Your new pad is ace. All it needs now is cable. Easy! You'll be all set in no time; just take a vacation day and wait for some dude to show up and run a line to a box. What?
This is the unfortunate reality of cable. Instead of fixed appointments, cable companies force customers into multi-hour time slots for new installations. It doesn't have to be that way. With better planning, and better technology, you wouldn't have to wait. I mean, a four hour window‽ That's enough time for eight vasectomies. Which might actually be more pleasant.
Ask any cable company executive why they need a multi-hour appointment, and they'll give you the same dumb explanation: That their techs don't know what they'll encounter when they arrive at a location.
That's a lame excuse. What could possibly be so unexpected that it can't reasonably be estimated? Boxes? A mess? Sasquatch? If after 20 or 30 or 40 years in business your employees can't survey a job site and reasonably estimate the time required to complete a job, you need to train them better.
Sure. There may be holes that need to be drilled or some wire that needs to be pulled. There may be an old TV set that needs to be hooked up to a new DVR. But most of that can, and should, be sussed out in advance. Ask the customer what he's got before you send Johnny Cablequest over to his pad. Moreover, technicians encountering problems should be equipped to report back to home base so that the company can adjust. Is this particular job going to take all day? Might be a good idea to assign that technicians queue of appointments to another cable guy. Just a suggestion!
We surveyed a host of multichannel video providers. We wanted to know what their appointment window policies were—if they used dispatchers to help manage their techs in the field, and how often they had to send techs back after a new install. Totally reasonable questions, right? Apparently not.
Getting answers was tougher than a Waffle House steak. Time Warner and Cox flat-out refused to let us know their policies. Charter didn't return our emails (despite apparently having one of the better window times now that it's moving to a dispatch system). Admittedly, nobody likes to talk about their faults. And of course this little crusade isn't exactly a basket of bubblegum and rosewater for the cable industry. But if a company is too chickenshit to make its new customer policies public, that says more than we ever could.
It's also surprising, given that cable isn't the sole offender of the excruciating time slots. DirecTV, for example, schedules four hour appointment windows. This was a chance for the cable industry to defend its policies. And some did.
While all the companies who responded had appointment windows, they varied considerably, ranging from one to four hours. Time Warner wouldn't give us any answers, but we've heard it's scheduling new customer installs at four hour windows in New York City (and Bloomberg reports it has a three hour window nationally). Cablevision has a three hour window, unless you're the first appointment of the day, in which case you can have a dedicated appointment time.
Yet WOW, a cable overbuilder based out of Denver, schedules installs 80 percent of its new installs in just one to two hour windows. AT&T U-Verse also gives its customers a two-hour window. And perhaps most surprisingly, the company we talked to working the hardest to fix appointment windows is Comcast.
That's right, Comcast. I know.
Comcast has a shit reputation, and it's trying to fix that. It understands that long appointment windows make customers angry, and ultimately cost money. While some companies we spoke with more or less tried to justify large windows, Comcast declared a focus on closing them. The company is already implemented two hour windows in many parts of the country, and is moving to one hour slots in others. By the end of next year, all of its windows will be under two hours.
"We've found most customers are fine if a window is two hours or less," says Jenni Moyer of Comcast. "They just want us to show up within that window and get it done right the first time."
Damn. That's actually correct.
So how do Comcast and U-Verse prevent you from having to sit on your ass all day, sans Internet or TV, waiting on a technician to arrive? Get ready for a shocker here: Dispatch.
All too commonly, a tech has a schedule of appointments to follow for a set day. One technician will be assigned a list of jobs. The tech gets backed up on one, and all the others are late. Charter, for example, was busted several years ago for not only not knowing where its techs were in the field, but also lying to its customers about when they'd arrive. That's a paddlin'!
By contrast, Comcast now uses dynamic dispatch, which effectively lets it triage installs. A tech arrives at an appointment and reports back from the scene how much time is expected for the work order. As the job progresses, the company can make adjustments on the fly things start getting behind. It's a technology solution to a human problem.
"Giving all our techs laptops and handhelds is helping us shrink the appointment window," says Moyer.
But dispatch needs to be done right. Cablevision also uses dispatch, but only for critical calls. While that likely helps reduce no-shows and late arrivals, it won't necessarily help shrink a window. Without a good dispatch system, things can get sideways, quickly.
But at least it's a start.
Look, cable companies. We know that sometimes things take longer than you expect. We know that you may get into a home and find antiquated AV systems or line problems or bees or whatever. But we also expect you to take steps to try to fix that. We expect you to use a dispatch system to get your techs out on time, to call us when you're running late, and to compensate us for our time if you are.
If your provider isn't already using a dynamic dispatch system, it's time to demand they do so. And don't just call your cable company. Call your local paper. Call AT&T or Verizon. Or better yet, call your local representative and demand municipal broadband or municipal cable service so you can cut the cord altogether. That's worth waiting on.
All this week, Gizmodo is going to take a long-hard look at the cable industry, and how to improve it. We want to fix cable, and we need your help to make it happen.
We want to hear your horror stories of bad cable experiences, and your ideas of how to make things better. We'll collect the best of these and publish them on Friday. Tweet us with the hashtag #fixcable, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with #fixcable in the subject line, or just fill in the form at the bottom of this page.
Come on. We are totally going to do this thing.
You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.