Seattle to Comcast: Answer the phone!

The City has twice fined its major cable provider for spotty customer service, but don't expect improvements any time soon.
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Comcast customers: Tired of waiting in on-hold hell.

The City has twice fined its major cable provider for spotty customer service, but don't expect improvements any time soon.

Comcast has had a rough time marketing its three-year-old “Xfinity” service. So much so that last year the cable giant invested $170 million in a rebranding effort to promote the company’s TV, phone and Internet package. You may have noticed the big signs on buses or on your TV screen proclaiming: “Xfinity: the Future of Awesome.”

It’s not clear yet if the Future of Awesome campaign is working. But there is no question the company has been failing lately when it comes to customer service.

Residents who have telephoned Comcast to resolve problems with their Internet and cable TV service have complained about long wait times, incompetent support when they finally do get through and offshore call centers staffed by customer-service reps who sometimes struggle with English.

In the past five months, the City of Seattle has issued two “notice of violation” letters in an effort to recover more than $48,000 from Comcast for the company’s failure to meet the standards as set forth in its contract. In a February letter, the city told Comcast it owed $17,239 in “liquidated damages” for not answering calls fast enough (the arrangement stipulates that calls be answered within 30 seconds, 90 percent of the time) during the last quarter of 2012.

Comcast’s performance was even worse in the first quarter of this year, according to Tony Perez, director of the city’s Office of Cable Communications. So in May, Perez sent a second violation letter seeking an additional $31,032 for, again, failing to answer calls as rapidly as required.

Comcast paid the first fine — which Perez said is the largest the city has ever assessed against the company — but wiggled off the hook for the second. That’s because the franchise agreement calls for forgiveness if Comcast can demonstrate that it cured its deficiencies within 30 days of the violation. Comcast said it did so in April.

The city does not independently verify the statistics Comcast provides, but Perez said the company would face “severe consequences” if it defrauded the city by providing phony data.

According to Perez, complaints are up significantly this year over last. There were a total of 83 in 2012, and 62 during the first five months of this year.

(This may well be an underestimate since consumer-protection experts note that for every complaint on file, there are at least 10 more that go unfiled because the customer either doesn’t know where to turn, doesn’t think complaining will do any good anyway or is just too busy to bother. Under the city’s Cable Bill of Rights, which has been around for more than a decade, Seattle residents have the option to complain. When they do, the city logs all comments and passes them along to Comcast, which can issue a credit or some form of compensation for the customer.

Perez said the city is keeping track of Comcast’s recent poor performance and intends to use it as leverage when the two sides negotiate renewal of the existing contract — a lengthy process that will begin about a year from now. The current contract expires in January 2016.

There are about 160,000 cable subscribers in Seattle and that Philadelphia-based Comcast has about 150,000 of them. The rest belong to Seattle’s only other cable provider, Kirkland-based Wave Broadband. Perez suspects that more than half Comcast’s customers bundle another digital service, meaning Internet and/or phone, with their cable TV.

Comcast confirmed that it has about 1.1 million customers statewide, but declined to break down its numbers further.

Over the past decade, rates for the most popular tier of Comcast’s cable TV service (a notch up from the basic plan) have increased about 70 percent. According to Perez, Comcast enjoys an extremely high profit margin — on the order of 97 percent – for its Internet service. Perez wrote Comcast vice president Janet Turpen to convey his concern about long phone wait times and express his alarm at the “unacceptable” increase in the number of “abandoned calls,” meaning calls that ended prematurely.

There were more than 168,000 such calls in the fourth quarter of last year, and another 125,000 in the first quarter of this year. By comparison, there were just over 38,000 abandoned calls in the first quarter of 2011.

Comcast attributed the spike in hang-ups to customers getting what they needed from the company’s automated, interactive-voice system. That may be true, to some extent, Perez conceded. But, he added, “a reasonable person would also conclude that (customers) dropped the call because they got tired of waiting to speak to somebody.”

There is an “undeniable correlation,” he asserted, between the decrease in number of calls answered within 30 seconds and the spike in abandoned calls.

Comcast spokesman Steve Kipp acknowledged “some temporary disruptions” that may have led to customer frustration, including longer hold times. He said the company’s number one priority is to provide a “positive customer experience.” To that end, Comcast is building new call “Centers of Excellence” in Everett, Lynnwood and Fife. Once those centers come on line, he said, most calls would be handled locally.

Months ago, Comcast’s Turpen told Perez the new call centers would be “fully functional” by April. By contrast, Kipp declined to specify when the new call centers would be ready. Until they are, the company will continue to use what Kipp described as “temporary help” in the Philippines.

Seattle resident Bruce Miller is a Comcast customer who is tenacious when it comes to demanding solid customer support. He was placed on hold for 16 minutes earlier this month when he called about his dropped Internet connection. He was put through to someone in the Philippines and, based on past experience, insisted on a transfer to a “U.S. person.” That didn’t go so well, though, because the woman, in a Houston call center, would not stop lecturing him about loose CABLE connections — even after Miller assured her that the last person to touch his set up was a Comcast field technician.

Whenever he has pressed to get transferred to someone in Lynnwood, the company’s Northwest, or has taken the trouble to drive to a Comcast store to speak with a manager in person, Miller has gotten competent help.

“It’s getting the right people that is super aggravating,” he said. When he finally does reach the right person, he makes sure to point out “that Comcast is wasting money on the Philippines, which in turn is reducing efficiency of the competent people, who have to waste time listening to customers vent about the bad phone support.”

When Comcast and the city sit down again to bargain next summer, Tony Perez said he wants to revisit the question of what counts as a “customer service representative.” The city has always expected that “customer-service rep” meant a real person. But the existing Comcast agreement doesn’t spell that out, and Comcast has interpreted the ambiguity as a green light to use an automated system.

Perez recently subscribed to Netflix. When he ran into a couple of snags, he says, “I was able to speak with a live body in colloquial English who answered my call in less than a minute. And Netflix has more customers than Comcast (34 million vs. 22 million). If they can do it, I don’t understand why Comcast can’t.”

Neither can we. But while switching back to humans, preferably English speakers, may seem like a no brainer to consumers and the city, Comcast’s Kipp said his company is sticking with its automated system.



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