Customer's call shows that Comcast must change; will company listen or hang up?

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We’ve all had our share of frustrating customer service calls, but until further notice, Ryan Block is probably the leader in the clubhouse after his exchange with an especially aggressive Comcast employee went viral this week.

The debate now is over whether that sort of Comcast interaction is typical—anonymous former employees of the company have surfaced online this week to say that is; a Comcast representative I talked to insists it isn’t. But the facts of the matter are these: Block—a former Engadget editor who now works with AOL—wanted to cancel his Internet and cable service. The Comcast employee on the other end of the line, though, had a different idea, subjecting Block to the kind of interrogation one rarely finds outside of scripted police dramas. And that’s only what we heard in the eight minutes of the call that Block recorded; the preceding 10 minutes of Block and his wife pleading to carry out a simple cancelation request were sadly lost to history.

How jaw-dropping was the Comcast rep’s behavior? Staggering enough that the public outcry moved Comcast to issue a public apology.

“The way in which our representative communicated with [Block] is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives,” Tom Krainshak, Comcast’s senior vice president of customer experience, wrote. “We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.”

comcast remote mascot Stephen Depolo via Flickr/Creative Commons

Ryan Block’s phone exchange is a lot more benign if you imagine the Comcast employee was dressed like this.

The last bit of Krainshak’s apology could be heartening to Comcast subscribers if the cable and Internet giant uses this as an opportunity to re-examine how it interacts with its customers. However, the cynics among us—the polite term would be “realists,” thank you very much—might question the first part of the apology, the bit about how it’s “not consistent” with the way Comcast does things.

I think the story of Block’s Comcast interaction resonated with so many people because it squared with their own experiences. I’ve recounted my own Comcast horror story in an earlier TechHive article, and while I wouldn’t say it’s in the same ballpark as what Block had to endure, it’s at least in the ballpark’s parking lot. There’s a reason Comcast enjoys the subterranean reputation among consumers that it does, and no, it’s not that people taking these customer satisfaction surveys are just a bunch of haters.

And in the wake of Block’s call going viral, a couple reports have surfaced that may make you wonder just how atypical that call was. On Reddit, a poster claiming to be an ex-Comcast employee painted a picture of the company’s customer retention department where the people taking those calls from disaffected customers are heavily incentivized to keep them from unsubscribing.

First of all these guys have a low hourly rate. In the states I’ve worked in they start at about 10.50-12$/hr. The actual money that they make comes from their metrics for the month which depends on the department they’re in. In sales this is obvious, the more sales you make the better you do.

In retention, the more products you save per customer the better you do, and the more products you disconect the worst you do [sic] (if a customer with a triple play disconnects, you get hit as losing every one of those lines of business, not just losing one customer.) These guys fight tooth and nail to keep every customer because if they don't meet their numbers they don't get paid.

Comcast uses “gates” for their incentive pays, which means that if you fall below a certain threshold (which tend to be stretch goals in the first place) then instead of getting a reduced amount, you get 0$. Let’s say that if you retain 85% of your customers or more (this means 85% of the lines of businesses that customers have when they talk to you, they still have after they talk to you), you get 100% of your payout - which might be 5-10$ per line of business. At 80% you might only get 75% of your payout, and at 75% you get nothing.

Business Insider found its own former Comcast employee to dish on the company’s customer retention. That ex-Comcaster heard nothing out of the ordinary happening in Block’s recording. “That was an average retention representative he was on the phone with,” the source tells Business Insider.

Now both these accounts come from anonymous sources, so take them with however many grains of salt you care to have on your person. I tried verifying the accounts with sources of my own, but my contacts weren’t familiar enough with the inner workings of Comcast’s subscriber retention program to say one way or the other about how accurate those reports are.

I did, however, get a hold of a Comcast spokeswoman who maintains that “the majority of compensation” for employees tasked with keeping Comcast subscribers in the fold comes from a fixed hourly rate. There are commissions, the spokeswoman told me, but retaining customers is only a portion of that; employee commissions are also based on what the spokeswoman called “the quality of interaction… being responsive to customers at all times and in all situations.”

We can sit and parse the meaning of all that—one person’s “portion of a commission” is another person’s livelihood. Taking Comcast at its word here, there’s some amount of compensation tied into keeping customers on the books—enough so that the employee fielding Block’s call felt incentivized to do a one-man Good Cop/Bad Cop routine. And that should give Comcast cause for concern beyond the embarrassment felt when this call went public.

Look, Comcast has every reason to want to keep people from cutting the cord on their Internet, cable, or telephone—it’s a business, after all. But one might wonder if the company is going about customer retention in the right way, and if the incentives it’s offering employees to keep subscribers—whether those incentives are a little or a lot—are working at cross-purposes.

I asked my contact at Comcast whether the company might re-examine its approach to customer retention in the wake of this week’s PR black eye. “We’ll go back and look at what we’re doing and do we need to adjust,” she told me. “For the most part, our retention policies are in line with what you expect from other services.”

That may be part of the problem right there.

This story, "Customer's call shows that Comcast must change; will company listen or hang up?" was originally published by TechHive.

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