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Cover Story: Comcast Combats Customer Service Complaints With Software

Comcast in recent years has built an ambitious reputation on Wall Street, acquiring other companies to become the nation’s largest video provider, and rolling out digital phone service to become the fourth-largest telephone company in the U.S.

But in that time, it has built a different, negative reputation among subscribers, confirmed by independent research. It’s one the company is scrambling to erase, as customer service becomes a critical factor for consumers deciding where to spend $100 or more for an all-you-can-eat package of phone, high-speed Internet, and video services.

Executives concede that until recently, the company was focused on growth through acquisition — swallowing other operators such as AT&T Broadband and Adelphia Communications — and deploying new products such as digital telephone.

Fast growth and competitive focus cost Comcast points with customers. In J.D. Power and Associates’ last annual customer satisfaction survey of cable and satellite customers, published in August 2007, Comcast scored well below the industry average in each of four geographic regions, based on performance and reliability, customer service, image, billing clarity and a company’s offers and promotions.

In another survey, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, generated each year by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Comcast was the bottom-ranked service provider, tied with Charter Communications with an ACSI score of 54, well below the industry average. It fared no better as a telephony provider: it ranked last among telephone companies with an ACSI score of 69.

By comparison, satellite providers consistently score above the annual average for the segment, though they, too, have suffered declining scores since 2001, when their rankings began on ACSI. Among cable operators, Cox, the best-ranked cable provider, has kept the same score, 63, since it was first ranked in 2004.

The task of pleasing everyone is gargantuan: Comcast answers an average of 1 million calls a day and rolls 50 million repair trucks a year. And complaints these days have a much bigger forum on the Internet. Web sites like The Consumerist or detail missed customer-service calls, failed attempts at repairs, unreturned follow-up calls, rude service representatives and intermittent service outages.

These dissatisfied customers have made a hero of Mona Shaw, a hammer-wielding grandmother from Bristow, Va., who took out her lack-of-service frustration at her local Comcast office; and have viewed and passed along YouTube videos of technicians who’ve fallen asleep on the job, waiting to get through to dispatch for job information .

But company executives vow those days are about to be history. Comcast has invested “tens of millions” in new software and hardware design. Comcast officials have been meeting with subscribers and employees around the country to hear complaints first hand.

And recognizing the viral power of Web postings, the company now has a dedicated team, headed by outreach representative Frank Eliason, which scours blogs, RSS feeds, Twitter and other sites. The team contacts these Web complainers directly in an attempt to rectify their problems.

“The good news — customers like our products. That part we get. But the downside: they’re not particularly crazy about out brand. We need to focus on the basics and make it work or fix it fast,” said executive vice president of operations Dave Watson.

At the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ recently concluded Cable-Tec Expo, Comcast CEO Steve Burke said the company is now “laser-focused” on service reliability. The company’s problem is not answering the phone — “We do that pretty well” — but reliability. Comcast has too many error rates and too many issues, he told those gathered in the MSO’s hometown of Philadelphia.

At the heart of the effort is technology, including a new software program for customer-service representatives that pings the homes of callers to electronically troubleshoot phone and Internet problems, as well as handheld meters put in the hands of techs in all divisions.

From a former suburban supermarket in New Castle, Del., Comcast’s Eastern Division call center serves 1.1 million subscribers. It houses some of the 2,500 new customer-care workers the company has hired across the U.S. over the last 12 months. It’s one of the locations where Comcast is going through a “cultural evolution” on customer service, said regional senior vice president Amy Smith.

Workers there are poised over computer terminals equipped with Grand Slam, an in-house designed software program that now provides customer-care employees with more information on the caller, on a single screen.

Grand Slam funnels information from 18 underlying databases, warehousing billing, provisioning and other account information, that the CSR needs to access during a call. Information on the initial screen includes caller identification, a record of the last five help calls and their topics, etc. The first screen includes a health check, which remotely accesses the modem boot file, e-mail provisioning, etc. to determine system health. That check runs in a matter of seconds.

IP tech support worker Danielle Winckler said before Grand Slam, she might have needed to toggle through as many as five different open tools on her desktop just to schedule a trouble call. Opening all those programs, she said, slowed her computer — and the process.

