“Steve,” a technical support and billing rep in Comcast’s business customer service division, has been on the phone for an hour and 10 minutes. He’s handling a seemingly easy request: port a customer’s phone number from his business account to his residential one. Steve talks to five or six people before he finds someone who knows how to do this simple task. He transfers the very patient customer to the person he hopes will solve the problem—but he’s not confident. Just to make sure, he sends a tip to a dedicated email address, created just three days prior, that provides special attention for customers who have been transferred multiple times.
The email is part of Comcast’s attempt to overhaul its notoriously awful customer service. Among the company’s many fiascos: keeping a customer on hold until the call center closed and changing the names on customer accounts to Asshole and SuperBitch. In 2014, a Comcast phone representative refused to let AOL executive Ryan Block cancel his Internet service, and a recording of the excruciating phone call went viral. Though the company is the subject of thousands of complaints to the Federal Communications Commission each year, this seems to have been the last straw. In May 2015, Comcast embarked on a $300 million overhaul of its customer service. That project is sprawling, a tad Sisyphean, and one of the most ambitious reform efforts the business world has ever seen. (Disclosure: Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. Comcast contributed funds to New America’s work in 2015; New America has criticized Comcast in the past on issues like its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable.)
The company has focused on technology fixes like the new escalation email address and software to track customer service calls. It also chose a somewhat unconventional figure to lead the overhaul: Charlie Herrin, the executive vice president of customer experience, has a background in product design and development rather than customer service. “One of the reasons I believe I was asked to take the role was to bring some of the digital product and innovation approach” to customer service, Herrin said in an interview.
But as it enters the second year of this reform movement, Comcast continues to struggle with structural inertia and customers’ perception that it takes advantage of the lack of competition in the cable and telecom world to shake them down. To salvage its relationship with its customers, Comcast needs more than just new technical solutions. It also must rethink its priorities, even if it means putting people above profitability.
Even though two of its three main products (internet and landline telephone service) are basic utilities, Comcast seems to see itself as a premium technology company akin to Apple. Nowhere is this more evident than in its brick-and-mortar stores, which it has begun to remodel. In an Xfinity store in Pittsburgh that opened in January, tablets are tucked within reach of minimalist lounge chairs. Were it not for the sultry red-and-black color scheme and the employees’ more conservative uniforms—button-fronts instead of T-shirts—you might think you were in an Apple Store.
Comcast’s crush on Apple isn’t limited to its store design. Its stylish My Account app mimics Apple’s aesthetic, and its biggest product rollout in the past few years was X1, an operating system that resembles the look and feel of Apple TV and brings functions like voice recognition and content recommendations to cable TV. Customers seem to like this stuff: The company told me that customers who have X1 are 20 percent more likely to recommend Comcast to others than those who don’t have it.
Comcast understands that copying Cupertino can only take the company so far. It is structuring its reforms around something it calls “the five journeys,” which it developed based on focus groups and a survey of 40,000 customers. New Age–y name notwithstanding, four of the five journeys—billing, onboarding, repair, and reliability—focus on concrete technical problems. (The fifth journey is “people and culture.”)
Herrin, the EVP of customer experience, told me, “The way I view it, customer service is really what happens when the experience breaks. We’re looking at the end-to-end, from reliability to the in-store experience to the out-of-box experience, to the in-home technician experience across the board. Because we really feel like fixing the upstream experience—that’s my job, and the customer service, yes, there are things to do to make it better, but that’s sort of what happens when you don’t do the first part right.”
Comcast’s attempts to “do the first part right” include simplifying its bills to make them easier to understand. It rolled out two new software systems that track customer satisfaction in real time and provide call center workers with more information about cases. It also created an Uber-like feature called Tech ETA, which allows customers to track their technicians as they make their way to appointments.
But helpful as they may be, none of these fixes really address Comcast’s biggest problem. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science in 2010 found that the perception of greed is a major predictor of customer rage. Anyone who’s spent time on a tech blog or message board this century will know that many of Comcast’s customers believe the company puts profits above customer satisfaction. A recent batch of complaints released by the FCC features numerous people complaining about the company’s sales practices. In addition, dozens of employees have said over the years that they face intense pressure to upsell, even at the expense of the customer relationship. Steve, the technical support and billing rep, says that at least in his office, this sales-focused culture has changed little since Comcast announced its customer service overhaul.
