Beware! Customers Are Watching These Private Moments

I really enjoy The Profit on CNBC.

It's a reality show where entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis invests in struggling businesses. In each episode, Lemonis investigates a business and then tries to make a deal with the current owners to help them turn things around. 

A recent episode featured a gourmet marshmallow company called 240sweet. Lemonis invested $100,000 in the business, but his relationship with the owners dissolved when he realized they were being dishonest with him. 

One owner in particular came across as abrasive, egotistical, and unethical. I won't spoil the ending, but you can watch the full episode on for a limited time.

The fallout after the show aired was amazing. 

Viewer Backlash

The Profit takes viewers behind the scenes to see how businesses really work. Lemonis goes through the company's financials, their operations, and even their customer service.

If an ordinary investor was doing due diligence on a potential business acquisition, most of those moments would be private. On The Profit, everything is on camera. 

What was shown on television was very unflattering.

240sweet was hit with an avalanche of 1-star reviews on Yelp and Google. Most of these viewers had never done business with 240sweet. They simply wanted to punish the company for what they had seen on television.

You may not have any plans to appear on a reality show, but you still need to beware of private moments when customers are watching.


The World is Watching

240sweet isn't the first business to look bad after their appearance on reality television. (Remember Amy's Baking Company?)

Your actions may still be recorded even when you aren't appearing on a reality show. Who could forget the FedEx package tosser or the sleeping Comcast technician?

You may not recognize the name Anjali Ramkissoon, but you probably remember seeing this video of the Miami doctor going nuts on an Uber driver. Her employer certainly noticed as she was placed on administrative leave after the video went public.

Customers may still be watching even when employees aren't being recorded. Here are just a few examples:

  • Employee break areas that are visible to the public
  • Employees who commute to work in uniform
  • Employees having private conversations in customer-facing areas


Be Careful

A friend of mine recently had an embarrassing moment on her way to work. She was annoyed by another driver and laid on her horn to share her displeasure.

The other driver turned out to be her boss.

These incidents are a reminder to all of us that we never know when a customer, a boss, or anyone with a camera might be watching. 

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:

Image Source:

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.

Your employee's viral service failure is your fault

This week’s viral service failure was a waiter who identified a trio of diners as “Fat Girls” and allowed this label to be printed on their bill. The waiter’s identity is unknown, although his first name is Jeff. (Thanks for giving the rest of us Jeffs a bad name, idiot.)

What we do know is the name of the restaurant is Chilly D’s Sports Lounge. We don’t know the name of an employee who typed “lady chinky eyes” on a receipt earlier this year, but we do know they worked for Papa John’s. You might scratch your head at the name Steven Slater, but I bet you’ll remember the JetBlue flight attendant who exited a plane via an emergency evacuation slide after directing a profanity-laced tirade at a passenger.

It's your company, not your employee, that everyone will remember.

It’s not a training issue
When viral service failures occur, the offending employee is typically fired while the remaining employees undergo some type of training. I’m not a gambling man, but if I were, I’d lay down a big bet that it wasn’t a lack of training that caused the problem and no amount of training will prevent it from happening again (more about the training = performance myth). 

How you can prevent it
If training won’t stop your employees from creating the next viral service failure, what will? Here are three things:

#1 Hire right.
Take the time to hire for organizational fit, not just the right skills. Many business invest too little time in the hiring process to get it right, or they pay such low wages that they can’t attract even mediocre talent. If you want to hire right, take the time to identify what makes an employee right for your business (see my handy competency model tool) and consider offering a competitive wage that will allow you to attract more talented, stable employees.

#2 Pay attention to your supervisors
The most influential person for an employee is their direct supervisor. Chances are employees will treat their customers well if their supervisor sets a positive example, meets regularly with them to discuss expectations, and provides regular feedback and coaching to guide performance. Unfortunately, studies show that 50% or more of frontline supervisors receive little or no training on how to lead others. You need to invest in your supervisors and give them training like my Getting Started as a Supervisor program to help them capably lead their team.

#3 Mind your culture
While doing research for my book, Service Failure, I discovered some strange ways that organizational culture can influence employee behavior. In some cases, employees can knowingly do something they know is wrong in an effort to fit in with everyone else. In other cases, employees lack the maturity or experience to truly differentiate between right and wrong and will instinctively follow the examples set by their co-workers and supervisors.

The opposite is also true. Employees will emulate positive examples from their co-workers and supervisors. This leaves business owners with a clear choice: create a positive work climate or risk bad behavior.

Having your business gain national media attention for all the wrong reasons has got to be a nightmare for any business owner. However, in almost every case, these business leaders were asleep long before one of their employees did something on camera.

Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It. The book is available in paperbook, e-book, and audio book formats.

You can learn more about the book at or purchase a copy online at AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Powell's Books.