The cable guy cometh. Except he often didn't. It was a rite of passage for users of cable TV and Internet — spending hours waiting for a cable technician to show up. Unresponsive call centers and costly bundles added to the dissatisfaction. But with growing competition in the broadband industry, the cable guy has been promoted to a frontline customer service agent who can keep the all-important subscriber happy. Companies like Comcast are investing a lot of money to train and educate cable technicians so they can troubleshoot devices, splice wires, and shimmy up ladders, while still hitting quotas and acing customer satisfaction surveys.
Cable technicians like Lauren Bonsignore attend a 12-week program at "Comcast University," a lab and classroom set up like a residential home. Trainees need to pass practical and written tests before joining a mentor in the field. Bonsignore is the rare female tech — there are still just a handful of female field technicians compared with hundreds of men. She's such an anomaly that one customer recently thought Bonsignore was an imposter trying to prank him into thinking she was a cable worker. It took some persuasion for Bonsignore to convince him she was an actual technician, even though she was wearing a tool belt and covered in Xfinity gear.
Bonsignore, 34, covers the Back Bay, Chinatown, and South Boston, where installations in brownstone apartments and high rises can be especially challenging. Horsehair plaster and metal wiring inside old walls obstruct signal strength. Likewise, high-end kitchens with walls of stainless steel and lots of plumbing also block Wi-Fi. The easy jobs involve Bonsignore showing customers how to use the remote. The difficult ones find her crawling through attics and hoisting a 28-foot ladder. But Bonsignore, who grew up helping her handyman dad, says she loves a technical challenge, as well as the physical labor. She considers herself a modern update of her father, who was a UPS driver for 35 years and knows the toll a physically demanding job can take on a person's body. Like he once did, Bonsignore today spends hours on the road, driving from place to place in her Xfinity van. But she's delivering a service, not boxes.
"Wi-Fi is no longer a desire, it's a necessity," Bonsignore said. The Globe spoke with her about challenging the cable guy stereotype.
"There's a movie with Jim Carrey called 'The Cable Guy.' It's kind of creepy and a little off-putting. As a cable gal, I found it strange and nowhere near the reality that I experience, of course.
"I started at Comcast about a year ago when I was bored with my desk job as a project manager for another telecommunications company. I enjoy technology and try to keep up with the newest products, and was offered the job even though I had no formal training in cable. At Comcast University in Chelmsford, we alternate between classroom time and [being] outside in the pole farm, where there are six telephone poles and we run drops from the pole to the 'home.'
"In the lab, there are eight different rooms that look like houses, each with electrical outlets. We drill through different materials, including siding, concrete, and wood, and practice carrying a ladder. Ladder carrying might sound like common sense, but the difficult part is the aligning and balancing — it weighs over 70 pounds.
"I'm the only woman on my team. The others are a Marine reservist, a career changer, a new hire right out of high school, and a former customer service agent.
"Initially, I made mistakes by not bringing the proper fittings or equipment, but the only way to really learn is to actually do the work. Not only are we doing troubleshooting and installations but teaching customers how to use all the new devices. People are either very skeptical because I'm a woman or they think I'm a tech whiz who knows it all. I've even helped install printer cartridges — I'm not going to say no to a request if I can help it. Some jobs are really easy, like a couple who lived in the Back Bay — their modem wasn't working. I checked the equipment, and the power cord had come unplugged when they were trying to clean up behind the TV. We all had a good laugh because it was such a simple fix. On the other hand, some homes in the North End have wiring from the 1920s, and it can take hours going through every connection in the home.
"I think previously not everyone was happy with cable company service and I hope I'm helping to turn that perception around. I take a lot of pride in my approach and preparation for each appointment, and when it comes to my truck, I am a full-blown neurotic clean freak. I also pay close attention to my appearance — I have over 25 Comcast shirts. You have to be wearing logo clothes so no one thinks it's some random crazy person knocking on the door.
"Some days are very stressful, especially trying to park the van and dealing with traffic, but I always enjoy the end of the day. That's when I come home to my dog, Mia, who is a half-red-nose, half-blue-nose pit bull. She's usually staring out the window waiting to see my truck. Once I get in the door, she gives me the once over to see if I've 'cheated' on her that day and patted another dog."
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.