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Comcast, TWC and restoring the value of customer service

6 min read


Image via Comcast

Time Warner Cable will be taken over by Comcast is a $45.2 billion deal pending regulatory approval. The reports are already in about why this deal is happening, why cable companies are so big and monopolistic but also vulnerable.

But what I’m interested in is customer service — or the lack thereof. And, to that end, how cable companies have thrived without being valued by customers and whether that will change.

Why do I care? I’m a reluctant, cheap subscriber who’s actually enjoyed solid customer service. I like getting Internet and cable together, but I would have dropped cable if my current provider hadn’t kept my “six-month” introductory price for going on three years. I’ve been a subscriber of TWC (circa 2006-09) and Comcast (2009-11) but have no strong feelings toward either. Each time I switched was because of a move where the new location had service already in place, making convenience the biggest factor.

My interest in the industry mostly stems from my brother’s working phone and tech support for a major Northeast provider for a few years; that company treated him exceedingly well and was not an ogre to customers, but even there, the emphasis was “take the call, finish the call, repeat.” Cost and call volume were primary drivers, at least by my understanding, though customer satisfaction and opinion was not ignored.

This blog likes to emphasize how leaders — and their organizations — can empower and champion their people and customers while also making money. Cable companies challenge that premise because they make money while enjoying a terrible reputation with customers, and shareholders don’t seem to care. From Bloomberg Businessweek in December:

[T]here’s no statistical relationship between customer-service scores and stock-market returns. Your contempt really, truly doesn’t matter to these companies, with no influence on the bottom line. If anything, it might hurt company profits to spend money making customers happy. For cable-TV providers, an industry whose customers famously have few options, happy users could be a waste of money and bad for shareholders. And so many of us angry subscribers are also the shareholders through, say, our retirement accounts.

Is there hope for customers?

Cable companies are generally disliked (here, the perception is as important as the reality), plus there’s satellite TV, Netflix, Hulu, Roku, Aereo, the mobile Web and countless other options for entertainment. But that doesn’t mean people still don’t want to watch cable TV, especially live events (ESPN is the key example here), or that they will take the time to find other options. Comcast and TWC also have other businesses, including broadband Internet, potential in Wi-Fi and a narrow landscape of competitors for irate customers to defect to. That being said, customers who are desperate to stop being customers will eventually find a way.

Zachary Seward at Quartz suggests that Comcast and TWC simply change their names, helping remove much of the stigma of their collective reputations. That’s not a bad idea, but there is  a larger opportunity: a combined Comcast-TWC that earns a better reputation, not simply names its way out.

Here’s what I’d suggest Comcast-TWC do in the coming months:

  • Acknowledge the upcoming problems. Mergers are difficult, involving the smashing together of cultures, technology, philosophies, best practices, not to mention the problem of consolidating (i.e. culling) physical locations and people. Customer service will probably be affected, and Comcast should acknowledge this, even ask for patience, but it should also outline what it plans to do to define and restore a high level of service and support. To that end …
  • Determine what the company’s relationship is to customers. The press release announcing the deal mentions “customers” a few times, but with little detail. This separate release does spell out expected customer benefits, but the release is understandably aimed at investors and regulators. At some point, customers should receive specific answers to these questions:
    • How does the company plan to do improve customer experiences? How will subscribers notice?
    • What defines a great customer experience?
    • Who are our customers?
    • Why shouldn’t customers consider other options?
    • What do I do if I have a service problem? How long should I expect to wait until it is resolved?
    • What do I get if you fail to deliver promised service?
  • Ask, “Do our employees know the value of our customers? Do they know how to deliver the best possible service?” Customers want problem solved quickly, but they first want their problems and inconvenience to be acknowledged and addressed. Are customer service reps and installation personnel able to solve customers’ problems, or are they only experts in passing off inquiries over and over again? If your customer-facing employees can’t solve problems, train them to do so. Already providing training? Re-examine not just the training but also how much of a priority you’ve made it for employees and their managers. Will it cost a little more now? Maybe, but there’s an argument for that, too.
  • Don’t fall in love with automation. As we all know but can easily forget, automation is a tool, not the answer. This article details one company’s offering to improve pinpointed, custom, real-time notifications for customers, which sounds great. But companies should consider such technology to be half of the solution — the other half being sufficient and competent customer-service support for those inevitable times when the automation doesn’t satisfy the customer.
  • Get shareholders on board. Cable companies can’t assume they keep the customers they have, and poor customer service (in the form of frustrating interactions or simply not having America’s No. 1 TV network) will cost subscribers, revenue and could eventually affect stock prices. Sell the importance of improved customer service to your shareholders and/or your board to clear the biggest hurdle to change.

People will never stop complaining about the cable industry, but they’ll more likely to stay if they believe companies are trying to address their problems. Great customer service is not easy for any business, much less a massive corporation, but Comcast and TWC have been handed a wonderful opportunity to improve. We’ll see how they do.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, among others. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders.