Comcast Knows How Much You Hate Them — and They Really Want to Fix It

Behind the scenes of the cable giant’s quest for customer service redemption.

How a lot of people feel about Comcast, left, and the man the company has put in charge of fixing it, head of user experience Charlie Herrin. Photographs by Clint Blowers (left) and Eric Prine

How a lot of people feel about Comcast, left, and the man the company has put in charge of fixing it, head of user experience Charlie Herrin. Photographs by Clint Blowers (left) and Eric Prine

It sounds like the title of a ’70s action flick starring Pam Grier, set to an Isaac Hayes soundtrack: Asshole Brown and SuperBitch. As it turns out, these are real people. One is a husband fallen on hard financial times; the other is a 63-year-old woman. Neither is related to Whore Julia, or to Dummy. But all four have one thing in common — they’re customers whose names were changed on their Comcast cable accounts, by Comcast employees.

To say it’s been a difficult few months for the Philadelphia media giant is a little like saying its gleaming 56-floor high-rise in Center City is “noticeable.” Comcast’s $45 billion bid to merge with Time Warner Cable once seemed like a foregone conclusion; on Friday, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts announced the deal was officially dead. The merger collapsed under heavy federal scrutiny and public outcry, due partly to the fact that both corporations rank at the very bottom of customer service polls — not just for cable companies, but for any American companies. The Federal Communications Commission recently settled the “net neutrality” debate in favor of equal access for all and has proposed regulating the Internet as a public utility — decisions Comcast firmly opposes. And then there are the outrageous customer service tales, like that of Asshole Brown, that seem to surface daily: phantom bills that haunt people for months, technicians who never arrive, and, most famously, the viral audio recording of a man who suffered through a relentless 18-minute hard sell from a call-center operator while trying to cancel his service.

Chances are, you can relate. Having a nightmare Comcast story is practically a residency requirement in this town, and last month, a survey commissioned by the city revealed more than a quarter of Comcast cable subscribers are unhappy with their service. But Philadelphia has a unique relationship with the company. Comcast started here and stayed here while plenty of others fled for better tax breaks or warmer, hipper climes. We laughed when Tina Fey’s 30 Rock portrayed Comcast as Kabletown, a clueless corporation run by hayseeds. We cringed a little, too. Like a ne’er-do-well sibling, Comcast infuriates us, but we want it to succeed — to become our Google, our Apple, and shed its Evil Empire image.

Comcast knows it can’t propel itself — or this city — into the future unless it fixes its massive customer service problem, a crisis that has plagued the company for years. Its reputation is so rotten that in 2010, Comcast renamed its cable TV service “Xfinity” in an effort to distance itself from the “C” word. A high-ranking executive said then that while folks were flocking to Comcast products, “The core issue has been [that] customers are not necessarily thrilled with … the Comcast brand.” Five years later, the company’s rep still circles the drain.

So why is it so damn hard for the cable guy to show up when he says he’s going to? To help answer that question, Comcast agreed to give me a sweeping insider’s tour of the company, from the front lines to “the Tower,” as its headquarters at 17th and JFK is known internally. The company would grant rare — albeit tightly controlled — access so I could gain a better understanding of the challenges it faces and what it’s doing to make customer service its top priority in 2015, as it claims.

The result of all this hang time is a unique look at a company in the midst of significant growing pains and radical culture change. From top to bottom, Comcast is saying it hears you. It needs to treat you better. And it’s really, really sorry it ever called you a whore.

MY ADVENTURE IN Comcasting begins at the Tower, in an expansive meeting room with sweeping views of the city and a pool table for a touch of start-up cool. Charlie Herrin is the executive vice president of customer experience for Comcast Cable, and he’s not exactly the corporate type you might expect. Wearing jeans, a light blue button-down and a navy blazer, Herrin is a handsome and youthful-looking 45-year-old who gives off a slight Tom-Cruise-before-the-couch-jumping-on-Oprah vibe. (“I’m not a huge baseball fan,” he tells me, “but when I watched Moneyball, I was like, this is the greatest movie ever! Very few movies are about product development, but that is one.”)

