Seth Arenstein

It’s one thing to write and edit articles about customer service from the usually safe confines of trade journalism. It is something else to experience customer service personally.

A death in the family recently pushed me from a desk to the front lines. I was chosen to cancel the deceased’s Comcast video account. Another relative began the legwork, phoning Comcast to end service. It fell to me to return the cable boxes to Comcast’s Bethesda, Maryland, office and pay the final bill. The relative who had spoken with Comcast told me that I needed to bring a death certificate along with the boxes.

I was furious. Why did Comcast need a death certificate? Did it want proof that the person had passed? The relative who’d phoned Comcast didn’t know. Banks and insurance companies typically require death certificates. But the cable company? I had cancelled the deceased person’s Verizon telephone and Internet accounts over the phone and hadn’t been asked for a death certificate. It was a simple transaction, and the Verizon rep could not have been nicer, wishing me condolences on the deceased in a manner that I took as genuine.  

“I guess they have to verify everything these days,” a friend said when I discussed my outrage at Comcast a few days before returning the boxes. “Comcast has to deal with all kinds,” my friend added. A decent argument, I suppose. Calling Comcast, pretending to be a customer and then cancelling that customer’s cable service could be a cruel trick to play on a person who had wronged you, an ex, for example. Doing this immediately before an important television event, the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards or the NCAA finals, could do a righteous number on someone. My anger subsided a bit.

The day arrived when I was to return the boxes to Comcast’s office. I brought a death certificate. It was a sunny Friday afternoon in October, about 2pm. The office was in a neat, nondescript building; free parking was ample. I wasn’t expecting the transaction to take long. Upon arrival a Comcast rep met me at the entrance of a large room filled with representatives behind a counter, staring at monitors. It looked like a bank. The Comcast greeter inquired about my business and immediately expressed condolences. She also asked if I had a death certificate. She then gave me a number and asked me to be seated. It would take 20 minutes or more, she said. Upon inspection, I realized the room was crowded with customers, and plenty of children—small children to be exact. The resulting din was considerable.

Over the noise I could hear a woman complaining that she had been wronged and was owed money by Comcast. Either that or she was refusing to make a payment, I couldn’t tell. What I can say is that she was livid. I wasn’t interested in her complaint; as a student of customer service, I was curious as to how the representative, seated behind her computer terminal, was handling the woman. If patience truly is a virtue, then this Comcast representative must be among Earth’s most virtuous. She allowed the woman to bellow repeatedly. The rep never raised her voice. At some point the customer left the office. I am unsure whether she left satisfied—sleep overtook me after about 15 minutes. In fact, despite the noise, I dozed for about 15 minutes.

I awoke when a woman sitting next to me asked if I wanted her ticket. “Someone just gave me theirs, so you can have mine,” she said. Her number was eight lower than mine. I thanked her and took it. I checked my watch, I had been waiting about 30 minutes. I noticed more than one customer walk into the office, look at the number of people waiting and exit immediately. Besides that Comcast representative mentioned above, patience apparently was in short supply this afternoon.

My number was called—my new number—and I proceeded to a free window. The Comcast rep politely asked me my business. Before I could get too many words out she expressed her condolences. Then she took the cable boxes and asked for the death certificate. “I will discount the monthly bill from the date the person died,” the rep said, entering information into her computer. “She won’t be charged for cable beyond the day she passed.” The amount removed from the bill was considerable—my relative had passed early in the billing cycle. The rep then returned the death certificate to me—each copy had cost my family $12—and expressed her condolences again before I turned to leave. The transaction took maybe five minutes. I left the counter a much happier person; we’d saved money and Comcast had been extremely easy to deal with. I gave my original ticket to a customer who had entered the office just as I was approaching the service desk. She thanked me enthusiastically as I left Comcast’s office. I felt like a member of a fraternity.

It’s almost needless to say to cable-industry readers that Comcast and other large MSOs continue to nurse a black eye for years of poor customer service. It’s also important to state that many MSOs have worked hard to improve their service. Cox, for example, funds academic programs and professors to study customer care. Since 2006, The Cable Center has made customer experience a central tenet of its existence, convening periodically a high-level group of MSOs to share best practices and technologies. In addition, many of the MSOs have added staff to monitor and attempt to resolve online customer complaints as the rise in social media has boosted the status of customers in many industries.

A small-cable operator, now retired, who’d served about 300 customers during his 40+ years in cable, told me recently that “a problem with the big [cable] boys is that their customer service is terrible…they treat you like a number.” Despite the progress MSOs have made serving customers, perhaps being treated like a number is an inevitable result of cable operators having millions of customers. But on one day in October Comcast helped a person in mourning to feel better. Its employees had made a personal connection.       

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