Why You Hate Comcast

And just about every ISP, cable company, HMO, and airline.

hate cable.
Stranded passengers wait for flights at O’Hare International Airport on Sept. 27, 2014 in Chicago.

Illustration by Slate. Images by Scott Olson/Getty Images and majcot/Shutterstock

American customers hate cable and the Internet.

At least, that’s what the American Customer Satisfaction Index found in its latest survey, released Tuesday. Across the 43 industries the ASCI surveyed, TV and Internet companies tied for last place.

Among the lowest of the low: Comcast, which also came in dead last in the annual Temkin Group Customer Service Ratings earlier this year. The Philadelphia-based media conglomerate consistently ranks as one of the rankest companies in the U.S., no matter how you measure it. It’s easy to chalk this up to Comcast’s boundless creativity in offending and insulting its customers. But, as the ASCI survey shows, it’s not just Comcast. Americans generally despise cable companies.

Cable isn’t the only industry that consistently performs poorly in customer satisfaction surveys. HMOs, airlines, wireless telephone providers, and car rental companies also dominate the ASCI survey’s lowlights.

It’s tempting to blame these unimpressive scores on the oligopolistic tendencies in these industries. Cable companies, ISPs, and airlines operate in naturally monopolistic industries, where massive infrastructure costs create real barriers to entry that shield existing businesses from upstart competitors. Without the fear of losing market share to competitors providing better service, these companies lack incentives to treat their customers like anything but whiney meat sacks linked to checking accounts.

But pitiful customer service isn’t the lone province of such companies. HMOs, wireless networks, and car rental companies all face robust competition, but that hasn’t translated into treating customers well. And utility companies—almost always monopolies—are all over the rankings, with some near the top (Georgia Power—58th on the Temkin list) and others near the bottom (Con Edson in New York—276th) making the oligopoly seem more like a putrid red herring than the truly rotten core reason making these companies stink.  

Besides having approval ratings that hover between those of Congress and syphilis, all these industries have one thing in common: They provide something we don’t actually want, but that we need to get what we actually do want. They’re middlemen. Or, as I prefer to call them, Necessary Evils.

You don’t want cable; you want Game of Thrones. You don’t want broadband Internet; you want cat videos. You don’t want 4G wireless service; you want to stream a video of a cat meowing the Game of Thrones theme on your iPhone.

People love to travel, but most of us hate flying, and only do it because spending three days crossing the Atlantic on the SS United States isn’t really a viable option these days. Similarly, most folks rent cars because there’s no other realistic option for getting around. You buy health insurance because the alternatives—paying penalties under the ACA and risking financial ruin if you need an important procedure—aren’t real options, at least not for most of us. They’re all Necessary Evils.

In all these industries, “consumers feel they have no choice in the matter—they just have to get a particular service,” says Francesca Gino, a professor who studies behavioral economics and decision-making at Harvard Business School.

The Necessary Evils stand in our way the same way bridges do. You need them to get where you want to go, but that doesn’t make paying the toll any more pleasant, let alone waiting in line to pay.

Like with bridges, we’re just looking for the basics from these companies, says Wharton Marketing professor Peter Fader: “You never want to be delighted by your relationship with your cable [company], your airline or health care company. You want a steady, boring reliability.” London Bridge might have had some really beautiful architecture, but no one cares about that when it’s falling down.

The Necessary Evils are all businesses particularly afflicted by negativity dominance, a bias in our judgment and decision-making processes that causes bad experiences to overwhelm positive ones in our minds. “The benefit of going high above [customer expectations] isn’t that great, and the cost of missing is severe,” says Fader.

The negativity dominance in these industries means there aren’t sufficient incentives to invest in customer service improvements. Customers will hate them for screwing up—and they’re going to screw up—so why should they bother wasting money in what amount to ineffectual apologies? While restaurants can calm patrons with a free beer and an apology, no number of free airplane bottles of booze on your next flight will make up for having to cancel your first one.

Keep in mind, the Necessary Evils are always positioned between the customers and what they really want—in customer’s eyes, they seem to only cause delay or disruption of whatever we’re really after. Car rental companies and HMOs require customers to fill out dozens of mind-numbing forms that stand between them and hitting the open road or treating that open sore.

And more often than not, calling a cable or Internet provider means something is already wrong with your service. It’s like showing up to a restaurant with your order already wrong: No matter how obsequious your waiter may be after that, you’re not going to leave a flattering note on the comment card.

But when things do go well, the Necessary Evils never get credit. If your rental car is great, you’ll attribute the sweet ride to the carmaker. You’ll rave about your favorite TV shows, but not the cable company that made possible to get them in HD. Americans still like NBC, even if they we hate its owner, Comcast. 

The Necessary Evils could take steps to improve service, and some have—JetBlue and Virgin soar above the competition, and Comcast recently announced it was hiring 5,500 new customer service representatives—but for most, it’s a largely futile endeavor with little upside.

Which is fitting, because that’s how most of us today think about the idea of calling Comcast customer service to fix an error on their bill or to get a repairman to show up: a largely futile endeavor with little upside.