NEW YORK -- Future of Cable Business Services -- Up until a few years ago, customers of both Suddenlink's commercial services business and its media business had no idea they were dealing with the same company.
The seven-year-old cable broadband provider was in need of major cultural shift inside the company, according to Kevin Stephens, president of commercial and advertising operations at Suddenlink Communications . The seventh-largest MSO serves second- and third-tier markets throughout the 16 states, including a lot of college towns where it has a strong multiple-dwelling units (MDU) business. (See Heavy Reading: Cable Biz Sales to Hit $8.5B.)
It runs both a commercial services business, in which it sells voice, data, and video to small-to-midsized businesses, and a complementary media business, through which it sells targeted local TV and online advertising.
Stephens helped the company put together a seven-step program that he says was "critical to leveraging the synergy of what was traditionally two different segments." Marketing speak aside, it made Suddenlink more efficient, let it better serve -- and upsell -- customers, and improve its image in the markets it served.
The seven-step program
The plan started with an annual kick-off meeting to bring together the top account executives from both sides, who then built out a joint sales strategy. Suddenlink then instituted a shared recognition program, which is essentially another opportunity for the media and commercial side to get together and build familiarity.
Step four was the toothbrush test. "People tend to believe things are important if they do it twice a day," Stephens says, like (hopefully) teeth brushing. "If you collocate sales people in the same office, they talk regularly and sharing customer information happens naturally."
The next, fifth, step was to develop a sales training curriculum that is customized, but applies to both sets of sales people. This has allowed Suddenlink to improve its offers to customers by having a complete view of them and their needs. It also let them launch an integrated bundle offer (step six) so that if a customer buys Internet from Suddenlink, it gets a special deal in online advertising from the media group. It's proven effective, he says, because every business customer is looking for ways to increase his or her business.
The final step in Suddenlink's integration plan is the biggest one, and it hasn't yet executed on it. That is to build an integrated mapping and CRM system. Its commercial services division currently has a mapping program wherein it can see where customers are in any of its markets. The plan is to overlay that with the media customers in order to get the full picture, something Stephens says no other competitor has done.
"Our combined sales force is significantly greater than any other competitor in any other markets," he claims. "That's a significant advantage, and we believe it's an MSO exclusive. Our competitors AT&T and Verizon would be hard pressed to provide that kind of benefit to our customers."
From a Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT) perspective, Suddenlink does stop short of integrating its BSS/OSS systems. Stephens says the media and commercial systems have different billing platforms that they don't plan to integrate.
Going forward, the company is prioritizing work on products and packaging and expanding its network to reach customers that haven't previously been serviceable. Stephens said that could include 30% to half of enterprises in any MSO footprint.
Suddenlink's internal changes are helping it grow its reachable customer base, and do it faster. But the real key has been actually understanding its customer base, not just throwing more sales people at it. That has involved offering unique compensation plans, promoting replacement, not just supplementary, services that do a previous function better and cheaper, and understanding the unique needs of enterprise customers.
"The residential business is a barometer for commercial success," Stephens said. "If you look at any individual market, it's not just having a lot of people, but pointing them at the right clients. Just because we push a lot of products to our sales force -- which is increasingly able to take more to customers to fatten their wallet -- doesn't mean customers will adopt or buy them."
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading