By TED CARTER
Comcast Corp. says it has a strategy to lead subscribers to associate their customer service experience more with a day at the beach than a root canal.
It’s an ambitious goal considering the pain the Philadelphia-based national provider of high speed Internet, cable television and digital phone service has been known to inflict on customers over the years.
Central to the plan for redemption is the hiring of 5,500 additional customer service representatives over the next three years. So is training the new workers and current ones to emulate the worker courteousness and helpfulness of the hospitality industry.
The new emphasis on training is in addition to putting big money into new tools and technology and modernizing hundreds of retail centers and building new ones, said Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts whose family co-founded Comcast as a 1,200-susbcriber cable TV company in Tupelo in 1963.
Roberts made his comments in outlining a multi-year plan to media last week at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association annual show in Chicago.
“We’ve been working on the improvements for two years,” Roberts said, with the goal of a “complete transformation of the customer experience.”
Analysts say the question is whether the publicly traded Comcast can overcome so many years of not having to fret over customer service.
“The company is realizing that it can indeed lose customers by treating them horribly,” wrote Chris Morran in his report last week for Consumerist magazine, a subsidiary of the non-profit Consumer Reports.
“For years, Comcast’s plan to win over customers was to do absolutely nothing because they — just like most cable companies — were the only choice,” Morran added.
Subscriber numbers went down instead of up, Morran said.
And the number of competitors never stopped going up, said Atlanta telecom analyst Jeff Kagan, who is not entirely confident that Comcast can significantly improve on its market image. He has heard turnaround promises before from Comcast, he said, but nothing seemed to come of them.
“They never developed a customer-care practice. They tried several years ago. They said exactly the same thing they said [last] week,” Kagan said, lamenting that they “keep going down the wrong path.”
Kagan said he knew nothing of Roberts’ announcement when he wrote an opinion column last week urging Comcast to get serious about making subscribers happy.
“Things are changing, and competition is getting hotter every year,” he wrote in a column.
The many choices that customers have today will grow considerably in the next few years, Kagan predicted.
Already, new competitors are taking away market share and have a much better customer service record, he said, mentioning AT&T U-verse, Verizon FiOS and Century Link Prism.
The trio cited, Kagan said, offers advanced services over the IPTV network meaning the Internet vs. the cable television network.
Along with those competitors, Comcast and other cable TV providers must contend with low-cost subscription TV programming from Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and the like.
To grow in this new and different marketplace, Kagan said, Comcast “must improve customer care.”
He’s rooting for the communications giant to pull it off “so they can continue to grow going forward.”
The president and CEO of Comcast Cable, Neil Smit, conceded to the Chicago media gathering that customer care is not among the company’s “core competencies,” largely because the company has devoted insufficient time and resources to it.
But today’s Comcast realizes it must “get the customer experience down,” Smit said.
“We know it’s a challenge,” he added, “and a challenge we haven’t put enough into.”
Much of what went into the strategy comes from seeking to “rearrange the whole customer experience through a customer’s lens,” Smit said.
“We started by asking ‘how you talk to us.’”
The result: A new practice that lets a customer who wants to talk to an agent leave a message for one to call back. The return call must come within a 15-minute window, Smit said, and added that recent improvements have cut wait times by 18 percent.
Comcast is counting on keeping the call volume manageable through increased remote monitoring of how well the set-top boxes and routers of its 23 million customers are working.
“Remotely, we can fix problems before you even know they are happening,” Smit noted, citing as an example the ability to let a customer know when batteries to his remote control are low.
The new strategy also targets tardy technicians, a problem for the cable industry from its inception. A late arrival by even one minute will earn the customer $20, which will come from the budget of the office for which the time-challenged technician works.
Comcast claims progress on the timely-arrival front. Late appointments are down by 29 percent, the company says.
In the months ahead, look for Comcast to hire hundreds of technicians and equip their trucks with GPS. Comcast will also be giving customers an ap to track the whereabouts of a technician scheduled to provide service, according to Smit, who said the on-time guarantee should be ready for rollout by the third quarter..
Three-thousand of the additional 5,500 customer service employees will work from new support centers going up in Albuquerque, N.M.; Spokane, Wash.; and Tucson, Ariz.
“The company is also tripling the size of its social care team to serve customers more quickly on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms,” Comcast said in a press release.
At this moment, according to Comcast, customer support workers are using a new cloud-based platform that gives them a better, holistic view of the customer’s account history.
Technology aside, the communications company is turning to the folks whose coin of the realm is courteous and helpful service: the nation’s innkeepers.
Everyone from top executive to entry-level workers must receive hospitality training in the months ahead from representatives of the hospitality industry, including Comcast-owned Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
“We’re going to take it upon ourselves to bring hospitality training to all 84,000” Comcast employees, said Charlie Herrin, Comcast Cable executive vice president for Customer Experience.
Meanwhile, Comcast is reporting that for the first time it has slightly more broadband customers than cable TV subscribers. The first quarter closed with both categories showing about 22.4 million customers, a tally that includes 804,000 new high-speed Internet customers and the loss of 8,000 cable TV customers, the Associated Press reports.
For all of 2014, Comcast gained slightly more than 1 million Internet customers while losing nearly 200,000 cable customers.
The bad news for Comcast is that it takes in sustainably more from cable — $20 billion in 2014 – than it does broadband — $11 billion in 2014, according to Quartz.com, a digital business news Web site.
Regardless of the services customers sign on to, the flag has dropped on the race to win them over.
“The world is giving us a chance now to hit the accelerator,” CEO Roberts said.