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​By now, you’ve probably  heard the call that hijacked the Internet last week. If not, let me warn you. It is painful – incredibly painful.  And while I do feel awful for the customer, ultimately, the cancellation call from hell breaks my heart for a shocking reason.

Listen to it again, and try not to empathize for the hapless agent and his cringe-inducing commitment to the Comcast way. This poor soul morphed, in eight short minutes and one tweet, from internal hero (revered and rewarded for his ability to continually face-off against tough odds and win) into the saddest character in a modern-day tragedy. Thankfully, like all great tragedies of the stage, we can heed the warnings and reap the rewards of lessons that become apparent.Frustrated for everyone

First, let me frame the scene. On one side of the phone we have Ryan Block, famous tech journalist (founder of gdgt and founding editor of Engadget), and on the other we have a nameless cog in the massive machine of horrible customer service that is commonly known as  Comcast. As in all tragedies, ultimately both players become victims of a larger, more devious force.

A quick reminder about the larger force here: Comcast is currently awaiting government approval of their proposed merger with fellow behemoth Time Warner Cable in an attempt to monopolize the world’s worst customer experience. Seriously, soon we might all laugh about this “pleasant” call as we plead in desperation to break the bonds of our new telecommunications overlord.

The agent here, regrettably, is doing exactly as he is trained—though perhaps more doggedly than your average agent. ​I am speaking from recent experience. Four months ago I dealt with his Time Warner Cable counterpart, who (thankfully for me) seemed eager to quickly facilitate our breakup after six long years.

Having said that, it is important to note as a member of the customer retention department, he exists solely to ensure Comcast customers can not and will not cancel their service. Ultimately, a sales rep, this agent has the biggest and best weapons in his arsenal to win (or in this case, prevent losing) deals. He can slash your bill into oblivion, throw the newest and best toys your way, drop freebies here and there… Whatever ails you, he’s got a remedy.

So we can definitely transfer this over to your new address and get you a lower rate, save you almost a $100, actually more than $100 a month.

Trust me, Comcast understands today’s first lesson very well and you can hear it (albeit their twisted version of it) in action throughout this call.

Lesson 1. Do whatever it takes to keep a current customer happy. Because it is always cheaper to keep a current customer than to acquire a new customer.

Quick note of clarification to Comcast:  The word above is happy, not hostage, please adjust your corporate culture and training materials accordingly.

I’m trying to help you… Okay.
The way you can help me is disconnecting my service.
But how is that helping you?

Lesson 2. The customer is always right, even when you feel he or she is wrong. Always do what you can to make customers happy, even when it means canceling their service.  

A true commitment to customer service means serving customers from the moment they consider doing business with you to the bitter end. Serve customers until they are no longer customers (and beyond!). Regrettably, this isn’t what happened in this call or with Comcast and other customer-phobic companies in general. Instead, we hear a well-informed, highly motivated salesman who has every incentive to prevent delivering the only thing the customer wants. Speaking of incentives…

Lesson 3. Create incentives to reward your agents when they reward your customers. 

Yes, like Comcast, you need to measure your agents’ performance and reward them heartily for meeting goals, but never at the expense of your customers. There should never be a case where your agent has an incentive (e.g., purposefully annoying a customer into hanging up so the customer won’t cancel on the call and count against the agent’s numbers) to mistreat a customer. Obviously this behavior is not explicitly endorsed by Comcast, but it is a beast their culture has created. Value customers and their happiness above all and avoid agents trying to manipulate metrics at the expense of real relationships.

As you can see in this case, how you reward your employees ultimately exposes deeper issues about your culture.

Lesson 4. Structure your entire business around the customer and build from there, constantly calibrating to ensure customers are at the center of everything you do.

Standing in mortal opposition to the customer-centric model above, we see Comcast, where the customer remains barely tolerated as a part of their business model.  Best I can tell, these are the tenets of their company:

  1. Never, ever compete.
  2. If customer magically discovers another option for service, make it impossible to cancel.
  3. Keep customers hostages. Forever.
  4. Profit.

