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Ex-Comcast customer service director: Why it keeps getting into trouble — and how to fix it (guest column)

The company many love to hate has been a darling of Philadelphia. Comcast has been a leading employer in the Philadelphia area for years. The Comcast Center has become a place we love to gather, especially during the holidays to see the new tradition of the Holiday Spectacular. As many companies have left the area, Comcast has been a true bright spot. In fact after the NBC Universal acquisition, they are now planning the next tower in Philadelphia, the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center. The company was founded by Ralph Roberts, Daniel Aaron and Julian Brodsky in 1963. Since taking the role of CEO in 1990, Brian Roberts and his team have grown the company to be the dominate player in the media business. I have had the privilege of working for the company, and I consider many who work there to truly be family, but today I have to say I am disappointed.

Over the years Comcast has provided some of the greatest customer service blunders the Internet has ever seen. Who can ever forget the Sleepy Tech video from 2006, or in August of 2007, Mona Shaw taking a hammer to an office?

Also in 2007, NPR’s Bob Garfield was so frustrated he created Comcast Must Die, a website dedicated to bringing negative customer service stories to life. Since that time, things seemed to quiet down on that front. Although Comcast continued to struggle in customer satisfaction surveys, the big blunders did not seem to be as great, at least until the summer of 2014, when an editor for AOL’s Engadget named Ryan Block recorded his effort to close his account, and, in an epic fashion, the representative was not going to do it. That blunder, too went viral — sadly because so many of us could relate.

Now don’t worry, Comcast finds each of these examples unacceptable. And we know this because they’ve been quoted numerous times on the subject. In 2006, according to reports online, they terminated the technician who slept on the job. They also created new systems so technicians no longer have the need to call anyone for assistance. I worked at Comcast from 2007 to 2010; during that time I saw numerous improvements. Technology has been a big help in creating the right Customer experience, but they are not the only answer.

After the Ryan Block incident, the company first said in a statement that they were “very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with [him].” They stated that Block’s treatment was “not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives” and it is also “investigating this situation and will take quick action.” The initial response sounded a lot like the response to the sleepy tech video, but then something interesting happened. Current and former employees started talking about the incident — to places like The Verge and Reddit. Those employees confirmed that the Comcast representative was doing exactly what he was trained to do.

I have no doubt that the corporate office did not realize that employees were trained this way, but I am confident that the customer service representative was doing what he was taught — up-selling, or retaining, rather than risking the loss of a subscriber. In any job we strive to perform according to how we’re measured. And for most companies, employees in a retention department are measured on the number of customers they save from closing an account.

Shortly after these stories started coming out from other Comcast employees, Dave Watson, the executive VP and Chief Operating Office for Comcast Cable, released an email to employees which stated in part “The agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him — and thousands of other Retention agents — to do. He tried to save a customer, and that’s important, but the act of saving a customer must always be handled with the utmost respect. This situation has caused us to reexamine how we do some things to make sure that each and every one of us — from leadership to the front line — understands the balance between selling and listening. And that a great sales organization always listens to the customer, first and foremost.”

So now we are nearly six months past the Ryan Block incident, and the latest incident is taking the Internet by storm. This time an employee of the company allegedly changed the name of a customer to Asshole Brown. Needless to say, Mr and Mrs. Brown were not pleased with their new moniker. Would you be? From what I have seen, Comcast has been handling this in the best manner you can expect. They have offered the Customer credits for multiple years of service and they have privately and publicly apologized. Charlie Herrin, SVP of Customer Experience, published a blog post called ‘Respecting Our Customers.’ In the post Charlie stated “We took this opportunity to reinforce with each employee just how important respect is to our culture. In every interaction we have with a customer, we need to show them respect, patience, and enthusiasm to provide them with an excellent experience.” I could not agree more with Charlie in the words used throughout the post. The key is driving the culture at all levels of the organization.

Believe it or not, this is not the first time the company has seen a change like this. Back in 2005, a Chicago Comcast customer had their name changed to “Bitch Dog.” How can this happen today? Comcast in many ways is a technology company, yet its internal systems allow such a change?

But in my view this is not just a technology issue. Why do we not hear many incidents like these from other companies? Companies do implement technology solutions to prevent these type of things, which Comcast has stated they are working on, but often other companies do not have the same issue because they hire people to fit within their company culture. So it is important, as Charlie discussed in his post, to bring respect for the customer into the company culture and within the hiring process for all levels.

