When Customer Service is Not Optimum

My cable internet provider is Altice USA a/k/a Optimum Online a/k/a Cablevision. Over the years they have generally been reliable, at least in my experience. However, I recently had a terrible customer experience with this company. The matter was ultimately remedied, but only after I escalated matters to the fullest extent possible.

In addition to internet services, I get a Broadcast Basic package of mostly over the air channels. I don’t actually need the package because I have excellent free over the air (OTA) reception of all of the NYC based stations. Much of the regular programming that we watch is via streaming services and I can always get CNN or MSNBC audio via TuneIn or Sirius XM. But, the Broadcast Basic service also provides the essential public service broadcaster, CSPAN.

The main reason that I take the package is that at some point it turned out to cost the same for a TV/Internet bundle as the Internet alone. So why not? The package also provides some decent music channels provided through a service from Stingray.

On or around May 22nd, in the midst of COVID-19 isolation here in New Jersey, a large number of the channels in my TV package disappeared. And so began 21 days of dealing with mostly outsourced, ignorant and even obnoxiously overly-gracious call center representatives (CCR). They wasted about 20 hours of my time and did not solve my problem.

This is a good time to mention that I don’t have or need a cable box. I own a TiVo DVR with lifetime service plan. The Tivo box has a CableCard slot. It is a nice compact package.

On day one of the outage, almost all of my channels disappeared for a time. Within hours, the broadcast HD channels had mostly returned. Then I began to notice that some channels were still missing. When I phoned customer service, I was told that they were aware of an outage and that I would be called when it was cleared. No one called.

This was followed by call after call. I was told that my problem had been resvoled, when it had not. I was told to reboot my cable box which I do not have. I was told to uplug and replug my TiVo box. I took many passes through an interactive voice response (IVR) system that does not understand CableCards.

At various points, I figured out how to bypass the IVR’s automated troubleshooting process and get to a human rep. The reps repeatedly paired and unpaired my CableCard without acheiving the desired result. Something must have changed on the Cablevision network.

I started talking to others in my area and learned that my problem was not unique. As I researched the problem, I suspected that the missing channels had been changed over to a switched digital video (SDV) protocol. SDV allows the providers to save bandwidth by sending less frequently used video out on demand only. Unfortunately, CSPAN does not seem to be viewed as often as it probably should be.

It seems that a CableCard cannot received SDV channels. An external box termed a tuning adapter is needed to receive the SDV channels. The only call center represtative that might have understood the issue was so obnoxiously and facetiously gracious that it was painful to speak with him. Oh Mr. Dan, speaking to you is the high point of my day…that sort of thing. Repeatedly. I would characterize this as a culture clash with the subcontinent call center.

He offered a tuning adapter as a solution but quickly retracted that offer, saying instead that he wanted to send me new cablecard or to dispatch a technician to my home to troubleshoot my cable. Nope, no way, not in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. No thank you.

Around day 17 or so of the outage, my daily call to the less than Optimum customer service revealed that I could obtain a tuning adapter to see if it solved my issue. I was told to go to the Parlin store to pick it up. I asked the CCR to call the store first to make certain that they had one in stock and that I was not wasting a trip. I have not been out on many shopping expeditions since the 21st of March and I would have preferred that they ship the tuning adapter to me. I was told that they can’t, which would have been more accurate had they said they won’t.

The CCR assured me that a tuning adapter would await me in Parlin. After a 20 minutes drive, I arrived outside the Parlin store. Customers were not being admitted but there was a gentleman at the door answering inquiries. He politely informed me that the had not seen a tuning adapter in that store since November.

At that point, my only option was to go vertical. I filed an FCC complaint, a NJ BPU complaint, and found email addesses for a number of corporate executives. The next day I received a phone call from Tom, a nice fellow who works for Corporate Customer Relations.

He was very apologetic about the company’s poor response to that point. He acknowledged that the outage was indeed caused by a conversion of certain channels to SDV. He arranged for a tuning adapter to be delivered to my house and asked me to call him personally when it arrived to have it provisioned. That happened yesterday, on schedule, and after a 21 day outage I now have all channels to which I am entitled.

This was a major customer service failure that could have been prevented had Optimum provided clear scripts and training to their CCRs that would have immediately pointed them to a solution for missing channels when using a cablecard. Engineering should also be providing the CCRs with a clear change calendar that shows when regions are being converted to SDV or any other major changes are being made so that related incidents are immediately associcated.

And there is a lesson here about outsourcing. It may be cheap, but you get what you pay for. And in the end, it took a technically knowledgable guy from Long Island to solve my issue, not a contractor in Bangalore.

Only a virtual monopoly can get away with providing such poor service and still survive.

One thought on “When Customer Service is Not Optimum”

  1. Outsourcing is not whats its cracked up to be. Same with Sprint. When I worked for them they sent the CCR to an outsource agency. Within a year it was back in the states. People were getting tired talking to “Tom” who kept reading off the same index card day after day. They lost a ton of people (also called churn). Too late now…T-Mobile took over and now will have to see how that works.

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