He’s something of a rock star within the company, and for good reason. Herrin’s previous job here was overseeing the development of Comcast’s cloud-based DVR, dubbed X1 — the crown jewel of the cable division. Last September, Herrin was promoted to his current role, which is somewhat akin to taking the guy who helped launch the iPad and asking him to make sure your Aunt Cookie never calls to say she can’t watch her stories because the cable’s out. The message from on high: Comcast wants the same forward thinking, the same innovation, for its customer service.

Herrin is quick to point out a distinction I’ll hear repeatedly: that the customer “experience” is much broader than customer “service” call centers, billing issues and the like. The X1 program guide, the apps you can use to watch your DVR’d shows on a tablet, the “battery low” indicator on your remote — they all create a better customer experience, and they’re all under his watch. To illustrate the difference, Herrin shares a story: “I had a fantastic customer experience yesterday. I got stuck in Atlanta and I was flying Delta. We were late, and they rolled out chips and soda; they apologized for something they couldn’t control, the weather. The guy introduced himself, Zach was his name, he said I’m here to help you, he got on the intercom every 15 minutes — that to me is a customer experience. Customer service is when you’re standing in front of Zach and he’s helping you.”

Perhaps pointing to the commercial airline industry as a paragon of customer satisfaction isn’t the best idea, but Herrin makes a sound point. In a sense, his job is to make sure you never have to speak with Zach. But when you must call or stop by a service center, there should be no resultant post-traumatic Comcast disorder. That may sound simple, but consider Comcast’s size: 22.4 million customers across 39 states. The company says it handles a whopping one million customer interactions each day. If only two percent of those scenarios go south, that equals 20,000 unsatisfied people, and millions pissed off annually.

Statistics be damned; Herrin has crafted a three-pronged strategy to make his customers happier. First, there’s “Rally around the employee,” which translates to better training — for all 84,000 folks in the cable division, including in-house customer service reps and techs. That’s more of a challenge in 2015 compared to just five years ago, thanks to Comcast’s expanded product line (cable, phone, Internet, home security) and the devices those products interact with (PCs, Macs, laptops, tablets, smartphones … wristwatches?). Second is the old “Make a great first impression” chestnut, starting with the call to sign up for service and the day it’s installed. “If it works and it’s set up correctly, they had a great experience with Comcast,” Herrin says. “Where we trip up is if any of that’s screwed up in the beginning.” His final goal is “removing friction” along the “customer journey” — easier self-install kits, the ability to return equipment by mail, and eliminating fees that make your blood boil (like an unconscionable charge for downgrading service).

The ante is upped weeks later by Herrin’s boss, Neil Smit, president and CEO of Comcast Cable and executive vice president of Comcast Corporation. Smit is the guy behind The Guy, having been personally recruited by Brian Roberts to replace Steve Burke, who left cable to run NBC/Universal when it was acquired in 2011. “What I’m looking for is transformation,” Smit tells me in his office on the 53rd floor, overlooking South Philadelphia. “Not just improvement of service. I want to do things like Amazon two-hour delivery, or what Uber did with taxis.”

That’s a bold statement. Few industry analysts would compare Comcast with those brands, and monopolies don’t emulate disruptors — they prefer to eliminate them. For decades, Comcast’s chokehold in Philadelphia and other markets meant it really didn’t need to have outstanding service. Where else would you go? But the times and technology are sprinting forward, giving customers options and Comcast the cold sweats.

Smit projects a quiet determination that suits his background as a Navy lieutenant commander and SEAL team member. He doesn’t discuss the details of his military service, but the company loves to push that storyline (it’s mentioned in his corporate bio), and he’s not afraid to pump up his pep talk with a little hooyah. “There’s one thing I learned in the SEAL teams — you’ve got to be adaptable to the situation,” he says. “I’d get mission orders and I couldn’t say no. We’re on a mission here. And the mission is to create an unbelievable customer experience. And that’s what we’re going to do.” (Sir, yes sir!)

I feel dizzy for a moment from all the spin. Even more revealing is the irony of Smit’s first job after he left the military, one that makes him perfectly suited to oversee Comcast’s relationship with its customers: He was a hostage negotiator.