Customer service is often the most expensive line on any company’s balance sheet, especially for a company like Comcast which has more than 300 million interactions each year. To help mitigate this we have watched company after company shift service to the cheapest source possible. Call centers tried to shift to become sales centers. This is why any time a customer calls, they’re pitched everything under the sun instead of actually helping you with the reason why you called in the first place. We have been in a age of outsourcing, and finding the cheapest means possible to provide customer service. Comcast has become the poster child for this shift in company thinking.

Customers are tired of being treated poorly. Even if they do not have an alternative to the company, thanks to the Internet and social media, they can easily share their experience with the entire world. And they often do — particularly in Comcast’s case. Incidents like these most often happen because of a culture within the company. The reason you tend not to hear about incidents like this from other companies is because people within the company would be horrified if they heard of such a thing, and they can easily escalate the situation to higher levels. How would you react if you worked for a company and a customer pointed out that the company changed a customer’s name to a–hole? I personally would hit the roof.

In reviewing this Comcast incident, Mrs. Brown visited her local Comcast office when she noticed the name change. She also contacted leaders in the Washington region, where she lives but she was not able to find resolution. She did not receive satisfaction until the incident was taken to the PR team by the author of the blog post.

In my view it should have been able to be handled by those in the store. They should have had the ability to escalate the situation to the senior leaders who could find a reasonable solution to a very unreasonable situation.

I am sure Comcast will be reviewing the entire situation, and I hope they not only look into why the first person thought this was okay to do, or that they could get away with it (although they may have intended to go out in style too), but why others were not completely horrified by it and yelling from the rooftops for all leaders to hear? This is where culture comes into play and it should not have taken public shame to do the right thing.

So why is it that Comcast seemed to be singled out? No matter what the cable company does, we will never love them. We are highly passionate about being connected to the world through TV and Internet. It would be difficult for any company to live up to that level of passion. Now the company has been making strides to improve the customer experience, announcing last September that Charlie Herrin, a leader in product innovation would be taking the role SVP of Customer Experience, reporting into Neil Smit, CEO of Comcast Cable. I think Charlie is the perfect fit for this role, but I also think this will be a much bigger task than anyone could expect. Customer experience is all about the details and the details tend to add up. Change will take time but I am not sure how much time we are willing to give.

I am most disappointed in these situations because I know and love many people at Comcast. It should not reflect on them, but it ultimately does. To me, Comcast is a Philadelphia icon. I want to see them experience continued growth, and I wish success for everyone who works there. They have the opportunity to be a pillar of the community, but they are struggling to truly reflect the values of Philadelphia. Philadelphians can be tough, so can Comcast. At the same time Philadelphians act as one. We do what is best for the community as a whole, and Comcast actions are not reflecting this aspect of our community. Although I personally want to see Comcast achieve success with their acquisition of Time Warner Cable, I am not sure this will happen. If it does fail it will not come down to a failure of winning over politicians, but instead the key issue was winning over their own customers. If their own customers do not support them, why would politicians? Those customers are the ones who elect the politicians.

Hiring Herrin was a good first step, but there are five key actions the company must take to come a little closer to winning over the public:

  1. Hire a Chief Customer Officer to represent the views of the Customer in everything the company does. Charlie Herrin could be perfect for a broader role such as this.
  2. Simplify pricing strategies instead of forcing people to threaten to cancel service just to get a better rate. Stop creating situations where customers have to fight with you.
  3. Review current customer service staffing and consider moving roles back to the US (please note, in my view and experience this incident was most likely done by someone in the US), where at least the service personnel can relate to what it is like to being a Comcast Customer.
  4. Actions speak louder than words, so no more apologizing, but instead doing.
  5. Live up to being the Philadelphian that you already are. We will support you, but you need to support us too. Treat us in the same manner you would want to be treated.

We are all cheering Charlie and Comcast in being successful in these transformation efforts.

Frank Eliason is the former Senior Director of Customer Service at Comcast, and the author of @YourService, published by Wiley. He currently works in the banking industry in New York City, and lives with his family in Robbinsville, NJ. You can follow him on Twitter @FrankEliason.

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