Saturday, October 3, 2009

Comcast and the two faces of customer service.

If you’re like me and work on the creative side of the business, you’d like to believe that good communications and a healthy social dialog are the keys to building relationships and ensuring customer loyalty.

But the fact is, your company is often only as good as the people you have on the front line. One bad experience either in-store, on the phone, or via an online chat, can often tarnish even your best marketing efforts.

Take Comcast. Is there any company whose customer service reputation swings more wildly across the great/terrible spectrum? Comcast has been both vilified for its customer service via the infamous “Comcast must die” Web site and glorified for its prompt @comcastcares replies on Twitter.

Which brings me to a recent personal encounter I had with the cable conglomerate. I’m a decade long Comcast customer and in April I found that two channels we occasionally watched at home, MSNBC and AMC, had disappeared from our two televisions that did not have a dedicated cable box.

I called 1-800-COMCAST and was told that I needed a digital converter to continue receiving these channels and could pick one up for free—by going to the dreaded local Comcast office.

What’s most off-putting about this office isn’t the untouched-since-the-‘70s interior or the unsmiling, laconic customer service reps—it’s, I kid you not, the counter-to-ceiling wall of thick bullet-proof glass the reps sit behind.

It’s the kind of set-up you see on TV in the visiting rooms of prisons, complete with vented portholes through which you talk to the person opposite you. It serves as a quite literal barrier to developing any kind of customer rapport, and gets you wondering why they need this kind of security in the first place.

So anyway, I went to the office to get my free converters—only to have the customer service rep behind the wall of glass tell me, with an unmistakable I-hate-my-job vibe, “we’re out of them, you need to come back in January”. A 9-month wait!

From the parking lot I made a call to 1-800-COMCAST to complain and received an apology. I was told that the converters were on order and should in fact be ready in September, a slightly more tolerable 5 months away.

Fast forward to a few days ago. Using Instant Chat at the Comcast Web site, I check to see if the converters might be ready. After being passed from one associate to another more versed with the converters, I’m informed they’re now available and I can have them shipped to my home. Yes!

Only, after confirming my address, I’m told that, oops, they can’t mail the converters to my area (for a reason never explained) and that I need to contact my local office to see if they have them. “Wait a second,” I chat back, “I don’t want to contact my local office, that’s why I’m talking to you.”

A canned response is sent back to me to the effect, “I am so sorry about your situation. I know you’re frustrated, but you need to contact your local office. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

Yes, for starters you can drop the canned faux sincerity. Then, you can break the rules and ship me my free converters. OR you can contact the local office for me and see if they have the converters. After all, I started our conversation by telling you that I was very tempted by a money-saving Verizon triple play offer I was receiving in the mail 3 or 4 times a week. Hint: You’re in danger of losing me as a long-time customer!

Funny thing is, I call 1-800-COMCAST an hour or so later on an unrelated Internet issue. And, after addressing the problem, the customer service rep quickly switches subjects. “Sir, I see you’re having an issue getting digital converters. Can I have them mailed to you in the next two weeks?”

Shocked, I reply “Yes, you can, thank you.”

Sometimes Comcast offers terrible customer service. Sometimes Comcast offers great customer service. And sometimes you get to see both of them in the very same day. But my guess is, most customers only see one side. And if it’s the terrible side, they don’t stay customers for very long.

(Now, let’s see if I get my converters!)

This post originally appeared on Loyalty Truth September 26, 2009. Tom Rapsas is an independent Creative Director/Writer/Strategist and can be reached at or via Twitter @tomrapsas.

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