IN THE TRADITION of old-school shoe-leather journalism, it took me just 25 steps from my desk to uncover the following blood-boiling yarns from co-workers, Comcast customers who wish they’d had Smit’s expertise in dealing with high-pressure captivity scenarios:

  • My colleague Christy was charged $400 for a cable box she’d already returned. During one of more than a dozen calls to resolve the issue, a rep suggested she should pay the bill now and they’d refund the money eventually. A few years later, another bogus fee appeared and her cable box broke. It took more calls and two trips to the Columbus Boulevard service center, where the line numbered 15 deep, to get her bill cleared and new equipment.
  • Comcast told Patrick (two doors down) it had fixed his severed line, even though he could see the cable still swinging in the wind. He eventually issued an ultimatum: Repair it tomorrow or I’m switching to Verizon. The next afternoon, he had FiOS installed. When a Comcast tech showed up days later anyway, his response to hearing Patrick’s story was, “Happens all the time.”
  • During a call about two broken cable boxes, a phone operator asked Sandy (accounting department) if she’d consider adding services. What followed were two no-show appointments, hours spent on the phone (including 60 minutes on hold) and two weeks without cable. Her thoughts, put succinctly: “I hate Comcast!”

These three tales illustrate the rage-inducing breakdowns at every point of contact for Comcast customers: installation, 800-number phone reps, billing, service center visits. To get a firsthand look at the front lines of customer service, I spend a day embedded with a service technician named Tom, who’s been hooking up cable and Internet in homes across Montgomery County for more than five years. A married father of three and a Kutztown grad, Tom coaches peewee football and recently reached CT5, the highest level of tech training. He can install any Comcast service. “Guys like me get bored quick,” he says. “So I wanted to learn new things.” Each call is a fresh challenge, a puzzle to solve.

At our first job, at a condo in Lansdale, the 50-something customer just moved from New England the day before and needs Internet and the X1 system. She’s what’s commonly known as “a piece of work” — blasting music from her MP3 player, singing “Call Me Maybe” and feeding me great quotes. (“So you want me to bitch about cable? The bills are too damn high!”) She hits Tom with a special request when we walk in the door just 10 minutes into our 9-to-11-a.m. arrival window: “Can you carry my TV in from the garage?”

It’s a dusty old 12-inch that’s easy to lift, so Tom obliges. This is nothing new for him. I hear stories of hundred-degree crawl spaces, hoarders with rooms filled with garbage, old homes that were never wired. One time, Tom says, he carried a ladder across a creek in a customer’s backyard to string up a line in the woods. In that sense, he’s a throwback to the cable industry’s early days in the ’60s, when all Comcast founder Ralph Roberts needed was a crew to climb poles and lay lines. The business has changed dramatically in some ways, like the technical difficulty of Tom’s job; in others, it’s really the same, only on a bigger scale.

So Tom does all the little things. He carries her set upstairs, works around the mountains of unpacked boxes that lean like giant Jenga towers, wires a closet to serve as office space, and demonstrates how to find her favorite show, Downton Abbey, much to her delight. In Comcast lingo, this is a “high touch” gig — lots of customer contact. All told, it takes more than two hours to set everything up, and that’s without any major setbacks. At our second job of the day, for a sweet married couple living in a retirement community nearby, Tom calculates how much their signal is degrading based on the distance from their unit to the tap, where all the lines feed in. It’s a reminder that for all you pay, for as complex as the technology can be, Comcast still relies on digital signals that weaken and blue-collar guys like Tom to monitor them.

At this second job, he runs into a few snags — a different phone number than the couple was initially given for their new landline, equipment issues, problems with the app he uses to complete the install. As freezing rain begins to fall and Tom’s hours stretch into overtime, he also sets up the wi-fi on their iMac, shows them where Netflix is on their smart TV, unpacks a second TV in their bedroom, and explains how to use their Blu-ray player. None of that’s in his job description.