“A lot of times I’ll see people that have way more internet than they need,” he says, referring to mom-and-pop businesses that pay for premium speeds that are unnecessary for their usage habits. “I’d say about a third of the people we successfully sell things to actually need it.” He attributes this to the way Comcast evaluates its call center reps. After first-call resolution and time on the phone, sales are the third-most-important metric on which representatives in Steve’s business customer service division are evaluated. Steve says reps risk getting fired if fewer than 1 in 24 technical support calls have a sale attached. “In order to keep your job, you have to meet certain metrics,” he says. “One is what they call S4B, which is called sales for business. If you don’t meet the metrics for how many sales you get, you can start to get in trouble for that, and if you don’t do it long enough, you can get fired for that.” (Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury says, “This S4B sales metric is a very small percentage of our employee evaluations. It’s so small, in fact, that employees can be rated ‘exceptional,’ our highest score, even if they don’t sell anything. So, not only would they keep their jobs if they didn’t sell, they could consistently achieve the highest possible performance rating.”)
In Steve’s division, Comcast actually increased its emphasis on sales after it announced its customer service overhaul. According to internal documents, the sales requirements for the company’s business technical support division initially more than doubled. In the first quarter of 2014, reps were asked to make sales on 2.52 percent of customer service calls; by the fourth quarter of 2015, after the overhaul, that number had grown to 5.32 percent. The company recently rolled back that sales requirement to 4.21 percent of calls, but it remains to be seen whether it will return to pre-2015 levels.
Steve says that in most cases, sales count only if they increase the customer’s bill: “They have to be sales that charge more to the customer [than they’re currently paying]. If you do a sale that doesn’t really change the price … that wouldn’t help your score in that metric.” Tom Karinshak, Comcast’s senior vice president of customer experience, tells Slate that the company’s sales pitches dovetail with its broader mission of customer education: “First and foremost, the job of any one of our folks is to educate and to help service our customers. … We do make changes as we constantly evaluate our different rewards and recognition programs [for employees] across the board.”
In addition to Comcast’s focus on upselling, there’s also the problem of technical support calls taking too long. In an attempt to reduce hold times, Comcast says it has introduced a new callback system, is opening five new call centers, and has committed to hiring a total of 5,500 new call center workers over the next few years. Until recently, it also tried to limit call lengths, using a performance metric that has been phased out in residential divisions but is still active in Steve’s office.
If you’ve spent hours of your life on hold with the cable company, then you’ll likely cheer any effort to shorten tech support calls. The problem, at least in Steve’s office, is that Comcast’s efforts to reduce hold times incentivize slapdash problem-solving.
When Steve picks up the phone, the caller enters what the company calls “handle time.” In this instance, the company and its customers have the same incentive: They want to keep handle time as minimal as possible. Steve says that in his business division, handle time is even more important than sales when it comes to assessing reps’ job performance. According to internal documents from his office, call center operators need to resolve tech support calls in 11 minutes on average, and in eight minutes if they are about billing. Remember Steve’s 70-minute call? By sending an escalation email, he extended the case’s handle time, dragging down his stats. If a rep is underperforming in this metric, he says, it’s tempting to skip quality assurance steps like escalation: “The people who don’t do a thorough job get to keep their jobs. If you’re wondering why a lot of things get done half-assed, that’s the reason why.”
According to Comcast, handle time is not a performance metric in all its divisions, and it recently phased out its usage in residential call centers. Would eliminating that metric entirely give reps the breathing room they need to solve problems thoroughly? Or will support calls just get longer and frustrate customers even more? The challenge of being swift but not slapdash defies simple solutions. Addressing one critique often requires a compromise in other areas. Problems that seem straightforward to customers aren’t always so straightforward.
Striking a balance that works is a thorny problem, and it’s just one of hundreds that require Comcast to go beyond technology and reconceive its relationship with humans—not just its customers, but its employees. How friendly and thorough can Comcast representatives really be when they’re worried that going the extra mile could affect their call-time stats? And wouldn’t cutting all those sales pitches be a good way to get customers off the phone more quickly? The company insists that all possible reforms are on the table, but so far, those sorts of tough questions remain unanswered.
Charlie Herrin, the EVP of customer experience, says “a lot of the issues are simply expectations.” He’s right: The company and the consumer have different understandings of what good customer service entails. Comcast’s enthusiasm for technology fixes suggests it sees good service as a logistics challenge, one it can resolve with tweaks that leave its fundamental business model intact.
One of those tech fixes is a third-party tool called Net Promoter, a system that provides customer feedback in real time and allows employees to review negative interactions with their supervisors. A representative for Comcast says this new system will help “continue to hold all of us accountable to maintain a culture of continual improvement.” It appears that Net Promoter will also give Comcast employees more voluminous and accurate customer feedback than it has ever had before. It is up to them to decide whether to listen.
If Comcast’s reforms don’t work, it might be because customers simply have something else in mind when they think about good service: not just the efficient delivery of the product they paid for, but a higher standard of treatment. This isn’t limited to Comcast. It explains why a lot of companies, from airlines to HMOs, have fraught relationships with their customers. Corporate America is currently in a standoff with consumers over who gets to set the terms. If customers can persuade a company that it has broken its own rules, they often get what they want. And if they want something abstract, like being treated like a human instead of a checkbook? Well, that’s more elusive.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.