How to handle an ass (like me)

I want to love my cable company – honestly, I do. They bring me things I love and depend upon. I love TV. I really, really love the internet. (The phone? Well, I love that, too – but unfortunately for the cable company, it’s my iPhone I adore.)

So why don’t I love my cable company? We all know why: because it’s a marriage as ruined as the one in War of the Roses. It’s a relationship built entirely on aggression and passive aggression, on each party trying not to give the other one what it wants, on stonewalling or fighting. So how do you change that? I speculated in What Would Google Do? about what a cable or phone company run by Google (GT&T) would be like, but that’s only wishful thinking.

After my contretemps with Cablevision this week – and the ensuing lively discussion about it in the comments here, on other blogs, and in Twitter – I’ve been trying to think about it how this relationship can be rebuilt. Because I don’t like the relationship and I don’t like the way I am in it.

When my internet didn’t work. I called the company and its employee read off a script: ‘Sorry to hear that sir, let’s try this. Oh, that doesn’t work. We’ll see you in three days.’ I then operate off my script: ‘That’s unacceptable. I pay for the service. I want it fixed ASAP.’ Them: ‘No.’ Me: Get me a supervisor.’ Them, after much argument – because it always takes argument: ‘OK, tomorrow, but you have to wait home all day.’ Me: ‘That’s unacceptable. I have a life.’

I pay for the service to work and want it to work. They want to maximize customer service efficiency (is that a sufficiently nice way to say it?). We end up in a standoff that, in my experience, can be broken only by outlasting them and being angry. It’s still a script. But I don’t like the role I play. I don’t like myself. I’m an ass. Because it works. I end up victorious – the internet I paid for is working again – but sullied and embarrassed by what I had to say to get the service I need. How to break that cycle?

There are a few new factors in the cable business in recent times.

First, cable companies have competitors (yay!) – well, at least one competitor: the phone company. In Twitter, it took no time at all – less time, indeed, than it took Cablevision to respond – for Verizon people to smell the carrion of a dead marriage and to seduce me.

Second, we have Twitter (and blogs and YouTube). As I said in the comments on the post below, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have because your message can spread and so the smart company has to respond. The people formerly known as consumers are now media.

But the company also has Twitter. Witness what Frank Eliason (aka @comcastcares) has done to respond to customers and to humanize his company. Oh, Comcast still has problems – Eliason will confess that – but the fact that I got better service on my Cablevision account from a Comcast employee speaks volumes. It says there’s a lesson to be learned there.

At the end of my Dell contretemps, I wrote an open letter to Michael Dell with what I sincerely hoped would be helpful advice. They didn’t change their ways because of what I said. But what they did end up doing what I suggested and I’ve since written about that in BusinessWeek and in my book.

So I’ve been trying to think of advice for Cablevision.

First, throw out the script. Give employees the ability to take responsibility, to deal with us honestly, and to get things fixed. That’s one of the things Dell did and it made a huge difference.

Second, become human. Comcast’s Frank Eliason is a person. He’s not a bot with standard answers. We wouldn’t stand for that; as the Cluetrain Manifesto teaches, markets are conversations and we recognize when they are being held by man vs. machine. Microsoft, Dell, Sun, Comcast have all been enriched by enabling their people to talk with us as people. Not every employee will be capable of that; it’s the ones who are you want working and speaking for you.

Third, I’d invest in customer service as the best form of advertising possible. Zappos learned that lesson and it just earned them $900 million.

Fourth, create a service level agreement (SLA) so customers know what to expect when they call and so they can hold the company to it. That’s the real problem. We come loaded for bear because we know what’s going to happen, we know the script: the cable company is going to push us off as far as possible and we’re going to demand as soon as possible. The agreement becomes an assurance (natural disasters aside) we can count on and we know the consequences.

Fifth, you’re not going to believe that I’m saying this, but charge for better service. Yes, I would complain about that. But here’s the way I think it would play out: The cable company charges for a good SLA; its competitor, the phone company, sees the competitive advantage of advertising that you get that included with them; the cable company is then forced to meet the challenge. And we end up with the SLA. If we don’t, I predict that local governments and the FCC and FTC may impose them. So I suggest you figure out the way to get there on your own.