In total, it takes us more than six hours to bring X1 and Internet to two relatively low-maintenance oldercustomers. Considering that Comcast handpicked the tech I’d follow and the jobs I’d see — installing its shiniest state-of-the-art toy — today was a cakewalk. (One dirty secret: If you pay a certain amount for your service, you get a “platinum install” with a better tech, who in turn gets better support from dispatch when problems arise. That partly explains why my co-worker Sandy, who has basic cable and nothing else, got the runaround.)

Between jobs, over lunch at Chik-fil-A — arguably the most customer-friendly fast-food chain in the nation, corporate politics notwithstanding — Tom tells me that Comcast stresses service constantly. Some “legacy” employees with poor people skills have been moved away from the front lines, bought out or fired. All techs are evaluated by “repeats,” so if another guy is called to a home you serviced, it’s a strike against you. Their mantra is “Be the last tech out,” so that the next time a customer calls, it’s to upgrade, not to report a problem. Tom takes pride in his work, and the negative press rubs him raw. “Personally, I get a little perturbed by it,” he says. “We work hard to do the best job. You have to take the negative stories with a grain of salt. But it bothers me.”

MANY OF THOSE stories originate in Comcast’s call centers, where you can imagine armies of nasty customer service orcs rising up from some primordial ooze, born with headsets and bad intentions. Though there are such centers in the Philadelphia area, I drive to the company’s newest 800-number warehouse, in Harrisburg. It’s open and brightly lit, with about 750 half-wall cubicles, so folks can make eye contact with their officemates. Inspirational quotes and team-building totems are everywhere: Whiteboards at the front entrance display wisdom from Martin Luther King Jr. and an earnest guide to “turning that frown upside down.” Employee divisions have nicknames like “Wu Chang Clan” and “Vee Street Band.” TV and movie swag lines the walls, much of it rather morbid and unintentionally ironic — Angelina Jolie as an evil queen, shows about plunderers and bloodsuckers, a gangster drama with the tagline “No one goes quietly.”

Well-meaning but awkward grace notes like these are common, I find, from buggy product demos to an employee lounge at the Tower nicknamed after the computer game series SimCity. Comcast wants to be one of the cool tech kids, but as the cool kids know, you don’t talk about being edgy — you just are. There’s a lot of truth behind the Kabletown image Comcast is trying to shed; it’s still a folksy family business at heart. Today there’s a soup cook-off in the kitchen, organized by the “Great Place to Work” committee, and free Oreos. Did I mention the cafe serving pork loin and pancetta for lunch, or the workout room?

My tour guide, Ty Baker, is the top dog here and, given his unshakably pleasant demeanor, the guy you wish was taking your call. “This is the new vision for Comcast,” he tells me. “Foundational to the customer experience is a great employee experience.” Baker knows the potential misery of this work firsthand. He got his start as a phone operator for DirecTV, a gig he thought would be easy money. It wasn’t. “Usually the customer isn’t calling just to say, ‘You did a good job,’” he says. “It’s a cliché, but the customer can hear you smile. They can also hear you frown.”

Baker leads me to a training room labeled “Gettysburg,” and we peek inside as a group of about 15 new employees walks through a “real play,” Comcast-speak for roleplay. They don’t let me stick around to watch as a young woman preps to handle a call, possibly an irate one. Friendly as Baker is, this visit feels less like an unflinching look at how the customer service sausage is made and more like a Scientology center, where you’re loaded up with propaganda but not allowed to look behind certain doors. I’m ushered past reps on phone calls, and I’m definitely not given copies of documents that have leaked online, like the Comcast “retention guidelines” handbook published by The Verge. The 13-step process it outlines for handling customer calls includes “take control,” “set the agenda,” “overcome obstacles” and “close the save.”

Conflict is built into the DNA of these call centers: the needs of the customer vs. the wants of the company — to keep your business, at minimum, or increase your business, at best. It’s an agenda at Comcast’s stores as well, like the brand-new Havertown location I visit one day. The scene there is surreal: Smiling folks with branded polo shirts greet me at the door to the sunny, spacious store decorated with black leather couches and product demo stations. No one is screaming. But Comcast isn’t building 4,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar shops just to problem-solve; the company is selling to you. The confluence of service and sales is a “friction point” that Charlie Herrin will never completely smooth out unless “retention specialists” are eliminated, and that’s about as likely as Ralph Roberts calling to ask what you thought of last night’s Game of Thrones.

