Comcast’s Toxic Culture and the A**hole Brown Incident

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

Comcast treats a customer horribly. The customer posts their story online and it goes viral. Backpedaling, a Comcast executive issues an apology and promises to get to the bottom of it. 

You might immediately think of last summer’s cancellation call from hell. Or, perhaps the bizarre “Comcast got me fired” story springs to mind. You may have even heard the latest installment where Comcast changed one customer’s name to Asshole Brown.

These incidents happen over and over again. It’s like a warped version of customer service Groundhog Day.

Look closely at these service failures and you’ll see a common thread. Comcast has a toxic customer service culture.

More on that in a moment. First, let’s take a closer look at the latest debacle.

The A**hole Brown Incident

Lisa Brown was shocked when she saw her latest Comcast bill. The account is under her husband’s name, Ricardo, but the name on the bill had been changed to Asshole Brown.

Image Source:  Elliott.org

Image Source: Elliott.org

The story was first reported by Christopher Elliott on his blog. A familiar pattern soon emerges when you read the details.

Ms. Brown contacted Comcast to cancel the cable service on her account. The Comcast rep then transferred Brown to a Retention Specialist whose job it is to talk customers out of canceling.

In the end, Brown was charged a $60 cancellation fee and subjected to an insulting name change.

Brown has since received multiple apologies from senior Comcast officials. Charlie Herrin, Senior Vice President of Customer Experience, issued a vague public apology that didn’t specifically mention Brown by name (either name), but it’s clear he was referring to her.

Herrin wrote that the employee responsible will be fired. He added that Comcast will be investigating “technical solutions that would prevent it from happening moving forward.”

Herrin made another interesting statement in his public apology.

The culture of a company is the collective habits of it’s people.

 

Really Bad Collective Habits

There’s clearly a lot of collective habits at Comcast that reveal they have a toxic culture.

For example, Comcast is apparently in the habit of changing it’s customers names. Yep! Asshole Brown wasn't an isolated incident. 

Elliott reported a few recent examples on his blog:

  • Whore
  • Dummy
  • Fakoe (Sound it out. It’s not polite.)

At least one of these name changes was directly tied to an attempt to cancel service.

I examined this issue closely in my book, Service Failure. It’s amazing what people will do when there’s a toxic culture that shapes poor behavior.

In this case, Comcast employees are explicitly encouraged not to care about their customers. The only thing that matters is preventing cancellations. Former employee, Lauren Bruce, said this in an interview with Bloomberg:

I always felt really disempowered to do the right thing. It was all about the dollar.

This pattern is clearly connected to Ryan Block’s infamous cancellation call in July of 2014.

Then SVP of Customer Experience Tom Karinshak made this promise in his public apology for that incident:

We are investigating this situation and will take quick action.

More than six months later, they haven’t taken any action at all. Comcast’s cancellation process remains fundamentally unchanged.

I describe it in detail in this post, but here are the highlights:

  1. Cancellation information is deliberately hard to find.
  2. Customers must call to cancel.
  3. Special employees called Retention Specialists try to talk customers out of canceling.

 

Can Comcast Change?

Marsha Collier raised an excellent question during the #custserv Tweet Chat on January 27: 

At Comcast, Charlie Herrin is still relatively new to his role. He was promoted to SVP of Customer Experience in September. It may still be early, but the company’s inability to learn from repeated failures tells me Herrin won’t make much of a difference.

After all, he was hired from within. That means he was already a part of the toxic culture he’s allegedly tasked with changing.

Other big companies have had success. 

Sprint, Starbucks, and Home Depot immediately come to mind. All three were able to make significant improvements in customer service after a new CEO was named.

Maybe that’s the real answer to Comcast’s customer service woes. A new SVP of Customer Experience isn’t all that’s needed. They need someone new at the top.

Alas, don’t count on that anytime soon. Comcast is still making money. Lots of it.

Comcast Botches Service Failure Apology

Comcast issued an apology last week for a service failure that went viral.

The apology stressed that the employee’s actions were not consistent with how Comcast does business. They promised an investigation and swift action. The statement declared Comcast’s commitment to always treat customers with the utmost respect.

They got it all wrong.

This service failure wasn’t the employee’s fault. He was doing his job exactly the way Comcast designed it. Heck, he should probably win employee of the month. 


Background

Comcast subscriber Ryan Block called to cancel his service. By Block’s estimate, he was ten minutes into the call and getting nowhere, so he decided to record it

In the recorded portion, you can hear the Comcast employee repeatedly badgering Block about his decision to cancel. It goes on for over eight painful minutes. 

The story went viral when Block posted the recording online and has since received national media attention.

 

Failure By Design

Contrary to Comcast’s apology, this situation was failure by design.

Imagine you are a Comcast customer like Block and want to cancel your account. Chances are, you go to the Comcast website to find out how to do it.

The account cancellation instructions are intentionally buried on the website. There's plenty of information about adding services or even troubleshooting a problem. Canceling your account is a different story. Entering “cancel account” into their website search box yields all sorts of results except for how to cancel your account. 

I finally found the directions after doing a Google search. Comcast offers multiple options for contacting them about most issues. However, if you want to cancel, you have to call:

Notice this description.

The instructions make it clear that Comcast wants you to call so they can try to persuade you not to cancel your account:

We want to make sure we’ve done everything we can to give you the best experience, price and package.

That’s exactly what the Comcast employee did on the call with Block. He repeatedly asked Block why he didn’t want the best experience or the fastest internet. He questioned Block for walking away from the best price and the best available channels. 

Early in the recording, the employee made a very telling statement that described how he viewed his role:

My job is to have a conversation with you about keeping your service.

The employee didn’t see his job as canceling accounts or making customers happy. He clearly understood that his job was preventing accounts from being cancelled.

It’s hard to blame the employee for thinking this way if you understood how Comcast has designed this particular job.

Here’s an overview from a former Comcast employee:

  • These customer service reps are called Retention Specialists. As the job title implies, their role is to convince customers not to cancel their accounts.
  • Retention Specialists receive incentive pay based on the amount of business they save by preventing customers from canceling. 
  • If a certain percentage of customers still decide to cancel their service, a Retention Specialist’s bonus will go to zero.

 

Executive Disconnect

Comcast’s apology was issued by Tom Karinshak, the Senior Vice President of Customer Experience.

Karinshak is the executive responsible for this whole mess.

He's not just responsible for the behavior of his employees who handle account cancellations. He’s responsible for the entire system. This includes the way cancellation information is posted on the Comcast website, the requirement that customers have to call to cancel their service, and the Retention Specialist job description and incentive plan.

From Karinshak’s statement, it’s apparent there’s a severe disconnect from reality. Here’s his official statement, posted on the Comcast website:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and are contacting him to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

Now, let’s look at reality:

  • The entire cancellation process is intentionally difficult.
  • The employee Karinshak is referring to is incentivized to avoid canceling accounts.
  • Comcast routinely provides horrible service.

It’s this last point that should really capture Karinshak’s attention. In the past year, Comcast’s already dismal customer satisfaction ratings have been dropping like a stone.

Here are their latest satisfaction ratings on the American Customer Satisfaction Index:

  • Internet: 57% (second worst, -8.1% from 2013)
  • Cable: 60% (second worst, -4.8% from 2013)
  • Phone: 67% (second worst, -5.6% from 2013)

This isn’t event Comcast’s first viral service failure. Do you remember the video of a Comcast technician who fell asleep on a customer’s couch while on hold with his own company? You can revisit it here

Karinshak shouldn’t blame the employee. He should blame himself.