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The Comcast Nightmare: Lessons Learned

Situation: Recently a media-savvy customer called Comcast to cancel his Internet service. His wife had tried to close their Comcast account, but had failed and handed him the phone. This alone is disturbing, but is only the beginning of the saga. Many of us have listened to the Comcast customer’s extended call, where he tries repeatedly and very patiently to convince an agent to do what he asks and close his account, only to be kept on the line with the agent trying to retain him. (If you have not yet heard it, it’s worth a listen, and can be easily found with a Google search.) Since the recording of this call went viral, there have been many news reports, blog posts and online commentaries critiquing the situation. Comcast has publicly and apparently privately (according to news media) apologized for their agent’s behavior and the company is doing the right thing by trying to get this situation out of the news.
Analysis: Since this is America, the first instinct is to try to assign blame. I’m pleased to see that few have blamed the Comcast agent, although he is not 100% faultless. Comcast is clearly taking an overly aggressive approach to account retention. What’s astonishing is how surprised many of the commentators are about this situation. The last major hoopla I saw regarding extremely poor account retention policies was in 2006, when the AOL customer retention script hit the street. As is the case with the Comcast situation, AOL agents were trained to retain customers at all costs. (Many people may remember that it was easier to cancel your credit card account to stop AOL’s monthly charges than it was to convince an AOL retention agent to let you close your account.)
Lessons Learned:

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this situation, including:

  1. Senior management should not motivate the wrong behavior; agents need to earn a living and will strive to meet company goals even if they hurt the reputation of your enterprise.
  2. Retaining customers is a good “best practice,” but it’s much better not to give them a reason to leave in the first place; if customer attrition is high, companies should identify the reasons for this problem and address the underlying causes.
  3. Training for all agents is essential, and should be reviewed and updated periodically.
  4. Experiential training techniques should be used when addressing sensitive customer situations. It’s also a good general approach for training all customer-facing employees.
  5. Agents should be trained to make three retention attempts and then know when to take “no” for an answer; if a customer is determined to leave, their last experience with your company should be positive.
  6. Use this as a wake-up call, and revise your policies and procedures for customer retention, and any other procedures that are overly aggressive. (Change your culture; assess policies from your customers’ perspective, instead of solely from the company’s viewpoint.)
  7. Implement systems that provide “checks and balances” to avoid service nightmares. Use quality assurance or interaction (speech) analytics solutions to identify, capture and respond to outstanding and poor customer interactions.
Although I have never worked for Comcast (and after publishing this column, it’s unlikely that I ever will), I suspect that the underlying cause for their notorious call was management, not an overzealous agent. Comcast management has built a culture that allows (or requires) aggressive retention. As Comcast is a semi-monopoly, they clearly believe that they can treat customers any way they want. When it comes to departing customers, they appear to take the position that anything goes; the customer is already closing their account, so there’s not much more to lose. Hopefully, their viral example of poor service will serve as a “wake-up” call, and they will rethink their policies and culture.


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