Comcast also outsources calls to third-party contractors, though it won’t say how many or to where. (One insider tells me a fair number end up in the Philippines.) But remember Herrin’s goal with customer service — he doesn’t want you calling at all. How many times have you dialed a phone to reach Apple, Amazon or Uber? You solve problems online, via troubleshooting webpages or message-board sleuthing. In Apple’s case, maybe you go to a store to speak with a “Genius.” With Comcast, your first instinct is to call a toll-free number.

But those are the brands Comcast is trying to emulate. The company is working on an app called Tech Finder that shows you where your service technician is and updates his ETA — Uber for your cable guy. Apple comes up in multiple conversations, and at the new Comcast stores, screens overhead show customer names and their positions in the queue, à la the Genius Bar. Neil Smit ran into Jeff Bezos recently and asked the Amazon CEO if they could sit down and talk customer experience. They haven’t set a date, Smit says, but it’s happening.

As I make the rounds with Baker, we stop at a phone rep’s desk to see the new “Einstein” software that puts all of the customer’s info on one screen. With the old system, notes about the caller’s account didn’t always transfer, and reps were logging in and out of screens constantly. Einstein should help folks like my co-worker Christy, who had to tell her entire story to every rep she spoke with. Late last year, the company also overhauled billing systems in our area, an upgrade that caused plenty of customer headaches but should relieve them in the long run. This all raises the question — why is it 2015 and Comcast just figured out how to put your services, charges and history of complaints on one page (and monitor the reps’ performance with a “scorecard,” as Herrin calls it, with a nod to Moneyball)?

Meet Rick, the embodiment of Comcast’s new — albeit overdue — direction. He’s worked here at the call center for less than a year, but Rick has embraced the rah-rah Comcast ethos more than anyone I’ve met. He resembles hyperactive chef Guy Fieri, wearing a black Comcast apron and a silver bow tie for the cook-off, handing out candy bars to anyone he comes across, including me. I ask him about his high-energy approach to customer service and making folks happy. “It’s all about culture,” he chirps. “We’re getting better one call at a time.”

HERE IS WHERE Charlie Herrin’s jeans take on unexpected significance. Think back to 2008, and what were then the seeds of Comcast’s “On Demand” service — pay-per-view movies at specific air times, and a menu of free programming, like exercise guides and music videos. Brian Roberts saw On Demand as the future and launched “Project Infinity,” a plan to put every movie and television show ever made at your fingertips. To execute this, he tapped a new department he’d created: Comcast Interactive Media, or CIM. It was staffed by a new breed of employee — young developers who exuded a Zuckerbergian can-do ethos and tech-geek chic.

Matt Strauss, head of Comcast’s video services, says recoding its corporate DNA was by design: “We were trying to create a culture comparable to what you’d find in Silicon Valley, in order to recruit that type of talent to come to Philadelphia and work at Comcast.” He means guys like engineer Sean Brown, whose office looks like a scene from a crime procedural, with Post-it notes connected with string covering the walls. His team came up with the idea behind writing “Designed by Comcast in Philadelphia” on the X1 remotes — a not-too-subtle takeoff of the “Designed by Apple in California” that graces every Apple product. Comcast is so invested in recruiting more bleeding-edge creatives that it’s building a second skyscraper — dubbed the Innovation and Technology Center and set to open in 2018 — just for them, with open floor plans and no assigned desks, where work happens anywhere and tat sleeves may outnumber shirtsleeves. “We had to reengineer the entire company to focus on product innovation,” a Comcast PR chief told me. “Everyone had to buy in. It was a major change. The same thing has to happen for customer service.”

As Strauss says, “You can’t change externally until you change internally,” and that gospel is being sung in every department. But the truth is, even though Comcast is undoubtedly a monopoly, this pledge to the public is a matter of survival. Consider that just five years ago, the notion of cord cutting — leaving cable behind completely — was preposterous. Today, new delivery systems (Amazon and Netflix streaming video, HBO Go, Apple’s multi-channel TV service set to launch in September) and devices like Roku and Google Chromecast allow even the most voracious entertainment junkie to break free. Sports are keeping folks tethered, but once that model changes — and it will — cable could go the way of the landline phone.

