he said, had few alternatives and, in some markets, none at all. Now, Kagan said, that is different.

"The entire cable industry knows they now need to focus on improving," he said.

Future Tampa Bay customers of Frontier and Charter will be able to look to one place to direct their thanks or scorn.

In a delicious coincidence, both companies are headquartered in Stamford, Conn.

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.

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