Sixth, make it a goal to have delighted customers. Yes, I know, that sound silly: fodder for needlepoint. But go back to the beginning: I want to love my cable company. If – surprise, surprise, surprise – I do, I’m going to talk about that. In the age of Twitter, that’s the best advertising you can get. This is how the investment in customer service will pay off: with advertising that’s better than anything you put in TV or newspapers … and it’s free. And it keeps customers from leaving for Verizon. That’s how a company takes advantage of the free economy.

This attitude also might motivate cable companies to change other policies that irk, like bundling in dozens of channels I have to pay that I never watch. But the issue that bothers most people about their cable companies is dealing with them for installation and service. That’s what I’d concentrate on first. Service isn’t a favor you do for customers, as various employees implied with me. It’s how you live up to your deal and delight customers.

You see, I’m not an ass. I only play one on the phone to get what I think I deserve in a business deal in which I have no power other than that. And, cable guys, I know you’re not lazy slugs trying to rip me off; that’s just the script they make you read from the policies they set in the front office. Can’t we all get along?

  • Laid Off Too

    Mr Jarvis, after seeing your two posts on the Cablevision experience, I’m reminded of my friend Dr Janelle Barlow and her book “A Complaint is a Gift”. She recommends a customer service person’s first words to an unsatisfied customer should be “Thank you”. Why? Because you’re providing valuable input with your call, informing them an individual and possibly an entire area is without service. I’ll go out on a limb and say you’d react differently if you felt you were a Cablevision partner helping them improve.
    If these posts and the comments didn’t show Cablevision (and other companies) customer service is more important than advertising, they may be on a road leading to bankruptcy.

  • Great point from the previous commenter, and in the vein of your brilliant post:

    “If these posts and the comments didn’t show Cablevision (and other companies) customer service is more important than advertising, they may be on a road leading to bankruptcy.”

  • I have had great experiences with Cablevision’s customer service over the past several years. (Their billing department is another story.)

    Here in Connecticut they have gone well beyond what I expected. I wonder how much you contributed to your contretemps by how you treated and communicated to the CSRs. I once read that, “you catch more flies with honey…” and if that fails there is always the blog/twitter/friendfeed/facebook publicly outing them route.

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  • Nice list of suggestions for better customer service. It would be pleasant if the scorched earth policy wasn’t the best means of getting better service from large companies. But getting ugly works, even if it leaves all of the participants unhappy.

    Many monopolies have set up antagonist relationships with their customers because they can.
    At the this point, many companies like Cablevision think it’s financially prudent for them to stonewall, and create adversarial relationships with their customers. In the absence of competition cable companies have little incentive to change.

    The problem with establishing these kind of “take it or leave it” relationships is that when competition comes along, the decision to create hostile relationships leaves companies vulnerable to customer churn. I’d argue that’s what happened to the record industry. When Napster came along, they adopted an adversarial relationships with their customer base and they have never recovered.

    It’s a warning other companies would do well to heed.

  • Apple customer service is a delight!

  • Do you think local government operated fiber would be more responsive? Less responsive?

    What if you could say “I’m telling the Mayor when I see her at the grocery….” No? Yes?

    Stuart Watson
    Charlotte, NC

  • Andy Freeman

    > What if you could say “I’m telling the Mayor when I see her at the grocery….” No? Yes?

    My mayor doesn’t go to grocery stores. He did, however, back-door a sweetheart deal with a local union to double garbage rates in exchange for their support in the next election.

    Big biz is at its worst when it’s the only game in town. Govt is always the only game in town.

  • David Chen

    I know you addressed this in a previous thread, but the way this played out for you was completely determined by the attention you get as Jeff Jarvis. We all hate our current bandwidth provider a little less than the alternative, but bitching about it is just sound and fury.
    Also, cable and phone companies do provide better customer service to those who pay more but they don’t advertise it. Another example: I am a poor student living in a rich neighborhood. My bank’s local branch is among the nicest in the city and there are never any lineups.
    Any SLA will increase transaction costs, and an improvement in customer service will decrease profitability. All of your suggestions require spending more on customer service. Telcos and cable companies — large firms in oligopolistic markets — won’t compete as eagerly as you imagine.

  • I worked in a customer service job (not for Cablevision) for 13 years before “The Script” was invented. “My” customers called and asked for me by name, and I gave them better service because I knew their business history. (Not to mention the names of their kids and pets.)

    The folks who work in these jobs today don’t know it was ever any other way, but speaking as someone who does remember, I would say don’t blame the guy/gal on the phone — they didn’t invent the next-available-operator system, and have no power to improve it. When such a system was introduced in the company I worked for, I was gone in 8 months.