Though Comcast won’t admit it, it’s making customer service its top priority because it has no other choice. A company executive points to three factors in why it’s taken so long to get here. First are its expanding products, which make customer service more challenging; second is outdated systems and infrastructure, the result of decades’ worth of acquisitions and neglect. Lastly — and here’s why we’re seeing Comcast walk its talk — there’s the influence of Amazon, Uber, Netflix, even the start-ups that can deliver groceries to your door and handpick your summer wardrobe without ever meeting you in person. We demand better service — efficient, fast, on our time, without hour-long phone calls or drives to a strip mall. Maybe you’ll cut that coaxial cord, but Comcast doesn’t want to be your cable company. It wants to innovate, to entice you with technology, to turn Philadelphia (or a couple square blocks of Center City) into Silicon Valley East. And it knows it can’t achieve that unless its customers and tech bloggers and mainstream media get a case of the warm-and-fuzzies when they hear its name, like folks do with Apple.

Comcast knows expectations are high. But it’s fair to ask — are we as customers demanding too much? Apple’s business is hardware and software. Netflix is moving away from DVD delivery to focus on streaming and original content. Broadly speaking, Comcast does all of that and more, yet we expect the same level of service. The company handles complaints that aren’t Comcast issues at all, but problems with your email settings in Microsoft Outlook or the operating system you never updated or your iTunes password that isn’t working. (Comcast won’t ballpark how much misdirected bitching it fields, but by all accounts, it’s a lot, and daily.) Strauss offers no excuses: “I can give you all the reasons it’s complex, but for the customer, it shouldn’t matter. That’s our problem.”

THE FINAL STOP along my Comcasting adventure is an unscheduled one: a visit to my old service center, the newly refurbished shop on Columbus Boulevard. The lone pleasant memory I have of that dungeon is the day two years ago when I turned in my DVR and canceled my service. I slid the box through a revolving panel to a woman on the other side of a Plexiglas shield, presumably there to safeguard her from violent customers. My first new impression isn’t great. Parking still sucks — there is none, save for a few spots curbside — and a massive pothole is unavoidable. Inside, however, the change is dramatic. A woman greets me face-to-face, beaming: “Welcome to Comcast, how can I help you?” Gone are the faux bulletproof glass and the endless snaking line that felt like a slow march to hell.

I say this with great caution, based on past performance and broken promises, but it appears Comcast is making progress in resolving its customer service crisis. I wouldn’t say kudos are in order, as change has been a damn long time coming. But the truth is, if Comcast had spent all its brainpower and capital during the last decade on being the best customer-pleasin’ cable company in these here United States, someone else who was busy innovating would have purchased it a long time ago. Maybe Time Warner, the only cable biz with a lower customer service rating. And then it would have been goodbye Kabletown, its 6,000 Philadelphia employees, both towers and the Silicon Valley East plan.

Two customers here perfectly embody the current state of Comcast. An older fellow wearing a puffer vest comes in to use the self-service kiosk, and does so with ease. On his way out, he shares a joke with the greeter — he seems to be a regular — and tells her, “Have a blessed day.” It’s possible I’ve witnessed history. Blessings within these walls over the years must have been few. The curses, on the other hand …

Then there’s Joey South Philly, a middle-aged guy with a gut testing the elasticity of his Adidas track pants. Although two pleasant agents try to assist him with a number of problems — billing, DVR issues (as in, “That fight I taped didn’t work”) — his frustration mounts. Joey pauses only when his phone rings. “I have to check in with my P.O.,” he says, before clarifying: “Parole officer.”

A third service rep arrives to offer additional help, promising to resolve all issues. Joey is still in a mild lather. Despite these Comcast foot soldiers’ good intentions, somebody, somewhere, screwed something up. This customer experience can’t be saved. On his way out the door, Joey mumbles angrily to himself. The only word I can make out is “FiOS.”

Originally published as “Think Comcast Sucks?” in the May 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.