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Ex-Comcast exec: Frustrated customers killed the Time Warner Cable merger (opinion)

“Hip hip hooray! The deal is dead!”

Cheers seems to be coming from everywhere regarding the collapse of the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. I for one am not cheering. When the deal was announced, I had my reservations, but I was thrilled what this could mean for the city of Philadelphia. It would have the potential to bring jobs. It also had the potential to allow this great city to show the world what we are made of, our ingenuity and our spirit. We would have one of the largest companies in America headquartered in the heart of this great city.

How Comcast got started

I know all too well how people feel about Comcast, but as a Philadelphian, it’s hard not to marvel at what Brian and Ralph Roberts have led the team at Comcast to build over the years. And it all started with the purchase of an community antenna service in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1963. At the time cable was a very new idea, and it started as a basic antenna up on a hill helping rural Americans get TV signals from distant cities.  At the time they offered 5 channels to 15,000 customers. Today Comcast has 21.7 million customers, and over 130,000 employees.

And ever since, the Roberts have built a long history of making deals happen. It was just 2001 when Comcast bought AT&T Broadband, a case of the mouse swallowing the lion. Comcast was the third largest cable provider, and AT&T Broadband was the largest. The Roberts topped that in 2009 by purchasing the majority stake in NBC Universal from General Electric. Finally, in 2011 they bought the rest.

Of course, not all Comcast’s deals have been successful. In 2004 the company tried to buy the House of Mouse: The Walt Disney Company, another company larger than itself. This time, they failed.

Why the Time Warner deal fell apart

Over the next several weeks you will see analyses galore of why the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger died. What should Comcast or Time Warner Cable have done differently? Was it the fight over net neutrality? Was it Netflix? Was the thing just too big? After all, the FCC literally rewrote the definition of broadband in the middle of the process — in a way that meant Comcast would all of a sudden be running 57 percent of the nation’s broadband.

That might not have been a bad thing. One of the reasons I was supportive of this merger was because Comcast has historically been very quick to update their technology, leading to greater speeds for Internet as well as new services. At the very least, they’ve been faster than Time Warner Cable.

But now, it looked like Comcast would simply have too much control over the Internet in our homes.

Turns out the customer is always right

All that, really, is noise. Here’s what killed the deal: Outrage from people like you and me. There has been overwhelming opinion against the merger, and it’s just a click away. It is not often in today’s world that I think our opinion matters, but in this situation I believe that was the driving force.

I’m sure people inside Comcast have a different view of where the opposition lies. But I’m convinced most of the opposition to this merger came from Comcast’s own customers. They finally had a chance to voice their opinion about the service they have received over the years, and how much they trust their provider.

So now, it’s imperative that the company hear those voices and respond in actions that change this view. Because if you want to change hearts and minds, to win over the political establishment, you must first win over your customers.

It is that simple.

What’s next for Comcast

I have spoken up about my opinion of the service issues the company has had in the past. I have applauded their promotion of Charlie Herrin to lead their Customer Experience efforts, with a direct path to Neil Smit, CEO of Comcast Cable. It will take the company time to earn back the trust, but I do think this can be a wake up call to do just that. I believe Charlie is the right person to do that. Let’s give him the chance.

This weekend Comcast and their employees will celebrate Comcast Cares 2015. This is a day where their employees volunteer in every community in which they serve. They will be planting gardens, painting schools, cleaning up parks all over Philadelphia, and throughout the US. It is among the largest volunteer days of any organization, with typically over 90,000 or more involved in helping the community. Many of you have family and friends that work for the company. Instead of complaining to them, how about joining them in making this city even better?

As far as Comcast’s future is concerned, I expect that this will not be the last transaction for the company. Just this morning, news broke that Comcast had been in acquisition talks with Vox Media, which publishes Vox, The Verge, Eater and more sites. I will be excited to see what they do next. Comcast has been a part of our community for over 50 years, and I am proud that they call Philadelphia home.

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. Image via Creative Commons on flickr.

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