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So That Cable Guy Didn't Show? Collect $20 : Consumers: Trend is part of an industry effort to shed a reputation for shabby customer service.


Cable customers whose complaints go unanswered or appointments are missed can now hit up their friendly local cable company for $20 to ease the pain.

The offer, which went into effect Wednesday, is part of a national campaign by the cable industry to shed a reputation for shabby customer service that led to industry regulation in 1992.

Cable companies will give customers a $20 refund or rebate if a service request is delayed or goes unanswered. Prospective customers will get cable installed free if the technician misses or is late for an appointment.

While the guarantees are voluntary, a vast majority of the nation's 11,000 cable systems--including virtually all of the 356 in California--will provide them, said Rich D'Amato, spokesman for the National Cable Television Assn., which represents 80% of U.S. cable companies. U.S. cable systems serve about 60 million customers.

"Cable companies are demonstrating they can provide the services customers want and require," D'Amato said. "We've had to reinvent ourselves in order to meet our own competitive agenda. The effort is really an investment in cable's future."

The $10-million image-building effort comes as cable companies face potentially formidable competition from high-powered satellite systems, high-speed data services and telephone companies.

The 1992 Cable Act forced the industry to improve its customer service record by requiring cable companies to answer installation requests within seven days and begin work on service interruption calls and outages with 24 hours. The Federal Communication Commission also requires that cable operators maintain a 24-hour telephone service line.

Some companies have gone beyond the FCC's minimum set of requirements by expanding their human resources infrastructure, D'Amato said. Improvements include hiring more staff, improving employee training and freeing customer service representatives to make decisions.

"The minimum service requirements dictated by the FCC are extremely difficult to enforce. We've virtually had to take their word for it up until now," said Morgan Broman, spokesman for the cable service division of the FCC. "But this new effort is reassuring. It shows that cable companies are taking these responsibilities seriously."

But some consumer organizations remain skeptical. Mike Heffer of Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based group, expressed concern that this "peace offering to customers" may be short-lived.

"Their acknowledgment of past failings is definitely a step in the right direction," Heffer said. "But it remains to be seen whether this is a genuine attempt to make amends or simply a public relations ploy."

The extensive advertising and marketing campaign comes as Congress is considering a major overhaul of telecommunications laws. Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has called for deregulation of cable rates and repeal of state laws that bar cable companies from providing local telephone services.

Once these barriers are removed, cable operators are likely to steal business from local telephone and other companies, said Jim Tiernan of the American Consumers Assn.

"Research shows that consumers are not loyal to their service companies," Tiernan said. "If cable companies can offer better telephone rates through package deals or newer technology, that's where people will go. It all comes down to money."


Time Is Money

California law requires that cable, telephone and other service companies meet appointments within a four-hour window of an agreed-upon time. Now cable companies have gone further and are even offering money if they're late. Customers should contact their local cable companies for details, but here are what a few companies offer:

* Century Cable offers new customers free installation and one month of basic cable service-- as well as a 30-day money-back guarantee--if it is late for an installation appointment. The company credits one month of basic service to the customer's account if a technician is late for a service call or fails to repair an outage within 24 hours.

* Paragon Cable offers free installation and one month of basic service free if a technician is late for an installation appointment. If a technician is late for a service call, customers can choose either a $20 credit or one month of free basic service.

* Cox Cable offers free installation if it is more than two hours late for an installation appointment and credits $20 to the customer's account if it is more than two hours late for a service call.

* Comcast Cablevision of Orange County provides free installation and a $20 credit if it is more than four hours late for an installation appointment and credits $20 to the customer's account if it is more than two hours late for a technical call.

* King Video Cable and Copley Colony Cablevision offer the standard free installation or $20 credit if a technician does not arrive within an arranged time frame specified by the customer.

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