How Comcast Failed Its Customer—and Its Agent

By now, most people have heard the infamous exchange between a badgering Comcast contact center agent and a hapless customer who was trying to disconnect his service. The customer, Ryan Block, an AOL vice president and and former editor-in-chief of Engadget, recorded a portion of the cringe-worthy conversation and posted it to SoundHound. It subsequently—not to mention quickly—went viral.

"Within just a few minutes, the representative had gotten so condescending and unhelpful I felt compelled to record the speakerphone conversation on my other phone," Block wrote in a blog post on SoundHound. "This recording picks up roughly ten minutes into the call, whereby she [Block's wife] and I have already played along and given a myriad of reasons and explanations as to why we are canceling (which is why I simply stopped answering the rep's repeated question—it was clear the only sufficient answer was 'Okay, please don't disconnect our service after all.')"

Block's run-in with the agent is just one of many customer service fails that has been attributed to the company. For years, anecdotal tales and formal research showcasing poor customer service have plagued the biggest U.S. provider of TV, high-speed Internet, and phone service.

Bruce Temkin, managing partner of the Temkin Group, says that bad customer service is a problem endemic to the overall telecom industry. Indeed, in the 2014 Temkin Customer Service Ratings, Comcast sank to the bottom two spots in the rankings. "Our data shows that the TV service industry is the worst industry and Comcast is the worst in that industry," Temkin says.

Comcast itself has acknowledged its failings. According to an April Washington Post article, executive vice president David Cohen said, "It bothers us [that] we have so much trouble delivering [a] high quality of service to customers on a regular basis. Sometimes, we need a kick in the butt."

Adding social media to the mix further exacerbated the fiasco, notes Jay Baer, president of Convince & Convert. While many times poor customer service is noted anecdotally, in this case, the proof was recorded and irrefutable.

"Comcast is just the latest in a never-ending string of companies that have had customer service or product miscues that have blown up and created a social media firestorm," Baer says. "You have to assume as a brand that every interaction you have with every person can become public."

Dealing with a publicity nightmare, Comcast immediately tried to clean up the ensuing backlash by placing blame on the agent. "We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont [Block's wife] and are contacting them to personally apologize," the company said in a statement. "The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives."

In his effort to retain Block as a customer, the agent's behavior was undeniably rude, but it's too convenient to single the agent out for Comcast's poor customer service, industry experts say. The problem has much deeper roots within the company's contact center, which Block pointed out in his blog. "I have continued to reiterate publicly that I do not want Comcast to terminate the rep, and that I believe the call itself belies a deeper, systemic dysfunction," he said.

Temkin agrees and believes that the agent is a scapegoat for Comcast's customer service issues. "An organization [should] step up when there's a problem and say, "This is a company issue, this is a fundamental thing that we need to fix." Blaming the rep is not [right] in this case."

Companies might want to examine how pervasive their customer service problems are, Temkin suggests. "At Comcast, it's pervasive," he says. "With a company that always or regularly delivers bad customer service, the issue isn't training. In general, people behave with the environment that they are put into. The environment that Comcast clearly creates is poor customer service, no matter who the rep is."

Temkin points out that any company could have a bad customer service interaction, but a great company would say, "That's a problem, that's unacceptable. We need to understand what we've done to create an environment where a rep would behave that way." "It's not, well, the rep wasn't trained well and it's his or her fault."

Comcast may or may not be getting the message. On Monday, The Consumerist, a consumer action blog owned by a subsidiary of Consumer Reports, said that it received a leaked internal memo to employees from Comcast chief operating officer Dave Watson, who wrote, "It was painful to listen to this call and I am not surprised that we have been criticized for it.

"The agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him—and thousands of other retention agents—to do," Watson said. "He tried to save a customer, and that's important, but the act of saving a customer must always be handled with the utmost respect. This situation has caused us to re-examine how we do some things to make sure that each and every one of us—from leadership to the front line—understands the balance between selling and listening. We will review our training programs, we will refresh our manager on coaching for quality, and we will take a look at our incentives to ensure we are rewarding employees for the right behaviors."

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