Cox Communications Inc., until recently often viewed as the public enemy of Fairfax County cable television subscribers, is turning around its image after wiring its last local home with digital-ready fiber-optic lines. But now the company is under siege by satellite rivals who lured subscribers during its nettlesome upgrade, and a chastened Cox is scrambling to get them back.
Attack ads, bounties for employees who identify homes with satellite dishes, calls inviting customer feedback and even home visits by a top executive -- these are the tactics of a "win back" campaign the Atlanta-based provider launched this spring in Washington's largest suburb.
"Our primary focus is on getting customers back," Clara Long, vice president of sales and marketing for Northern Virginia, said. "We're focusing on what we bring to the table and what they [satellite providers] bring."
What Cox acknowledges it did not bring to the table as it rebuilt its Fairfax system -- responsive customer service, clear pictures and yards free of construction debris -- worked to the advantage of competitors DirecTV Group Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.
"We've had great success in telling the DirecTV story and our proposition to disgruntled [Cox] customers," said Steven J. Cox, executive vice president for sales and business development for the California-based firm. He called Fairfax one of the company's "high-performing" markets, along with Los Angeles, the Memphis area, Atlanta and parts of Florida.
Cox Cable, which serves 258,000 Fairfax customers, lost 7,000 of them to rivals during the upgrade, said Scott J. Broyles, vice president of public affairs. He said that since the new wiring was completed March 30, 5,000 people have either returned to Cox or added new services. DirecTV and EchoStar officials would not disclose their subscriber base in the county, calling the information proprietary. Broyles estimated that Cox rivals have taken up to 15 percent of the county's market, less than the satellite industry's penetration of 23 percent nationally.
"Any time a cable company experiences any kind of disruption to their customers or raises its rates, that's when our phones really start ringing," said Steve Caulk, spokesman for Colorado-based EchoStar.
The house-to-house fight for Fairfax echoes the national tug of war between cable and satellite companies for control of television screens.
The satellite industry has enjoyed growth rates of about 10 percent in recent years, with suburbs a new focus beyond the dish's traditional appeal in rural areas, said Aditya Kishore, an analyst for Boston-based Yankee Group. Cable has 73 million customers nationwide and satellite 22 million, although cable's growth rates have remained flat in recent years. The rivals now are racing nationally to roll out new discounts, products and services, offering packages that include video, high-speed Internet and telephone options.
In Fairfax, Cox is scheduled to extend telephone service county-wide tomorrow, and it is using the county as one of two national test markets for a new high-definition digital video recorder. DirecTV and EchoStar, meanwhile, are partnering nationally with telephone companies; DirecTV plans to launch telephone service through Verizon Communications Inc. in July, although it will not be available everywhere in Fairfax.
After freezing rates during the upgrade, Cox in March raised the price of its $40 expanded-basic cable service by $2 and its multi-tiered digital service by $1. Local satellite retailers say the higher rates have opened the door wider. EchoStar launched a "Cable Pig" attack ad in Fairfax and 40 other markets where cable rates have increased to convince subscribers they are paying too much. By comparison, EchoStar's basic package starts at $29.99 and DirecTV's basic package, with local channels, starts at $39.99.
Cox, meanwhile, is running its own marketing campaign, including direct mail and newspaper ads that say, "It's Time to Dump Your Dish!" -- a campaign focused on Fairfax. The company is offering to cart off satellite dishes if customers switch to cable, calling the deal "a chance to come back to the best home entertainment."
With a new Herndon headquarters, Cox is playing on local loyalties in the competition. Cox is a good corporate citizen that donates to local charities, answers the phone in Fairfax and sends local technicians to homes to troubleshoot, goes the pitch, contained in direct mail and television ads. Satellite rivals, on the other hand, are national firms with no community roots.
DirecTV's Cox called the marketing tactics misleading. "The fact that the phone may not be answered in Fairfax County is really irrelevant," he said.
Cox Communications' $500 million upgrade was an embarrassing stretch for the country's fourth-largest cable provider. Fairfax received hundreds of customer complaints a month; public officials scolded Cox for abysmal service. Homeowners complained of front lawns that resembled construction zones. The company paid $50,000 in fines for poor service and another $3.2 million for delays in completing the network.
But with its system rebuilt, Cox is generating far fewer complaints: 253 from January through April of this year compared with 543 during the same period last year, county statistics show.
"Rather than, 'The system doesn't work' or 'I'm not getting through' to Cox, the concerns are about billing or not understanding the new technologies they've signed up for," said Walter N. "Skip" Munster, Fairfax County's director of communications policy and regulation. He said Cox is making "remarkable progress" in turning around its image and service.
Still, some customers say they are sticking with satellite. "When there's a problem to solve with DirecTV, I'm able to make a phone call and they correct it from where they are," said Larry Flagg, a retired federal worker who had a dish installed on the roof of his condominium complex in Fair Lakes last year. "Cox will say, 'Will you be home next Tuesday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.?' and half the time they won't show up." He switched over last year, unhappy with the cable company's customer service and a technology he thinks is more prone to breakdowns.
Jay Ahn, president of SkyCom Network, a Manassas-based satellite service reseller, said satellite television appeals to Northern Virginia's immigrant community because of international channels. "Fairfax County is 50 percent diversity, from South Asian to Arabic," Ahn said. "The cable companies cannot take care of that."
Stan Collender said he bought a satellite dish last year only to hear from a technician who came to his McLean home that he had too many trees on the property to get a signal. "I was very unhappy," the public relations executive said. He said he was furious at Cox a year ago for letting him drive to Herndon to replace his analog box with a digital one before he learned that digital service wasn't yet installed in his neighborhood. But now he says he loves his Cox High Speed Internet service.
To make peace with customers, Cox representatives started calling Fairfax County subscribers last month to ask them what they think of the company. It's not a sales pitch, officially. "We thought the personal touch would be effective," Long said.