Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) can't decide if it wants to serve its customers or to be less than open with them in the pursuit of greater profits.
One on hand, the company has committed a huge amount of resources to revamping its customer service department. This process includes "creating more than 5,500 customer service jobs over the next few years and setting a goal to always be on time for customer appointments by Q3 of 2015," according to a May 2015 press release.
The cable and Internet giant also plans major investments in technology and training to give employees the tools they need to deliver excellent service. In addition, Comcast plans to simplify billing and create better policies to provide greater consistency and transparency to customers.
In theory that sounds great, but rebuilding customer service credibility will only work if Comcast's representatives are trained to have honest interactions with customers. Unfortunately, that's where the other hand comes in. The company, which has had to deal with fallout from recordings of its retention specialists berating and belittling subscribers trying to leave, has its new customer service team trying to sell customers on a data-cap concept that at best strains their credibility.
What is Comcast doing?
Comcast has slowly begun rolling out 300GB data caps across its customer bases. At first this will affect very few people, since for even a heavy streaming-video user, 300GB is a pretty large number, maybe even effectively unlimited data for many. The cable giant, however, is not really implementing these caps for today -- it's doing it for the time when increased streaming, 4K video, and even Internet of Things devices send people over the limit.
It's also a revenue hedge against losing cable subscribers but keeping those people as Internet customers.
Because it's changing its policy, Comcast has to inform its customers and prepare its call centers to handle complaints and concerns. The company handled the first part in a letter to consumers (which DSLReports first published).
While we believe that 300GB is more than enough to meet your Internet usage needs, if for any reason you exceed the 300GB included in your plan in a month, we will automatically add blocks of 50GB to your account for an additional fee of $10 each. We're also implementing a three-month courtesy program. That means you will not be billed for the first three times you exceed the 300 GB included in the monthly data plan.
That's a fairly pleasant, even generous, way to tell consumers you're setting them up to pay more down the road, but it's the second piece of the puzzle -- how the company's customer service reps are being trained -- that suggests the cable and Internet leader has not really learned from its history of poor customer interaction.
It just gets worse
In the past, Comcast has used preventing network congestion as the reason for implementing data caps and charging customers who go over them. That story has changed, and according to a Comcast representative who spoke to the Miami Herald, the new system is all about fairness.
"Our data plan trials are part of our ongoing effort to create a fair, technologically sound policy in which customers who use more data pay more, and customers who use less pay less," Comcast Florida spokeswoman Mindy Kramer told the paper.
The concept of fairness is also featured in leaked scripts, posted to Reddit, for customer service representatives, who are urged to use the term "data usage plan" instead of "data cap." The reason for the new plans, according to the documents, is "fairness and providing a more flexible policy to our customers."
So, to sum up, Comcast has begun enforcing data caps (they were always there but were only used in extreme cases), but it doesn't want its employees to use that term. It's also charging for overages (and selling an unlimited plan for an extra $35 a month), which is somehow about fairness and flexibility.
The company wants to improve customer service, but it's instructing its reps to use questionable language that arguably misrepresents what's actually happening.
How does Comcast defend itself?
Speaking to GeekWire, Walter Neary, Comcast's senior director of external affairs, said that 10% of customers are responsible for about half the data currently used.
"The median data use for our customers nationally is 40 GB per month," Neary told GeekWire. "On average, less than 8% of our customers nationally use in excess of 300 GB in any given month, so about 92% of our customers will have seen no impact on their monthly bills in a current pilot. Seventy percent of our customers use less than 100 GB per month. Eighty-five percent of our customers use less than 200 GB per month."
What Neary didn't say is that if cord cutting increases, more customers will exceed the data. According to Netflix, one HD movie uses about 3 GB of data. So if a household of four cuts the cord and streams an average of eight hours of content per day, a modest amount for four people who might want to watch separate shows, the household would use 360 GB of data per month -- assuming 3 GB per two hours of video in a 30-day month.
That's not a particularly extreme example. It actually may be an understatement when you consider that there are many nights when my wife, my son, and I all watch different shows.
Why might this backfire?
Comcast should be straight with is customers instead of training its reps to use misleading language while taking a "don't worry, this won't affect you" stance.
You can't be more honest and change how you treat people while also being less honest and treating them exactly the way you always have. Comcast wants to continue operating as it always has while also giving the impression of being a little nicer to consumers.
It won't work.
The company simply has too much negative baggage with consumers to overcome to rehab its reputation without being on its best behavior. It's a real stretch to call a data cap a "data usage plan," and imposing the caps, when most people assumed they had unlimited data, will only anger customers.
This is Comcast being Comcast, after the company promised its customers better. It's disappointing and bad for shareholders, because in many markets, consumers do have options. When people hit these data caps, that may be enough to make them leave.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He rarely remembers to use Netflix enough to hit any data caps. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends 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.