Your cable company hates you: Why Comcast abuses its customers

That customer service call wasn't an isolated incident. It's just part of a depressingly effective business model

Published February 12, 2015 10:00AM (EST)

              (Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


When it comes to popularity, cable companies rank down there with members of Congress, root canals and Nickelback. Current and former customers agree; they hate the high cost and poor service, and they especially hate the runaround they get from call centers.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the two largest cable television providers in the U.S., are consistently at the bottom of consumer satisfaction surveys and are among the least trusted corporations in the nation. Now these two monolithic companies are on the brink of a mega-merger.

The merged company — which will be named Comcast — would control more than two-thirds of all cable television subscriptions in the country, and some 40% of the home Internet market. The $45.2 billion merger, proposed a year ago, is awaiting approval from the feds, and there are unfortunate signs the merger will be approved.

Survey after survey shows that Americans wholeheartedly oppose the proposed merger. The latest survey, by Consumer Reports, finds nearly three-quarters of Americans believe it will result in higher cable and Internet rates, while two-thirds say it will likely have a negative impact on customer service and that Comcast would have no incentive to improve.

So, knowing that most of their customers hate their guts, you would think that Comcast and Time Warner would do some corporate soul searching and perhaps polish their respective images. Maybe some acts of goodwill like rolling back prices, making a true commitment to net neutrality or providing better customer service would do the trick. But that hasn’t been the case. As regional monopolies, these companies know that when they are awarded a local franchise, they can pretty much do as they please without fear of consequences.

Comcast even seems to have grown surlier toward its customers since the unpopular merger was first proposed. This past spring, technology journalist Ryan Block attempted to cancel his service. Not only did Comcast’s customer retention specialist try to talk Block out of it, he got hostile with him, chiding Block and refusing to take back Comcast’s cable card. What the rep didn’t know is that Block was recording the last 10 minutes of the conversation, after it became ridiculous.

"This phone call is actually an amazing representative example of why I don't want to stay with Comcast," Block tells the retention specialist at one point.

The recording, which went viral after it was posted on TechCrunch, further amplified customers’ frustrations with Comcast and other cable providers. Comcast didn't handle this bad publicity well; the response was your typical corporate lip service. The company said the rep’s behavior was “unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.”

But was it?

Earlier this month, Lisa Brown, a Comcast customer from Spokane, Wash., was rechristened “Asshole Brown” on the service bill she received in the mail. Upset by this, Brown believes her name changed after she phoned Comcast’s local offices to remove the pay-TV portions of her cable package. Brown’s call, like other customers who attempt to downgrade or cancel, was forwarded to a rep who tried to talk her out of dropping premium channels.

“I was never rude,” Brown told consumer advocate Chris Elliott. “It could have been that person was upset because I didn’t take the offer.”

After she received her bill, Brown said she called Comcast asking for an explanation and to have her billing name changed back to Lisa, but she says the local and regional offices were of no help. It wasn’t until Elliott contacted Comcast’s headquarters for a comment about the incident that the company sprang into action. Again, Comcast claimed it has no tolerance for this type of behavior and would investigate.

But it turns out this wasn't an isolated incident by a rogue employee. Only days after Brown’s story went viral, three other customers reported that they, too, were defamed by Comcast employees.

Julie Swano reported that her December bill was addressed to “Whore” Julia Swano. Swano said she had to talk to at least 20 Comcast employees in a three week period to find out what happened and to get her name changed back, yet she says “they did nothing about it.”

Another customer, Carolina Heredia, contacted Elliott after her name was changed to “dummy” on her online account. When she gained access to her customer page, the greeting said, “Hello, dummy.” Heredia says she called Comcast several times about the name change, but got no satisfaction until she visited a local office. Even then, she says no one from Comcast has offered an apology or an explanation.