Embed it into your company’s DNA to continually review and reassess your priorities to ensure your customers are the utmost concern. It just so happens there’s a great way to do this…

Lesson 5. Value, collect, and learn from customers’ feedback. Especially from those who are leaving.

We just want to find out what it is, that is causing a customer that has been with such a long time to leave?

Understanding, noting, and learning from this information is good customer service. Comcast gets that, and thus if an agent can’t deflect a cancellation into a sale, they must note the reason for leaving. The pressure to secure this answer looms over the call. But demanding agents to fill this question out on an exit survey and encouraging badgering to get the “answer” for the answer’s sake? That misses the entire point.

Instead of threatening agents who don’t deflect cancellations into renews, and scoring cancellations without a customer-provided reason as unacceptable, cultivate a culture that values customers and their feedback, and customers will readily share their invaluable opinions.

I’m trying to get information. I am trying to make our company better.

Lesson 6. Know thy customer. Know thyself. Know thy competition.

What is it about this other Internet, other TV provider that is making it sound so much better than the number one TV service available.

Empower your agents to move beyond a script, bullet points, marketing fluff, and industry buzz words. Admit you have weaknesses and communicate those clearly to your team. Be honest with yourself and know that people aren’t always satisfied with your customer service, don’t appreciate all of your policies, and when able to, prefer to support organizations that share their beliefs.

It’s really a shame to see you go to something that can’t give you what we can.

Also, verbalize that there is room for the other guys to coexist. Coincidentally, if you actually believe your offerings are demonstratively better, there is all the more reason to politely let customers leave without torching all your bridges.

Lesson 7. Always provide your agents the necessary context to succeed by giving them instant access to your customer database.

You’ve been with us since 2005, nine years you’ve been a Comcast customer, okay. After a decade, okay. Clearly the service was working great for you. You weren’t having any problems. So now all of a sudden you are moving, okay. You kept the service at multiple addresses, and now all of a sudden you are moving and something is making you want to change. (UTTERLY STUMPED) What is it that is making you want to change that?

Sadly, Comcast armed this agent with important account information (good) and a historical prospective (better), but instead of focusing on the value of the customer and their relationship, this data is treated as an auxiliary piece an agent can perhaps use for sales ammo. So yes, you should link your customer service software with your CRM data, but you should also focus on integrating your systems and providing your agents a better picture of a customer.

When your team receives a call from a customer, you should be able to see your past interactions, across all channels including social media. In this case, when a customer also happens to be a hugely influential tech journalist with a huge Twitter following, perhaps the system would funnel his request to a higher-level rep that is aware of his position and has the freedom to buck the script and retention scorecard.

Either way, this poor agent would have a better idea who the customer was, so he could better serve him—regardless if he has 83,000 followers or 83.  That said, holy crap, if you can, please l​et your agents know they are dealing with someone who has 83,000 Twitter followers and reviewed technology for a liv​ing. Then perhaps you might prevent them from curtly expounding the technological superiority of your company while actively trying to dump the call on another poor schmuck.

Block, as a player in this sad saga, knows the corrective course Comcast must take. He can re-listen to his recording and hear it.  Hear, within the desperation, the agent’s dedication to his employer, their process, the checklist he must follow, and the metrics that dictate his career/compensation.  His diligence to the process blinds (or in this case deafens) him to the most important aspect of customer service–the customer.

And while Comcast quickly released a statement throwing the poor soul squarely under the bus, this agent is most definitely adhering to the Comcast way.

​Don’t misinterpret me, metrics and accountability are integrally important to delivering great customer service and meeting goals. But they are never important enough to hijack two human beings and turn them into hostages of corporate hostility. Sadly, we may never know if this poor agent, aware of the evil forces around him, gets a second act and triumphantly becomes a customer service hero. But don’t let the lack of a happy ending stop you from applying these lessons and playing your part.  Because this is a tale no customer, or agent, should ever have to live again.

  1. Carlos Aberdinas

    Thank you for the post and for sharing the story. I work in customer service and i will make sure that we can use the data, lessons learnt and recording of the conversation in our training materiel.