Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) poor customer service has been illustrated by several hilarious yet sad phones calls that have gone viral online. In the most famous of those calls, former Engadget editor-in-chief Ryan Block tried to cancel his service only to be berated by a "customer retention" specialist. 

When the call went public, Comcast apologized but admitted that its employee was doing what he was taught to do -- albeit in an overzealous fashion. Berating a customer and not letting him cancel service was not a mistake. It was corporate policy and part of the company's strategy. That would be like having McDonald's reject your decision to try to live a healthier lifestyle and chase you down at the gym to force Big Macs on you.

Fixing customer service has never seemed like a priority for Comcast, which has always operated as if we were still living in the days when cable companies operated local monopolies. In that world, Comcast could afford to be arrogant and hard to deal with because consumers had no other choice. People had to work with whichever company held the pay television franchise in their town, or be limited to the handful of stations that broadcast over the air.

But that world has changed, and Comcast may finally be willing to embrace its new reality and give consideration to the customer. To help accomplish that goal, the company has named Charlie Herrin as senior vice president of  "customer experience."

A 15-year veteran of Comcast, Herrin has held a variety of business and product development roles at the company. He previously served as Senior Vice President of Product Design and Development, where he was responsible for all aspects of the design of Comcast's Xfinity products.

In his new role, Heriin is being charged with partnering "with leaders across all business units, including customer service, technical operations, sales, marketing, training and development, and product innovation to reimagine the customer experience and ensure that we are delighting our customers at each touch point," according to an announcement from Comcast CEO Neil Smit.

That's a tall task at any company, but at Comcast it's a complete reversal of well-ingrained policy.

Yes, in a way, Comcast intentionally treated customers poorly
When the Block call became public, Comcast COO Dave Watson wrote a memo to his company's employees that was leaked to Consumerist. In the memo, Watson, who seemed sincere, pleaded with his staff to respect customers, but also admitted that making it hard to leave was a policy, not an aberration.

"The agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him -- and thousands of other Retention agents -- to do," Watson wrote.

Watson was candid, pledged to do better, and said that incidents like this were not representative of how the company intended to treat customers. That memo, however, was issued on July 21, and in the two months after it was sent, other equally horrifying calls emerged. It became clear that the customer service problem would not be solved merely by a desire to be better.

Comcast

Image via Wikimedia Commons; author Dave Winer.

What is Herrin's mission?
In his new job, Herrin has the unenviable task of taking a huge business that has been built around the idea that customers need it more than it needs them, and changing the culture. That's no small task in an industry that routinely sets eight-hour service windows and misses them.

Herrin does have support, as he reports directly to the CEO, who seems committed to change. As Smit wrote last week:

The way we interact with our customers -- on the phone, online, in their homes -- is as important to our success as the technology we provide. Put simply, customer service should be our best product.

If Smit truly believes that, then Herrin's task moves from impossible to just really difficult.

What's at stake for Comcast?
Though cable no longer has a monopoly in most markets, it has benefited from having competitors -- phone companies -- that have a similar company-first, customer-last ingrained arrogance. Yes, satellite is an option for some, but fears of service loss during bad weather and the need to install a dish have made that not a viable choice for many.

Now, however, Comcast needs to change, or it risks losing its audience completely as digital-savvy customers are finding alternative ways to meet their TV-watching needs. Younger people are living without cable, cutting the cord and relying on products such as Netflix and Hulu to meet their TV-watching needs.

As the technological barriers to doing that become lower and more and more services -- including live sports -- become accessible without cable, Comcast customers will no longer need a cable subscription. The only way they will keep one is if companies, including Comcast, can become easy to deal with, responsive, and customer-friendly.

That's a very tall order, but the appointment of Herrin shows that Comcast is at least willing to try.

Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A and C shares), McDonald's, and Netflix and owns shares of Apple, Google (A and C shares), and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.