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  • Tansley – addendum

    Competition is the answer…and cable companies like Charter are now finding they have little choice but to give better customer service. Charter has been ‘scattergunning’ spam snail mail all over our neighborhood, but after hearing all the horror stories I make it a point to tear their promo letters neatly in half on my way into the garage from the mailbox, and drop them unread into the recycling bin. Every time I do that, like Scott Adams’ Catbert, the evil H.R. director, it makes me purr…

  • Two thoughts: first, cable companies haven’t yet accepted the fact that they’re now basic utilities and must provide same-day service. If all you’re providing for your customers is cable television, then your customers can live for a week or two with the awful hardship of having to watch broadcast television when their service is interrupted. But if you’re providing telephone services and E-mail, then your customers need repair service immediately when service is disrupted. Your old answer — “We’ll be out in two weeks” — isn’t good enough anymore. Many cable companies advertise that if you call by 2 p.m. or so, you can get installation the same day; if they can do that, they can provide service the same day, too.

    Second, customers can use neighborhood listservs and E-mail forums to share information and force cable companies to respond. In Washington, DC, Comcast has near-monopoly status, and therefore treats its customers shabbily. When the digital transition occurred, Comcast made some changes in its services that resulted in frequent screen freezes, pixilation, and sound drop-outs. Its customer service representatives denied that there was any system-wide problem when people called to complain. I run a citywide E-mail discussion forum, and asked subscribers to send me messages if they had cable reception problems. Within a couple days, I had a few dozen replies from neighborhoods all over the city, describing the same problem. I forwarded them to the city government’s Office of Cable Television (where I happen to know a very responsive city government employee), who sent them to Comcast. Within a day, the company had identified the source of the problem, and within another day it had fixed it. If customers had not shared their experiences, Comcast could have (and I’ll bet would have) ignored and denied the problem for months.

    • I am sorry you had to do all that. We are working to improve and hopefully people will not feel the need to do that, and we work to get it right the first time. A lot has changed for Comcast, including implementing the Customer Guarantee. We admit we are still not where we want to be, but everyone I work with is determined to get there.

      Frank Eliason
      @ComcastCares on Twitter

  • when I switched from Cablevision to FiOS it came with a wireless router. The router didn’t work well with my Mac. I called both Apple and Verizon and none of them admitted that there is a known problem. The blogs on the other hand provided many explanations to a problem that seemed to be well known in the blogsphere. After I gave up the attempts of bypassing the problem (occasionally bloggers’ solutions are not set in stone…) I tried calling Verizon again and to my surprise I got to a technician that really knew his stuff. Against any cal center queuing guidelines he spent 25 min on the phone until he was able to resolve the problem.
    I was shocked and astonished. I immediately told all my neighbors who contemplated switching (I live in a 500 unit building that was only recently connected to Verison after years of Cablevision monopoly) and many of them did regardless to a painful setback of a few hundreds of dollars… I even tried to make some waves over twitter and helped convince someone I was following that it’s worth it.
    Why it worked for me? (can’t guarantee that Verizon is really that great, other than my experience in that occasion alone)…
    It worked because the service rep was knowledgble, well trained, polite and had the freedom to use his judgment.
    He was proud of his work and really gave an impression that he made the challange himself.
    This guy might have been remarkable and unique, but I believe that it takes more than that. It takes an strategic decision that customer service is key to success. one case at a time. It takes to hire the right people, train them and teach them to treat their customers as well as they would like to be treated.

    Any company that melts down as Cablevision did in this case, should be lucky to get whipped by Jeff and / or any of us – the networked customers. These lessons might be just the thing that will save them. For some only an epic event can drive the necessary change.

    • Blogs and online forums are great sources of information and should be used by companies to find answers for Customers. Wouldn’t it have been great when you called and they said we do not have a solution, but it would appear from this post on the net, Customers have found this solution to work. This is the next phase of help that will be prevalent in years to come. It is sometimes difficult for ISPs to be able to help with every computer model, various software, routers and other equipment, but the online world does have the answers.

