Brand on the Run: Customer service isn't as lousy as it used to be - really

Technological advances meet corporate promises in a bid to woo skeptical consumers

Todd Wasserman has been covering branding and technology for 15 years. Brand on the Run is his occasional take on the intersection of the two. 

A lot of companies offer horrific customer service, but Comcast is in a class by itself.

The brand routinely shows up on the bottom of customer-service rankings and had the honor of being voted Consumerist’s "Worst Company in America" in 2014 and 2010. There’s even a subReddit devoted to Comcast haters.

No one expects Comcast to go from worst to first, but the brand now has a shot at becoming slightly less offensive thanks to some new initiatives that aim to improve its consumer outreach.

Last September, the cable giant gave a man named Tom Karinshak potentially the world’s hardest job: SVP of customer service for Comcast. During a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Comcast CEO Neil Smit also said the company is on the way toward a complete customer-service turnaround. True, then-CEO Brian Roberts made pretty much the same promise in 2008, but how about this? In the customer-service equivalent of a morbidly obese patient wiring his jaw shut, Comcast has also vowed to pay customers $20 this fall if a technician is even one minute late for a service call.

Why after all these years is Comcast finally taking customer service seriously? It seems that after a decade or so of hearing corporate execs jabber on about the topic, things are actually changing. It may not feel like it, but customer service is improving overall and repeat offenders like Comcast may be forced to turn over a new leaf.

That may be a surprise if you have resided in a hermetically sealed C-Suite since 2009 or so. It’s been more than a decade since Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley declared "the customer is boss" and social media supposedly ushered in a new wave of transparency among businesses. 

This was to be a new era, we were told, in which brands could no longer get away with putting their customers on hold for 45 minutes or pitch desperately heated, time-consuming arguments when they tried to cancel service. In 2012, a new title began showing up in Corporate America: the chief customer officer. Her job was to focus on the "customer experience." Cisco even hired a "director of customer listening." Surely, social media had finally eliminated the days when you had to yell "Operator! Operator!" repeatedly into the phone to get a human.

Things haven’t turned out that way. Except for a few brands, customer service is still the same depressing time suck it’s always been. Despite the happy talk among marketing gurus about a level playing field, if you call a customer service line you’re likely to get the same matrix of options ("Dial 5 for eternal consciousness") and that creepy robo voice that pauses just for a millisecond before saying, "I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. … " Then, of course, you are told to hang up and dial another number.

Yet despite such common experiences, if you take the long view, customer service may actually be getting better. A poll by researcher Corvisa reported that 60% of respondents think that customer service improved in 2014 versus 2013. Temkin, another firm that measures customer service, also reported that the average company improved its score 2% between 2013 and 2014 (full-year figures for 2014 aren’t out yet.) Things aren’t perfect; some 64% of the Corvisa respondents admit that they lost their temper with a customer service agent some time in 2014.

While consumers have justified skepticism about Comcast – this is a company that recently sent a letter to a customer it dubbed "Asshole Brown" – Allen Adamson, chairman of North America for branding firm Landor Associates – says overall many companies are getting their acts together. In particular, he says American Express and Delta have really improved, as has Verizon. (None of those are Landor clients.)

What’s taken so long? In part, Adamson blamed a fog of new technologies that have stormed the customer-service industry in recent years. For instance, there’s now instant messaging chat; "co-browsing" that lets a customer-service rep take over your browser and point you to the right web page; and video, which would demonstrate conclusively that yes, your cable box is plugged in.

All of this obscures the fact that the more than anything else, consumers want to talk to a human being, preferably one who knows what they’re talking about.  "It involves getting the right people, training them and empowering them and those are three big hurdles," Adamson says.

That’s an expensive proposition, particularly for industries in which the link between brand loyalty and customer service has been as tenuous as a Netflix connection on Comcast. The reason that financial services, cable companies and healthcare providers tend to provide the worst service, for instance, boils down to inertia: It takes a lot of energy to switch banks and banks know this, which is why their customer service is so bad. "If there’s friction in the purchase decision, it protects a lot of companies that haven’t gotten their customer service where it needs to be," Adamson says.

While social media hasn’t had the cleansing effect we’ve been promised, newly empowered, Google-happy consumers are taking matters into their own hands and putting the fear of God into previously complacent brands and industries. If you don’t believe this can happen, look no further than the auto segment, where Internet-empowered consumers are relying less on dealers and instead using third-party referrals to buy cars at pre-set prices with no haggling. If not, then there’s always a chance that an upstart like T-Mobile will come along and make it easier to switch by helping ease the cost. In the cable business, a similar disruptor — maybe Google Fiber — could make serious inroads if it offered a painless way to dump the reviled Comcast.

The upshot is that even the worst customer service offenders — we’re looking at you, Comcast — are finally going to have to change their ways. The customer may not be boss just yet, but maybe she won’t be treated like a flunky anymore.

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