Now, the information is aggregated under tabs such as “Support Kit,” with a list of possible service complaints and recommended solutions; or “My Workspace,” where the employee can find tools for verifying customer personal identification numbers, for instance.

Senior director of customer care Bruce Crooks said the software shaves one and a half to two minutes off each call, due to the speed with which it provides information. The program acquires information on performance issues, such as signal strength for phone and Internet services. The worker can even click on a Google Map of the caller’s area, which details services to other homes in the area, with color-coded dots (red, yellow and green) that signal whether a problem is at the home or the node. That allows the customer-care worker to send technicians to the correct location.

The uploaded information may also signal a problem brewing with a product that’s not the topic of the subscriber’s call, he noted. Comcast can bring that issue to the consumer’s attention and provide proactive service, he said.

Once the call is sent out to the field, technicians are equipped with another tool Comcast is relying upon to improve service: the hand-held Symbol, according to Rich Massi, vice president of technical operations at the center. This signal monitor, which has the appearance of a bloated BlackBerry, provides the tech with his or her work schedule for the day, routing the employee based on their skills and other factors.

Field workers can log into Grand Slam and get the same diagnostic information as the call-center workers. The handheld, which uses a program from Avantech running on the Microsoft OS, can provide Comcast with a time stamp noting when a worker initiates and completes a job. It can be used to scan the inventory numbers of equipment deployed in the field.

Technicians can do a 100-point service check in the home; the goal is for the tech to stay until all “lights” are green. The tool also eliminates the calls to dispatch for service authorization — the bottleneck shown in the infamous YouTube video of the sleeping technician.

A year ago, Comcast’s techs were still working with paper routing cards. Now all routing, including updating the workload during the day if techs get delayed on an individual job, are done via the Symbol, which is being deployed across most of Comcast’s footprint.

The hardware can save the field technician repair or installation time, freeing up the worker to teach consumers about their new products. That, in turn, will reduce secondary calls.

According to data collected at the New Castle traffic-management center, nicknamed “the Bridge,” the tools are already having an effect. The Bridge monitors call traffic at multiple centers and routes calls to maximize manpower, tracking trouble tickets to their completion.

Internal data indicates the number of repeat calls is trending down: In April it was as high as 18.5%; now, it’s about 13%, according to executives. New Castle handles about a million calls a month.

Customers who contacted Comcast during the previous month gave it better ratings in polls this year, too, the provider said.

Call centers are also trying to be more proactive about network maintenance. On a recent morning in the New Castle center, workers picked up what an executive described as a “server burp” — a provisioning error detected at 8:45 a.m. that could have affected high-speed Internet customers nationwide, had engineers not jumped on the problem. It was resolved before customers could see it.

While the new call-center software provides advanced diagnostic tools, it does not target problems with video, which is still considered by customers to be Comcast’s No. 1 product. Tiling of both digital and high-definition channels and faulty video-on-demand interfaces are criticisms oft-repeated on the Internet.

Watson said that set-top boxes, while capable of two-way communications, have never been used to collect and deliver the kind of network diagnostics that can be readily obtained from cable modems.

Comcast is working with its major vendors, Scientific Atlanta and Motorola, to develop similar diagnostics for video. He said he hopes software will be available by year-end. Such an application would obtain operating information on all but the oldest, first-generation digital boxes in the field, he said.

On Wall Street, good customer service is of critical importance to Comcast’s future, said Miller Tabak media analyst David Joyce. The MSO’s renewed focus on service is “welcome by my investors. It’s a way of differentiating from the competitors.”

Joyce also expressed approval of Comcast’s decision to focus initially on improving phone and Internet delivery services, rather than on video products.

Comcast is prioritizing its expenditures based on market realities. It estimates a gain of seven phone or Internet customers from competitors for every video subscriber it loses to a competitor, according to Joyce.

Still, Watson said he’s worried about customers who’ve stopped talking to Comcast.

“As these changes happen, we’ve got to be more proactive and do a better job of communicating,” he said. “We’ve got to let them know there’s this ongoing commitment to improvement.”