Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) can't seem to avoid bad publicity and a spat over a $2,800 charge that it eventually waived is just the latest attention-getter as the company works to be more friendly to its customers.
The company has been the center of numerous public relations disasters recently including one where former Engadget editor-in-chief Ryan Bloc publicly released a call during which he tried to cancel his service only to be berated by a "customer retention" specialist.
That call, and other well-publicized disasters prompted the cable and Internet service provider's CEO, Neil Smit, to release a public statement on the company's failings in which he pledged to "reimagine the customer service experience." In that document he said that customer service should be the company's best product and acknowledged that change will not happen quickly.
In fact, it may take a few years before we can honestly say that a great customer experience is something we're known for. But that is our goal and our number one priority.
To make that happen Smit named longtime Comcast exec Charlie Herrin senior vice president of customer experience.
In his new job Herrin is supposed to change a culture which has been built on four-hour appointment windows, making it really hard for people to leave, and customer-unfriendly practices like forcing people to pay for channels they don't want in order for them to get the ones they do. Those problems and policies are not unique to Comcast. But with the company seeking to massively expand through a $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC) its customer service failures could impact around a third of the country.
While it's unfair to judge Herrin's job performance since he has only held his position since Sept. 26, recent events suggest he still has his work cut out for him.
Wanting to be better is not enough
Sticking it to customers is such an ingrained part of the Comcast culture that the company has had trouble pulling back from it even in a really egregious situation.
Adam Fraim, a previously happy Comcast customer ran into a problem when he tried to move his service from one Tennessee city to another, Nashville's WSMV reported. Fraim told the station he was shocked when he moved from Antioch to Clarksville and received a bill from Comcast for $2,789 to cancel his service. Fraim did not want to cancel and had gone as far as setting up a service appointment to turn on cable at his new location. The technician never arrived because Comcast does not service his new address and never should have made the appointment.
That's when the self-employed graphic artist received his nearly $3,000 bill.
Fraim had a three-year contract for Comcast business service, which contained a provision for the hefty early termination fee.
"They kept telling me the same thing," Fraim told WSMV. "'You're under contract, that's what the contract says.'"
The once-happy customer who wanted to stay with Comcast acknowledged that the fee is listed on the Comcast website, but said it's hidden in fine print and that most people would not know they are liable for such a hefty amount.
Comcast has learned something from its past public relations failures. When confronted by WSMV on Fraim's behalf, the charges were waived due to the extenuating circumstance of him moving outside the company's coverage area. Of course, that happened after Fraim's outrageous bill went viral and the company received a ton of negative publicity.
Starting to learn
One of the ongoing complaints of many cable customers is the nit-picky fees that are often hidden in fine print. Comcast has taken notice and is slowly eliminating its much-disliked "Change of Service" fee, a $2.99 charge for changing any Comcast service. Essentially this fee is a poorly disclosed tax on customers looking to downgrade service.
The fee applies to changing any service over the phone, sort of the way certain airlines charge more for booking tickets over the phone, USA TODAY reported earlier this month:
Having seen that the fee annoyed customers (go figure!), the Philadelphia company is now removing it, one market at a time. So far, it's gone from Comcast's Portland, Ore., Houston and Colorado regions and should vanish soon from the rest — but until that happens, subscribers who get that surcharge on their bills after calling to edit their service remain stuck.
While it's good that Comcast has recognized the fee annoyed customers and had to be eliminated, you have to question the slow implementation of its removal. While there might be technical hurdles to eliminating the fee, why not send out an email authorizing customer service personnel to waive the charge? If that's not possible, why not find a way to credit the fee back to customers?
Comcast says it wants to change and consumers would certainly like to deal with a cable company that did not constantly find ways to tack on new charges. Still, despite the positive words from Smit and the appointment of Herrin it remains to be seen whether the company wants to provide better service or it just wants the better PR that comes from saying it wants that.
The major positives here seem to be that while Comcast still has policies in place, which, to put it kindly, don't benefit consumers, it has shown a willingness to reverse charges when confronted on them. Going forward the company will have to remove those policies and find a way to act in good faith with its customers even when the media is not calling attention to a specific injustice.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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.