Charter Communications ( CHTR) can't seem to turn the corner.The nation's third-largest publicly traded operator of cable TV systems said Tuesday that CEO Carl Vogel resigned. Robert May, currently a Charter board member and the chairman of HealthSouth, will run Charter until a replacement can be found. The appointment of May -- who navigated HealthSouth away from financial disaster after CEO Richard Scrushy was sucked into the company's accounting scandal -- appears to be a succor for Charter, which has suffered its own number-crunching scandal and brush with bankruptcy. But a conference call with analysts Tuesday -- during which May spoke often about the company's new strategy of focusing on its customers' satisfaction -- forced one to wonder why the company is so late in addressing the issue of making its customers happier. After all, it is not as if Charter had no clue that customers, in the aggregate, haven't been quite happy with the service. In recent years, customer counts have been falling significantly. More likely, worries about liquidity, including Charter's efforts over the past year to refinance intimidating debt, have taken Charter management's focus away from actually running a business that people want to pay money for. Though that explanation is perfectly understandable, given Charter's financial travails, it has to be truly frightening, from a shareholder's point of view, to hear an executive at a company with 6.1 million customers talk about how the company needs to pay more attention to its customers. Charter's shares fell 8 cents Tuesday to trade at $1.97. The company's shares traded north of $24 in 2001, but fell to as low as 76 cents in March 2003, in the wake of disappointing quarterly results and news of investigations of how the company counted its customers and accounted for certain costs.
On the conference call Tuesday, May talked at length about the inadequacy of the company's customer service, and how Charter intended to improve it. "At times, Charter hasn't always made our customers feel that they come first," he said. The company, he said, needs to "re-engineer how we think about our business and how we think about our customers." The company will remain focused on technological differentiators that have been its hallmark, May said -- including ventures such as video on demand, Internet telephony, personal video recorders and digital simulcasts of the company's basic programming lineup. But other measures May talked about taking seemed chillingly obvious: reducing calls to customer service by attacking the root causes of those calls, for example, and transferring incoming sales calls not to general customer service representatives, but to dedicated sales specialists with greater productivity. To help with the change, May said, the company will be taking measures such as studying Charter's current incentive and compensation policies. Lance Conn, a member of Charter's board and the board's strategic planning committee, said Tuesday, "We are not waiting for a permanent CEO before taking action to improve our operations." The wait, apparently, has already been long enough.