Slacking on Customer Service? Look Out

Garfield vs. Comcast: Online Vendetta Proves Power of Consumers

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Bob Garfield didn't set out to wish death upon Comcast.

He just happened to be writing a book about the shifting model of customer service, tentatively titled "Listen," when he ordered Comcast's Triple Play service to be installed in his house in mid-August. It was halfway through the first of two Sundays spent waiting in vain for a Comcast technician that he realized his timing couldn't have been more apropos.
''Gizmodo it ain't': But the blog has hit a nerve and given dozens an outlet.
''Gizmodo it ain't': But the blog has hit a nerve and given dozens an outlet.
"Here this company was torturing me, and I was sitting there on hold, just frustrated out of my side, when I realized that I was writing a book on this subject," the Advertising Age columnist said. "Then it became a question of doing a blog posting and seeing if it touches a nerve and, if so, following through."

His initial "Comcast Must Die" post on Ad Age's site yielded 58 comments from readers and disgruntled customers. Seven more blog posts emerged before one ardent commenter in Santa Fe registered the "comcastmustdie" domain with Blogspot, where the one-man customer-service revolution took on new life.

The traffic was steady but small ("Gizmodo it ain't," Mr. Garfield readily admitted), but if the goal was to hit a nerve, then "Comcast Must Die" was a reflex hammer to the knee -- almost literally. In a story strikingly parallel to Mr. Garfield's, 75-year-old Bristow, Va., resident Mona Shaw took a hammer to her local Comcast office in mid-August, smashing a keyboard, telephone and monitor. She, too, had been stood up by several Comcast technicians for her Triple Play installation in mid-August. "Have I got your attention now?" was her rallying cry. Mr. Garfield discouraged the violence, but the incident spoke volumes about the larger issue at hand.

Some success
In just a month, he had turned his personal beef with "Qualmcast" into a blog movement. Mr. Garfield eventually got a technician to his house -- "literally five trucks in 12 hours" -- and a call from a Comcast VP. "He thanked me through gritted teeth that they were evidently able to identify some problem, saying it was a learning experience for them considering their service in general," Mr. Garfield said.

In the blogosphere, though, the company has kept its response to "Comcast Must Die" at a minimum, so as not to deter from the core of its customer-service motto. "We treat every interaction the same, independent of Bob's blog or anybody else's blog," said Jennifer Khoury, a Comcast spokeswoman. "Bob didn't want to be treated any differently, and he hasn't."
Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield
Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield

Although the Garfield blog was afforded more media attention through its Ad Age affiliation, the traffic has yet to spike enough for it to become a major consideration for Comcast. "Even if it had a high amount of traffic, that rarely even bubbles up to customer service," Ms. Khoury said. "It should not take a blog to get reaction for good customer service."

Difficult to ignore
It just so happens, however, that Comcast is in the midst of an overhaul of its customer-service operations. The company's 24-hour call centers have been adding more staff on weekends and booking more appointments on those days, the response window has been shortened to two to four hours, and more than 12,000 technicians and customer-service reps have been added in the past two years. In short, Comcast says it was responding to situations like Mr. Garfield's long before "Comcast Must Die." "The issues Bob points out we're also very concerned about. But changes don't happen overnight," Ms. Khoury said.

But bloggers have become increasingly difficult to ignore. DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer said his company reaches out to customers through the most influential moderators and bloggers on sites such as DBSTalk.com, Engadget and HighDef Forum. "This allows us to 'myth bust' rumors and provide accurate information and improve our products and services based on feedback from the field," he said. Spokespeople for Time Warner Cable and Dish/Echostar agreed that the biggest problem facing customer service right now isn't just manpower -- it's the expertise the employees bring to the table as well. Cable companies have started to add three tiers to their service calls -- internet, phone and video -- so there's fewer middlemen and hours wasted on hold.

Although Mr. Garfield has, for the most part, laid his arms to rest with the folks at Comcast, his larger mission is far from over. "I could've chosen anyone in this industry. They just had the bad fortune to make me a victim," he said. "Nothing would make me happier than to shame them into industry leadership, but I don't think they've experienced anything cataclysmic yet."
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