Jeff Freyer moved to the Twin Cities in the summer of 2013 as the new head of Comcast’s Twin Cities region. Just eight months later, in April 2014, Comcast announced plans to merge with its biggest rival, Time Warner Cable. Executives at Philadelphia-based Comcast then decided the Twin Cities operation would be one of several across the country that would be spun off into a new company, GreatLand Connections, to meet antitrust concerns. As regulators and lawmakers examined the deal, other concerns grew, particularly about the quality of customer service at the two firms. The two cable giants last summer called off the deal. Comcast then began investing more to improve the way it deals with customers. Part of that effort involves hiring more people in St. Paul. As well, Freyer and other regional executives now spend part of their time dealing directly with customers. Freyer discussed the challenges of leading a business unit with its future up in the air at a company under intense scrutiny:
Q: How did you adjust after word came that the Twin Cities unit would leave Comcast as a result of the merger?
A: We talked a lot about change management and transition, sticking together for our customers and making sure we provided great service throughout the transition.
Q: Was it hard to retain employees during such a time?
A: Leaders are generally more relocatable, and we did lose some in that period to other opportunities. It also gave us a chance to bring in some bright people who were excited about the future of the market. To the average front-line employee, the 2,000 employees of the region, remember a lot of these people have been through name changes in this system. There’s a lot of employee pride in Comcast, so that was a downer. But they have been through this before and have had pride in other previous companies, including Time Warner, which used to be in Minneapolis.
Q: How did people feel when the deal fell apart?
A: The day that the deal did not go through was a disappointing day for many people in Comcast. There was a silver lining that Comcast was keeping a lot of systems that it didn’t want to have to lose but was just part of the deal. So I think there was a lot of excitement from leadership in Comcast about keeping the systems that had meant so much to Comcast for so long. To employees, keeping their X1, Xfinity One, their Comcast benefits, there were so many things that employees were happy about.
Q: Were there any incentives during that period from middle 2014 to middle 2015?
A: During that period, we did have a retention bonus in effect. We had a lot of town-hall meetings and frequent communication with employees. We try to do that anyway. But during that time, people were looking for information. And it was my job and the job of the leadership team to keep us focused on our customers and great service and “Hey, we’ve still got a job here to do.”
I’d like to make one point about that year. Even though Comcast was packaging up this market, along with all the other markets that were packaged up for GreatLand Communications, there was still going to be a portion of the company controlled by Comcast shareholders. I think employees still felt a connection to Comcast. And one thing Comcast did a great job of doing was investing in the market. So, for example, in the middle of all this, Comcast opened up a new experience center in Woodbury and St. Louis Park, and continued to invest in fiber to expand our Comcast business network. There were a number of big investments that employees were seeing even though there was a transition going on.
Q: Did anything get put on hold? Any projects where you took off the gas?
A: I would say we were pretty much full steam ahead because nothing is done until it’s done. And that’s how it turned out. The good news was, in the back half of 2015, we increased our speeds for most consumers in the Twin Cities. We launched our 2-gigabit product. So we stayed on a good trajectory from a product standpoint.
Q: What are the priorities now that the future is clear?
A: We just kicked off the new year, and the top thing we’re focused on is customer experience. There’s honesty within Comcast that the customer experience, and some of the coverage that happened around that, played a role in the deal [collapse]. While we have lots of people who love Comcast, we have people we still need to impress and delight.
Q: How is that playing out in the Twin Cities?
A: We need to have a simpler bill, empower our technicians to be on time to appointments and our agents to give credits when appropriate. We’re working on these things. We also announced we would spend, as a company, $300 million on customer experience and add 5,500 jobs. Four hundred of those were allocated to St. Paul to expand our call center to help us deliver a better customer experience.
Q: Have you started that hiring?
A: We are in the process of hiring and outfitting the building and the floors where those people are going to be. We’re in the middle of it. We have to get this right for our future. It can’t just be the fastest speeds. We have to have the best customer experience to truly have loyal customers.