When it was discovered that some Comcast customer service retention specialists attempted to berate customers into keeping their service, the Internet exploded in a collective fit of disgust.
In the most famous of those cases, former Engadget editor Ryan Block publicly released a recording of a call where he politely attempted to end his service, only to have the Comcast employee simply deny his request. Though Block was eventually able to cancel, his call became a very public rallying cry for change. Comcast apologized and promised to overhaul its entire customer service effort -- not because one customer had a bad experience, but because the rep was doing exactly what he was trained to do (albeit a bit overzealously).
The Comcast call was ridiculed on nearly every major website that covers the cable industry, and it became the gold standard for what was wrong with customer service at these companies. The public very clearly wants the ability to leave service providers without hassle. That is a message Comcast has received loud and clear.
Unfortunately, while it seemed the cable giant had the worst retention practices in its industry, what Verizon (NYSE:VZ) does to keep a customer may be a bit more disturbing.
What is Verizon doing?
The pay-TV, wireless-phone, and Internet service provider is aggressively tracking its customers and what they watch, which devices they use, how much data they consume, and pretty much anything else it has access to, according to Quartz. The company is also monitoring customer service phone calls in real time, allowing supervisors to jump in when certain trigger words are uttered.
This seems like the sort of thing you would keep secret, but Verizon executive Mahmoud El Assir told attendees at Data Driven NYC, a gathering of data professionals, the incredible lengths to which the company goes to retain customers. He explained how the company "monitors billions of data points a day from 7 million Verizon FiOS customers." This, he added, allows customer service reps to know as much as possible about the person attempting to cancel service.
"Now when an agent gets a call, instead of blindly resizing customers' cable packages, agents can tell them how they might lose these two channels and how often they watch them," El Assir said. "It's a more educated conversation with the customer."
It is easy to see how the tactic helps Verizon, but some customers are almost certain to see it as a glaring privacy violation.
It is not just about retention
Verizon also uses its extensive data mining to sell subscribers new services.
"Customers are four times more likely to upgrade their DVR boxes to newer versions that record more shows when we bring up the data on recording conflicts," El Assir told Quartz.
That may be true, and it is probably even an acceptable practice if it was being done in an aggregate fashion -- where anyone hitting certain thresholds was broadly targeted. Instead, by using this information on an individualized basis, Verizon may be crossing a line that leaves customers feeling uneasy.
Verizon sees no evil
By speaking of these practices publicly, it is clear that El Assir sees nothing wrong with the practice, and he said the company does it to enhance customer service. That is a very fine line to straddle, because in some cases, it is indeed useful if a service rep can tell you that making a change (based on your usage patterns) will save you money.
That, of course, could be an audit the company does on a high level without letting individual reps know your personal details. It seems unlikely, however, that Verizon would do anything that cuts into the bottom line.
Instead, the company uses this data only when a customer threatens to leave or when they mention the name of another provider during a call. That may seem like smart business to the company, but it is not likely to sit well with the public.
If this practice becomes well known, it is possible Verizon will suffer the same blowback Comcast did. The long battle for acceptable customer service in this industry continues.