Customer Service Broken? Your Technology Probably Is, Too

The cable and internet giant Comcast is in the middle of a major shift on customer service, after being dogged about it for years. The odds that it'll fix the problems right away are slim—and that highlights the role technology infrastructure plays in keeping standards high.

Think your user support problems are bad? Try being Charlie Herrin.

Herrin, a longtime Comcast executive, has been promoted to perhaps the scariest role in all of business: the man tasked with fixing the company’s infamously bad customer service. Comcast’s service is so bad that Public Knowledge held a remix contest recently to mock the company’s viral phone calls.

Solving the problem—underlined by The Verge in a recent series as a situation where customer service was treated as an extension of the sales department to the ultimate extreme, and where the department sports a deeply confused organizational structure—will be anything but easy. (Worth noting: Comcast’s venture capital arm is an investor in The Verge‘s parent company, but that didn’t stop the website from basically savaging the firm in a month-long series.) But the leadership change represents some of the smartest corporate thinking to come out of the company in ages. And Comcast appears to realize it.

“The way we interact with our customers—on the phone, online, in their homes—is as important to our success as the technology we provide,” wrote Comcast Cable President and CEO Neil Smit in a blog post. “Put simply, customer service should be our best product.”

A Personal Story About Comcast

Now, we all have our Comcast stories.

I have a pretty good one, I think: When trying to get my cable modem set up in my apartment, I was finding the device basically not working on my coaxial ports. I spent nearly three hours on the phone or tethered to my laptop, trying to get the situation resolved. At one point, I was told that my cable modem no longer worked on the system, despite having worked the previous morning. Dead end.

I simply hung up, called again, and got different advice. In the end, I learned the problem was that I had tried only two of my three cable ports, assuming that none worked based on the support person’s advice, and the third one was the only one that worked.

But it gets better. During this process, I was talked into getting a discounted cable subscription, the first one of those I’ve had in years. The company said it would mail my set-top device to me. And a couple days later, I did get an envelope and a box.

For most people, the most direct way that we interact with an organization’s technology is through its support infrastructure. When the support doesn’t work, it reflects badly on everything else.

I opened the envelope first: Inside was a remote control.

Then I opened the box: Inside were some manuals … and another remote control. They forgot to give me my set-top device.

So, I called support again, and asked for assistance in getting this fixed. They said they would mail me more stuff. And lo and behold, I got another box a couple of days later.

Inside the box was a set-top device … and two more remote controls. Anyone need a spare?

Your Customer Service, Your Infrastructure’s Face

Comcast gets widely mocked for its weak customer service, and I’m assuming that most of you hold higher standards for your customer interactions than that.

But I still think the lessons the company will struggle to learn over the next few years are universal.

For most people, the most direct way that we interact with an organization’s technology is through its support infrastructure. When the support doesn’t work, it reflects badly on everything else.

If the support pages on your website are out of date or so endlessly confusing that members can’t get their questions answered, you’re leaving money on the table. They say customer service is the new marketing, remember. (That said, don’t be like Comcast—skip the hard sell on someone who needs your help.)

I’m not implying that you need to make your service as elaborate as having Amazon Mayday-style video chat. But you need to find ways to more efficiently make answers to common questions easy to answer. You need to be closely looking at your social platforms for people who have concerns. (In case you hadn’t heard, Hootsuite is working on a new customer support mechanism worth watching.) And you have to ensure that, when someone is calling or emailing with questions, you aren’t keeping them waiting.

As my colleague Joe Rominiecki noted in his blog post on NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals, last week, there’s a lot of potential to improve your membership numbers by looking closely at your infrastructure and finding ways to make things work more smoothly. When things just work and customer service problems get smoothed over quickly, it implies to members that a lot of good decisions were made before they got on the line.

Granted, few of us work at a scale Comcast does, but associations all have infrastructures to deal with, vendors who need to be held to high standards, and websites that need to work. The customer support person sending the emails or answering the calls is only one part of the support equation—the front line person. They can only do so much if nearly everything else is broken.

If you aren’t careful, you might be sending out a bunch of extra remote controls without realizing it.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!