Can Comcast make a connection?

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2009 - 1:54 AM

The cable giant is looking to improve its customer service reputation with gadgets and more service with a smile.

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Comcast technician Neil Gibbons checked a Hopkins customer's devices and signal strength.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Everyone seems to have a horror story about their cable provider, and Comcast Corp., the nation's largest provider, says it's tired of hearing them.

The Philadelphia-based cable, phone and Internet provider says it's moving to improve its customer service in the Twin Cities, where it counts 555,000 customers between Plymouth and western Wisconsin, south to Hastings and north to Ham Lake and Rogers.

Among the features of Comcast's new Customer Care program: equipping technicians with high-tech handheld devices that can test a home's entire network, giving every employee "Make It Right" cards to hand out to anyone who has a beef with Comcast and even encouraging workers at the call center to smile when they're talking to a customer.

Parts of the program are being launched in the Twin Cities, and others have already been rolled out nationally.

The initiative comes as Comcast is competing for new customers and working to keep those who might be willing to forgo home-entertainment spending to help make ends meet. It's also facing increased competition from Qwest, which is expanding its broadband network with aggressive pricing.

Early results indicate the program may be paying off, but experts say it's a daunting undertaking for a company that has been the target of consumer websites such as ComcastMustDie.com.

"Comcast wants to hold on to their customers; they don't want them to defect," so they're giving their customer service a much-needed makeover, said Alfred Marcus, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management who studies competition in the telecommunications industry.

In the Twin Cities broadband market, Marcus said, Comcast is the big gorilla and Qwest the underdog. "Customers want to have a reason to stick with [Comcast] even if their prices are higher," he said. "It's like two prizefighters slugging it out."

Impact of bad PR

Stories about consumer frustration with Comcast have long been part of telecom lore. A 75-year-old hammer-wielding Virginia woman smashed a keyboard and phone at her local Comcast office in 2007, becoming a folk hero among those fed up with poor customer service. A YouTube video shows a technician sleeping on a customer's couch, still on hold with his own office. And in June, Comcast came in second on MSN Money's Customer Service Hall of Shame, behind AOL but ahead of Sprint.

Comcast apparently sat up and paid attention.

The company began monitoring blogs and Twitter to identify disgruntled customers and address customer dissatisfaction on a one-to-one basis. It may have made a difference.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks consumer opinions of more than 200 companies, said Comcast's score rose 9 percent this year, but it still ranked second to last among cable and satellite TV companies.

And even ComcastMustDie.com says Comcast is "tone deaf no more." The site now directs consumers to a more general complaint site called Customer-circus.com, where Comcast is one of numerous companies "subjected to the power of aggregated rage."

Asked about the negative publicity, Fran Zeuli, Comcast's vice president for customer care in the Twin Cities, said "those kind of things have an impact, certainly."

What's changing

The "Make It Right" cards, given to Twin Cities employees this month, are to be handed out when they encounter someone -- even at a back-yard cookout or in line at the grocery store -- who has a complaint about Comcast. The cards include a special phone number to call "for priority assistance."

Comcast is also focusing on the "soft skills" side of the company by training technicians and call-center agents to listen, be respectful and help customers get their problem resolved the first time around.

"We start with building rapport and being personable on that phone call," Zeuli said. "We even ask the agents to smile so that they're really showing a sincere care for the customer."

At the end of this month, Comcast will start advertising its new "customer guarantee" in the Twin Cities. Among its promises: quickly handling customers' problems and being mindful of customers' time. Comcast is also offering a 30-day money-back guarantee on all of its services.

The company says the changes, which cost millions nationally, are working. It says calls are down 4 percent and repeat service calls are down 6 percent.

Complaining on the Web

Using "word of mouse" -- word of mouth on the Web -- consumers are four times as likely to hear about a bad experience with a company than a good one, said John Goodman, a customer service expert and trainer with the American Society for Quality in Washington, D.C.

Goodman gave Comcast a D-plus for its customer service but said the company could get to a B if it shifted from focusing on the technical fixes for customers and focused on the basics: "Get me someone on the phone who can quickly fix my issue and then actually show up on time."

Winning over customers is more of an emotional issue, he said. "People are willing to forgive the technical stuff if your people and your process actually fix it and you do the basics," he said.

One expert said any company trying to undergo such a massive makeover is only halfway there once it makes improvements in training and technology.

It's the perception that's the challenge to change, said Jim Buckman, retired executive director of the Juran Center for Leadership in Quality at the Carlson School of Management.

"It's making them stick so that customers actually notice and start cutting you some slack," he said.

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

  • COMCAST CHANGES

    Some of the changes customers are seeing in the Twin Cities:

    • Expanded hours for technicians, including working on Sundays.

    • Technicians with handheld devices that can test a home's entire network.

    • Promotions for a new "customer guarantee." Among its promises: quickly handling problems, being mindful of customers' time and a 30-day money-back guarantee on all services.

    • "Make it Right" cards with a special phone number will be given to complaining customers.

    • Smiling call center employees, who will be trained in "soft skills" such as listening and being respectful.

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