And finally, a 63-year-old Chicago-area woman told WGN-TV that she, too, was insulted on her Comcast bill. Mary Bauer of suburban Addison was having trouble with her Comcast service for months. After the issues were resolved, her bills stopped showing up, but Bauer said she would call customer service to make her payments. Recently, bills started showing up in her mailbox again, with "Super Bitch" stamped where her name should go. Again, Comcast responded and said it was investigating the matter.

A former Comcast subcontractor told Chris Elliott that it's easy to change a customer’s name, but the changes would have to be made deliberately. "It does take some serious navigation to get to the portion of the biller, or the software they used to make changes on accounts, where you change account names and information. So the rep who changed the customer’s name to ‘a**hole’ couldn’t have done it by accident,” he tells Elliot.

But who would do something like that? And why?

Signs point to exasperated customer service reps or retention specialists who have access to a customer’s profile. They can do atrocious things to the account, including abusing a customer’s name. And after hard day of dealing with dissatisfied customers and cynical managers, it's an easy way to vent some frustrations.

“It’s high-pressure work,” one former retention specialist told AlterNet. “It’s a sales job, and you’re monitored all the time.”

Retention specialists are given small bonuses for "saves," when they persuade customers not to cancel services or disconnect. But they’re also punished for “discos,” the term used when they are unsuccessful in retaining a customer. These call center salespeople work from a script that is supposed to persuade customers to reconsider disconnecting their service. It’s a step-by-step method and a formula that is supposed to succeed a large percentage of the time. “And if it’s not working for you, managers know it's not the fault of the script," the former specialist said.

The Verge, a tech news site, contacted several current and former Comcast employees. They concur that all disconnect requests are forwarded to retention specialists and that front-line customer service reps don’t have the ability to cancel subscribers. If customers wish to disconnect or downgrade service, they have to endure a high-pressure sales pitch to convince them otherwise, and some retention specialists just won’t take no for an answer.

“There’s a stock answer for every concern,” the former retention specialist told us. “If the price is too high or someone just wants to drop everything but Internet, we stick with the script. So, you’re really focused on your results, not the customer's needs."

The script is a simple ordered checklist of what to say to a possible “disco.” Some parts of the script are innocuous enough, but it mostly guides retention specialists how to feign empathy and build rapport with the customer while subconsciously maneuvering the subject away from cancellation. The checklist includes instructions to how to “relate and empathize,” “take control,” “set the agenda,” “overcome objections” and “take ownership.” These sales tactics are similar to those used by car salespeople and boiler-room stock brokers. The retention specialists are also given some leeway to offer customers modest discounts on service and Internet speed upgrades to try to retain them. Bonus points can also be earned for steering customers away from trap words like “disconnect,” “downgrade” and “cancel.”

And while retention specialists are rewarded for saves, it can be brutal when one of them is riding a bad luck streak. Some retention specialists say they will go as far as to hang up on customers or put them on hold indefinitely if they don't think they can talk them out of disconnecting. Because they know that if they string together just a few discos in a short period of time, it can result in dismissal. That’s probably why they lash out at customers.

In a post on his LinkedIn page, Frank Eliason, a former Comcast executive, says the issue starts with the business atmosphere, and the customer experience with retention contractors could be just one symptom of a larger cultural problem.

“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,” says Eliason, the former senior director of national customer operations. “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.”

When client care gives way to seedy sales tactics, that's when the wheels fall off customer service operations.

“Incidents like these most often happen because of a culture within the company,” says Eliason. “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.”

Eliason says he would “hit the roof” if he heard that a customer’s name was changed to Asshole, but this evidently didn’t upset current Comcast employees enough to rectify the affront to Brown. It wasn't until Brown's humilation made national headlines that it was taken up by Comcast’s public relations department.

So, it appears Comcast’s infamous customer service gaffes aren't isolated incidents at all, but inspired by the narcissistic corporate culture of a juggernaut that couldn't care less about its customers, just so long as they’re paying their bills. And why should they? Without any real competition in most of the areas it serves, Comcast enjoys the impregnability of a captive audience.

By Cliff Weathers

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