Debugging the Cable Guy

Let me share a recent experience with our local cable company, a major national provider.

The company had fallen behind in technology and had launched a new product that promised to run laps around the competition. You’ve probably seen the company’s ads on TV, touting the ability to have four TVs use one DVR and letting you move from room to room and watch TV anywhere. The company even has an ad with someone installing a TV in his mattress to watch NFL Red Zone.

The product would be great—if the company could make it work. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, nor could many others, apparently. Even the company’s installers consider the product “buggy.” One complained: “It just doesn’t work.”

The problem is the cable box is constantly “freezing up” and must be reset. The company tells customers that if they have a problem, all they need to do is “recycle” the box—unplug it, plug it back in, and wait for 10 minutes. Some customers apparently have had to do this every two hours or so, according to the company’s own installers.

It’s hard to imagine customers, after three or four service calls, wanting to keep such a device. I didn’t—I had them take it away.

In this highly competitive environment, it’s not uncommon for companies to rush to market before they’ve fully debugged new products. Perhaps that’s why cable television and Internet service providers (ISPs) ranked at the bottom in a recent customer satisfaction survey of more than 200 companies across 19 industries conducted by the Temkin Group.

Simply put, a lot of new technology promises more than it delivers. Instead of creating new Corvettes, we get Edsels. That’s because too many companies don’t pay enough attention to how a product will actually work when customers are on their own. When the companies roll out these new technologies before they’re ready, they risk losing customers and damaging their reputations.

Another survey conducted by Harris Interactive in June revealed that 88 percent of Americans who have attempted to shop on their smartphones have experienced some sort of difficulty—and that 30 percent of those shoppers claimed “they would never return” to the mobile website that gave them problems.

America’s technological ingenuity is second to none. What’s often lacking is common sense.

Many executives don’t seem to understand that technology is useless if it doesn’t work properly in the hands of the consumer. In this age of social media and blogs, you need to be especially careful. Even more startling, our cable company clearly was not listening to its installers, as each one told me that the product wasn’t ready.

This should be a lesson for all consumer companies, especially those whose chief selling point is technology. Yes, there is pressure to get new products to market as quickly as possible to get a return on investment. But you need to debug them first. That shouldn’t be the customer’s responsibility.

Orson Wells said in a popular 1970s commercial for Paul Mason wines: “We will sell no wine before its time.” That is a lesson technology and telecom companies need to learn.

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