5 things Comcast needs to do to fix its awful customer service

It’s rare to think about Comcast and good customer service in the same breath, although the cable giant soon aims to change that.

Announcing plans to improve customer service last week, Comcast rolled out a massive effort to change its historically awful track record in this area. For starters, the company is creating 5,500 new customer service jobs, while making “major investments in technology and training,” presumably to strengthen the skills of these future employees. 

Perhaps most significantly for subscribers, though, is the company’s promise to credit you with $20 if a technician doesn’t arrive within the allotted window for an appointment. This addition has been highly publicized, however, Comcast has actually been making this promise for over two years. The difference is that before you had to request it, whereas now the $20 refund will now automatically be added to your account.

With the proposed Time Warner merger dead, Comcast is now at a crossroads. Cable companies are among the most hated in America—and for good reason. The disrespect the company has for its customers has trickled down to every level. The “Comcast rep from hell” phone call, which went viral last year, and prompted others to share similarly horrible experiences, may have been the final straw.

To that end, Comcast clearly understands it has some image maintenance to which to attend, reportedly spending $300 million to make upcoming changes. However, many are still skeptical, even speculating that $20 will come out of your cable technician’s pocket, not Comcast’s. 

What Comcast should have learned by now, though, is that if the company really wants to change its culture, it has to explore multiple approaches in an effort to win back the trust of its customers. Showing customers the money is a good start, but it’s not enough.

1) The “more is more” approach

Among Comcast’s other proposed improvements is the addition of “three new state-of-the-art customer support centers in Albuquerque, N.M.; Spokane, Wash.; and Tucson, Ariz.,” as well as plan to implement “a new, cloud-based platform that gives employees a better, holistic view of the customer’s account history so they have everything they need to help customers faster.” 

Comcast has also outlined a proposal to give users better access to customer support via social media and mobile platforms and unveiled an upcoming “tech tracker,” which will let customers monitor the arrival of Comcast’s technicians leading up to home visits.

Right now, it looks as if Comcast believes more is more, and more is better. With more features, more options, and more employees, Comcast is operating under the assumption that as long as you have more ways to connect with them, then things have to improve. 

Whether this ends up working or not, however, largely depends on whether the customer service representatives you are connecting with are actually attentive to your needs, which was sort of the company’s problem to begin with. After all, Comcast’s poor track record in that department earned them the title of “Worst Company in America.”

2) The “less is more” approach

Among the most interesting of Comcast’s recent promises is its plan to “proactively diagnose issues in the network and enable Comcast engineers to solve them before they reach customers.” From the onset, this doesn’t sound revolutionary, but what separates this declaration from the rest of the company’s guarantees is that it denotes a more hands-off approach.

And for users like Forbes’ Gene Mark, a hands-off approach is just what they need. Back in 2013, he predicted Comcast’s push to find problems before they became evident, asserting that the best way for the company to improve its service is to facilitate less contact between customers and employees. 

“I don’t want to call when there’s a problem,” writes Marks. “I want to fix issues myself. I want to get quick answers online. I want to watch a video where someone shows me what to do. For me, the less human interaction the better. If all else fails, I’ll call in the troops. But in the meantime, just give me the ability to solve my problem and leave me alone. I want less service, not more.”

This line of thinking stands in contrast with Comcast’s newly proactive outlook on fixing problems, but there is something to it. If Comcast can’t at least bother to provide customer support in an efficient and timely manner, then the least the company can do is provide customer support without its customers having to seek it out.

3) The “steal steal steal” approach 

Comcast’s “tech tracker” idea takes a direct cue from Uber, a company for which Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has not been shy about sharing his admiration. However, Uber isn’t the only company from which Roberts is borrowing. It’s worth noting that Comcast’s Studio Xfinity in Chicago, where its recent customer service announcements were made, are essentially Apple Store-like gadget centers.

This “it worked for them” approach is tricky. In theory, Comcast is not wrong to look to other, more popular companies (and surely, it doesn’t get much more popular than Apple). However, companies like Uber have enough culture problems of their own, and what Roberts and all his flashy new ideas seem to miss is that borrowing ideas from another company won’t fix the culture problems inherent in his.

Comcast is also a bit late in hopping on the local/mobile/social trend, as well as being a latecomer to the use of a cloud-based account platform. Yes, the cloud is a great technological innovation, and Comcast should use it. However, the company’s chief problem isn’t a tech problem—it’s a people problem. 

Moreover, just because every business wants to have a social component these days doesn’t mean it will have any PR impact whatsoever. Comcast would be wise to ask: What’s the point of increasing communication through Twitter if all customers are doing is sending tweets about how much they hate Comcast?

The “steal steal steal” approach may work for Comcast in small doses. At a level this big, all companies steal from each other to a certain extent. But if Comcast really wants to change its attitude toward customer service, the “steal steal steal” approach should only be one component of much larger reform.

4) The “we’re sorry” approach

More than anything else, Comcast’s most important step so far has been an admission of guilt. In order for the company to look toward the future, Comcast will need to address the issues of its past. 

What makes their $20 guarantee appealing is that it puts the burden of improvement on Comcast, not on its customers. Unlike using its tech tracker or accessing account information through the cloud, to get the $20 credit, you no longer have to do everything.This is important, because before people can trust any other services Comcast plans to provide, people first have to believe that Comcast is willing to put their money where its mouth is.

To that end, Comcast might consider taking similar steps in every other facet of its new customer service philosophy. For instance, if you’re on the phone for over a half an hour—or if you’re being transferred from representative to representative in a seemingly endless line of unanswered questions—then Comcast could cut your cable bill down that month 

Similarly, if you experience the same problems with your cable over and over again, and are unable to fix them, Comcast could temporarily provide you with a better package, until those problems are fixed. And of course, if your Internet is routinely spotty or not working as fast as it should, Comcast could throw in a free deal, so you at least have some incentive to keep giving them your business.

It’s unlikely that Comcast will assume this much financial responsibility, but if the company ever wants customers to trust it again, then Comcast at least has to realize that the key to good customer service isn’t just about giving customers stuff they don’t even know they want—it’s about giving them what they’ve been lacking first.

5) The “keep it simple” approach

Within Comcast’s bigger plan, there are small, specific details that indicate there may be hope for the company yet. For instance, there is an initiative to “simplify billing and create better policies to provide greater consistency and transparency to customers.” Comcast also decided to make its upcoming Albuquerque support center bilingual, so as to appeal to Spanish-speaking customers. And Comcast has vowed to put everyone at the company, including senior management, through additional customer service training,

These are the kinds of basic conveniences Comcast needs to focus on: streamlined billing, better communication, and greater sensitivity. These attributes have to manifest on a wider scale before Comcast can truly move forward.

There are many other ways Comcast could help fix its customer service culture, although so far, the company haven’t proven it can fix anything at all. Roberts started talking about improvements earlier this year, and the company’s president, Neil Smith, began vowing to correct customer service problems in 2014, though both execs admit the turnaround might take years to accomplish. Nevertheless, Comcast seems to be aware it has a problem, and although that’s not much, it’s a start.  

The time for change has come. We’ve all paid for Comcast’s crappy customer service long enough. If the company want to prevent anything less than a full-on revolt, it’s going to have to do more than wooing people back $20 at a time. 

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Osterndorf enjoys making movies with friends. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Photo via greyweed/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.