Fast Wi-Fi, nifty interfaces are nice, Comcast, but customers clearly want better manners

Dan Frankel, FierceCable"We were together. And now we're not. Asked you for nothin'. That's what I got." --"Goodbye Girl," Teenage Fanclub

Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) has finally stopped sending me direct-mail come-ons, with Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) trying to buy the company and get the combined video subscriber girth into regulatory fighting shape (i.e. 30 million subscribers or less).

But for several years, TWC spent--gosh, I don't know, hundreds--on postage and mailers alone, courting me to become a triple-play subscriber. This was after they had me locked up, but failed to close the deal out. 

It was November 2012, and my Lakers had just moved over to their new "exclusive home," the just-launched Time Warner SportsNet. My pay TV service, DirecTV (NASDAQ: DTV) was taking its time on licensing the regional sports network. So I initiated talks with the TWC, fully aware of the company's horrendous customer service track record.

The TWC sales rep, Phil, was a tool--unnecessarily defensive, a little paranoid, and a lot impatient. I signed on anyway, compelled by a $95-a-month triple-play offer that required no commitment, established in a brief time window to poach potential DirecTV dissonants just like me. It was a smartly thought-up bit of customer acquisition strategy that managed to overcome--only temporarily--TWC's horrible track record for service interruptions and bad phone manners. But it couldn't overcome everything.

A week later, a TWC installer arrived in a white, shiny GMC van to consummate the marriage. But the wireline installation required me to run down the street to a neighbor and borrow the key to the gate that led into the alley behind my house. That would take 10 minutes, tops. Incentivized on volume, the installer didn't want to wait around … and didn't.

I didn't get TWC installed that day. DirecTV licensed SportsNet just a week later, and we've lovelessly stayed together ever since, the satellite carrier forever trying to get another two-year commitment from me with by dangling a new Genie HD-DVR at me.

For about 18 months, TWC kept sending me correspondence, begging for another chance, but I never followed up. In the end, its aggressive marketing, irresistible exclusive content and savvy product development couldn't save this single, low-margin subscriber from the bad training of one selfish, flippant, impatient front-line employee.

But, of course, we already know TWC and the company trying to buy it, Comcast, have horrible customer service track records, reputations that now seem to outsize reality.

In early July, the tech press doubled over with glee upon the viral distribution of a recording featuring an industrious--but entirely out-of-line--Comcast subscriber retention rep, steadfastly rejecting the repeated account-cancellation requests of one of their own, Engadget founding editor (and current AOL executive) Ryan Block.

Forget that many of the digital giants they worship, like say, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) seem to get away with having little, if any, customer service of any kind. Try calling someone if you have trouble with your Google AdSense account, for example.

Comcast's misstep--an unfortunate one, as pay TV's most innovative company fights its bad service reputation amid regulatory merger approvals--offered a new opportunity for tech bloggers and consumer advocates to beat up on what has somewhat inexplicably become the biggest boogie man of the digital age, Big Cable.

Sure, some of the service has been outlandishly bad, but the public reaction to it has been a little irrational.  

Notably, the advocacy-focused Consumerist, front and center amid this latest round of Comcast bashing, took the opportunity to remind everyone that the nation's No. 1 pay TV provider had beaten chemical company Monsanto this year in its annual, publicly voted on, bracket-style tournament to determine "the worst company in America."

Monsanto, a company known for genetically engineering the food we eat, had to beat out two banks accused of predatory credit card practices, and TWC, before it could take on the retailer accused of destroying the American middle class, Wal-Mart, in the semifinals. Comcast had to go through Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), a company on the leading edge of our digital privacy concerns, before it could get to a theme park operator accused of abusing marine life, SeaWorld.

Also appearing in this year's tournament: DirecTV, AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ). The Khmer Rouge and Third Reich were ineligible.

In the grander scheme, ranking communications companies whose faults amount to rude customer service, broadband outages, programming blackouts and opaque billing practices alongside multinationals noted for tangibly harming the very fabric of American life seems silly.

But with the FCC, and the broader cord-cutting public existentially vetting the monthly pay TV bill closer than ever these days, it's the little things that mean a lot. And for Comcast, a company aspiring to be an "urban clustered" communications technology company, transcending the reputation of small-town cable racket operator, it's time to take customer service seriously. Comcast is no longer the only game in any town, and it doesn't want to be

Google can get away with an austere front by coasting on the strength of its technology. It may not be fair, but Comcast can't.

The company needs to augment the aggressive development of customer-experience-focused technology initiatives, like the X1 platform, with an equally aggressive push on 21st Century customer service training. It needs to spend millions of dollars developing--and publicly touting--this program. This initiative needs to be launched very soon.

In a employee memo leaked to Consumerist earlier this week, Comcast COO Dave Watson said the embarrassing viral recording incident will force company executives to "reexamine how we do some things." But comments made by chairman and CEO Brian Roberts during Tuesday's second quarter earnings report seemed to belie a note of tone-deafness.

Noting that Comcast is "cognizant that there is ample room for further improvement" of its customers' experience," and that this improvement is "top priority," not once did Roberts mention the words "improved customer service training."

 "We do feel confident that there are measurable improvements in the experience we are offering customers, this includes faster broadband speeds, best in home Wi-Fi, more content choices on more devices, and what we believe is the best user interface and guide experience in the world," he said.

Consumerist's 2015 "Worst Company In America" rankings are set to come out next April.--Dan

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