Comcast's Customer Service Troubles Continue

You would think that one horrible customer service call going viral would be enough for Comcast  (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) to put its "customer retention" specialists on high alert to avoid another similarly embarrassing incident. That's clearly not the case. The cable giant continues to mistreat people as they attempt to cancel service.

The PR nightmare began when a well-known technology journalist published a recording of his attempt to cancel his Comcast account. In that call, former Engadget Editor Ryan Block was harassed and aggressively belittled by a Comcast rep who seemed unwilling to let him cancel his service. Executives promised change. But it's now clear that either the cable company doesn't want to alter its practices too dramatically, or that change is slow to come at a company so large. In the aftermath of that first call, people learned that while the rep was overzealous, he was doing what he was trained to do. Over the last two weeks two more incidents of poor Comcast customer service have gone viral, reinforcing that impression. 

Instead of acting like a scolded child, laying low and reining in its retention specialists after its initial PR disaster, Comcast is behaving like a hardened criminal for whom no amount of punishment or public scorn will cause a change in behavior. That's odd behavior for a company attempting to be on its best behavior to get federal regulators to approve its $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable  (NYSE: TWC  ) . 

What happened now?

Recording calls to Comcast has become a bit of a phenomenon but one of two new viral videos making their way around the Internet suggest it's clearly a good idea. 

Comcast customer Tim Davis posted a recording of his effort to get an improper charge from a service call dropped from his bill. He was told in the complaining call that the only way to have the charge removed was to have a recording of someone at Comcast telling him that there would be no charge to fix the problem, CNN Money reported. Fortunately for him, Davis had taped the earlier call and he played it back. In it a customer service rep assured him there would be no charge and once the new rep heard that, the charge was dropped.

That's bad, but easier to forgive than what happened to Aaron Spain when he called to cancel his service and was treated worse than Block. Spain, a Chicago photographer, was placed on hold for more than three hours. He waited on one phone while placing a second call with another when he was told that the office that handles disconnects was closed for the day.

Spain posted a video of his ordeal on YouTube where it has been viewed over 1.6 million times. He explained his reasoning for staying on the line in a note on the video's YouTube page:

I've had a lot of people ask why I would stay on hold so long: I'm not the first person I've heard have this happen to. I refused to hang up as I was not going to give them any reason to keep my service active. There would be no "well you did hang up before we could get to you," nonsense. I had been attempting to get service technician out from Aug. 21st through Aug. 5th. I'd had 3-4 service calls scheduled, all of them no calls no shows, and no reason as to why they can't get the service done. 

Comcast created a media uproar for making it difficult to cancel and its COO Dave Watson admitted the problem was due to the company's training methods. At the time he seemed genuinely ashamed and eager to tone down the company's retention efforts. It appears he has not conquered the problem.

What happens next?

If Comcast is so big that it can't make a pretty basic change after an event that humiliates the company publicly, then regulators should think twice before approving the company's merger with Time Warner Cable. It's hard to imagine that the cable giant still has an official policy of making every effort to stop customers from canceling no matter how vehement the person is about leaving, but whether it's policy or not, it's still happening.

It seems reasonable to think that a corporate culture that rewards retention at any cost will not be so easy to change. Before Comcast can get bigger, the Federal Communications Commission must look for clear signs that changes are actually happening, not just being discussed. A customer should be allowed to leave a service once his contractual obligations are filled with little effort. Three-hour phone calls and belligerent reps should never happen. There should be serious questions about allowing a company that trained its staff this way -- and can't seem to untrain them -- to merge with another huge cable company.

If Comcast can't run its own ship in a way that treats customers humanely, it cannot be trusted to run Time Warner Cable as well.

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