      • I agree. Social media is not a secret society that companies need to dare joining (or not joining) nor a secret sauce that companies need to develop… it’s simply the current and evolving means of communication. A powerful tool, that equips every person with direct access to his peers or to the entire world.
        Some of my younger colleagues tell me that in their world it’s more of a statement to NOT have a Facebook account than to have one.
        Can you imagine companies running without a phone line or without emails? It’s almost the same.
        With very little effort and with a minimal team anyone can do a fairly good job of scanning the wires, find suggestions, complaints and issues and do their best to resolve them.
        As a consumer I’d always choose to pay that little extra for the guarantee that I’ll be treated fairly. Zappos is the proof of that- they are priced fairly but they are not the cheapest. I always buy at Zappos if it’s an option, and they always manage to surprise me with their amazing service (free next day delivery?! wow!).
        As a business person I listen to the consumer in me and try my best to design my business accordingly.

      • Danny

        Frank, I want to say I admire what you guys are doing and I hope you keep pushing ahead.

        But what would really be great is that your folks on the end of the line DID already have the solution because someone in your organization was out there data-mining the Internet and compiling a database of solutions.

        It scares me a little because it sounds like a cost savings opportunity to “let them figure it out” vs. a “lets take the free troubleshooting device, organize it and streamline our customer care even more”

        I understand the wide variance of issues that make your kind of work difficult, but I also have been victim many times (as an early adopter) to the mindset that it doesn’t matter about MY problem until it becomes a problem for 100; 200; or 500 other people.

  • Jeff, I think you’ll get a big kick out of this. It’s a recording, at least 20 years old, of a series of voice mail messages left by a disgruntled Canadian cable company customer who loses his connection and can’t get through to a live person. Back in those days a cassette tape of the rant was passed around by hand. How times have changed.

  • Melissa

    Oh, thank you for this article. I hate my cable company, and my bank (that would be Comcast and JPMorganChase, if anyone’s interested), and after fighting with my bank last night, your article was wonderful to read.

    Please–keep up the great work.



  • Sean Clarke

    All very well said. Chimes with an ethical dilemma I have: Is it appropriate to bawl out the poor beggar they get to take the call? On the one hand he’s only doing what he’s paid not very much to do. On the other hand, they’ve made him their public face and he’s the only person you’ve got to bawl out. My current position is: bawl him out. If he gets it 40 times a day he’ll decide he’s not getting paid enough and either demand more money or leave. Either way, eventually the market will enforce costs on the company he works for that they could more effectively bear by employing more people to fix the underlying problem and spending less on paying people to listen to complaints.

    • Mike G

      “Is it appropriate to bawl out the poor beggar they get to take the call?”

      Morally, no. Tactically, it often helps to approach them with a controlledly livid “Look, I know this is not your fault, but your company has done X Y and Z which have me supremely pissed off.” If you can get them on your side a little, and they understand and appreciate that you’re not just abusing them, you’re a lot more likely to get a solution.

  • Jim Wilson

    Here in the Shenandoah Valley, our regional phone company is nTelos, which does emphasize customer service. The menu you get when you call them is a short one, to get you to the right department, at which point you talk with a (local) human being who generally knows what they’re talking about. I’m sure they use scripts–makes it easier to remember all the things that need to be covered–but mostly as a guide. They don’t always succeed in solving a problem quickly, but because of the many instances where they do, you’re more likely to trust them to do their best on the tough ones. One result? I’m moving to nTelos for my TV as soon as their fiber network gets to my neighborhood.

  • The entries into your customer service suggestions Jeff aren’t new and bear repeating. Much of the gap between customer service and customer anguish lies in how customer service agents are trained, incentivized, measured and supervised. In my book Without Warning, I refer to these as silent problems. In the book, I tell a story about Continental Airlines and the “Thou Shalt Not” book, which was 9-inches thick. At the time, Continental had the worst customer service ranking in their industry. This occurred in the early 90s and incoming President and CEO realized the problem – there was absolutely no way that anyone could know everything in the book. They freed their customer service agents to do what was right for their customers and the company by burning the book in public. Within months their customer service rankings rose to near the top of their industry.

    Important Lesson. One of the reasons customer service becomes such a hot box of frustration is simple. When a customer calls in with a problem, they already in their mind have an expectation of what a reasonable solution is! When the customer service agent doesn’t meet this expectation, disappointment will ensue. Its the gap between what is expected and what is offered that equals the level of frustration the customer experiences.

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  • “If these posts and the comments didn’t show Cablevision (and other companies) customer service is more important than advertising, they may be on a road leading to bankruptcy.”