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With all the big-name mergers and local system swapping going on in the cable industry, it's no wonder customers are confused -- and vulnerable. As a marketing manager, how can you maximize the opportunities that a change of this magnitude offers? And what steps can be taken to minimize the loss of customers to competition and inevitable slips in customer service?

Watch your back
It's no mystery that competitors often target the best customers of an acquired company. Their solicitations might speak of stability and strong ties to the community, or play on customer fears about rate increases and declines in customer service.

What's an acquired company to do?
That depends on how aggressive the competition is and how strong the new company's brand and reputation are. If you expect to lose customers during the transition, what percentage is acceptable? How will you monitor your losses? And how will you minimize them?

Communication is critical. Your communications strategy should start with your approach toward your best customers and work its way down the line. Send a letter from the General Manager thanking customers for their business and outlining the strengths of the new company. Post information about the merger on your Web site or in your customer newsletter, and refer customers to both information sources in your on-hold messages.

Spread the good news
Customers of merging companies want to know how the merger will affect them. Don't wait for them to read about it in the papers. Share any news -- particularly, good news -- as soon as possible. Talk up new services. If rates will stay the same for a period of time, let them know.

Put your best (new) foot forward
Being acquired can be the best thing that ever happened to a cable system combating a negative image. Now's the time to shout about the fact that yours is a new company with a new standard of service.

Once again, focus on your best customers -- the ones who spend the most and the ones with the greatest potential to upgrade. Foster good feelings with a special offer, such as free Pay-Per-View movie coupons or a free upgrade in service. Be up front about minor inconveniences that will result from the transition -- and emphasize the benefits of the changes, including new services or an improved billing system. This is also the perfect opportunity to woo noncustomers. Send special mailings to prospective and former customers informing them of improvements that will result from the merger.

Rally the troops
Over the course of a merger, it's not uncommon for customer service to suffer. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, employees tend to take a short-term approach to their jobs, and management often puts important internal training, reward and service-quality programs on hold until the dust settles. The result? Employee satisfaction may decline, along with customer service.

Once again, communication is the key. But this time the focus should be inward. Be sure Customer Service Representatives and Service Technicians understand why you're merging, what will happen, how long it will take, whether there will be layoffs and whether any internal programs will be put on hold. Then anticipate customer questions and prepare employees with answers. You might even poll employees to find out what questions and concerns they're hearing from customers. Unprepared employees cannot boost the confidence of troubled customers.

Make it count
The keys to customer retention and satisfaction are frequent communication and prompt response to customer service issues. Promote your company as one that cares about customers, and you'll be on your way to combating the potentially damaging impact of a merger or acquisition.

Gayle Kiser
Cable & Telecom Segment Manager

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