PHILADELPHIA (TheStreet) -- A few months ago, my Internet connection, cable TV reception and phone line disappeared simultaneously. I used my cell phone to call Comcast (CMCSA) - Get Report, my "triple-play" service provider, and what followed was a maddening 48-hour comedy of customer service errors.
After talking to three agents on a Saturday night, I scheduled a Monday morning appointment with a four-hour window, from 8 a.m. and noon. When 11:45 a.m. rolled around, I called Comcast to check in. It turned out the company had left two messages on
my broken phone line
. One was an automated call telling me that if I didn't pick up the phone when the technician called, my appointment would be canceled. The other said the technician was canceling the appointment because the Boston Marathon was happening that day. The saga went on from there, with conflicting information and mixed messages worthy of an old
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I'm not the only whiner. A
search for "Comcast sucks" garners 19,700 hits. Two years ago, a 75-year-old woman in Bristow, Va.,
her local Comcast office with a hammer.
"I'd be the first to admit that Comcast needs to and wants to improve its customer service," says Rick Germano, senior vice president of customer operations at Philadelphia-based Comcast. "You ran the Google 'sucks index,' which we run, too."
Germano attributes many of the company's problems to growing pains from acquiring companies, attracting subscribers rapidly and rolling out new products.
"We've become the third-largest telephone company in less than three years," Germano says. "We're playing a little catch-up."
Other major cable providers are doing a lousy job too, according to the
American Customer Satisfaction Index
, or ASCI, which assigns a score of 0 to 100 to more than 200 companies in 44 industries nationwide. In ASCI's most recent report, the average score for cable and satellite TV providers was 63.
scored a 66, and
Time Warner Cable
, and Comcast all scored a 59.
By comparison, the average score for computer software was 75, and automobiles scored an average of 84. Even the
, with an average score of 64, garnered more customer satisfaction than the cable companies.
"This industry has been in the basement since we started covering it in 2001," says David Van Amburg, managing director of ASCI. About half of the cable customers ASCI surveyed had filed at least one complaint with their providers in the past year.
Still, business booms every year. Last year, Comcast brought in $34.2 billion in revenue, up from $30.9 billion in 2007. Revenues for the first half of 2009 were $17.7 billion, putting on track to beat its 2008 performance.
The dichotomy between customer discontent and company success is due in large part to lack of competition. None of the cable companies offer nationwide service, and in many areas of the country, there is only one provider. Even in markets served by multiple cable companies, switching service providers is often a hassle.
But that might change as cable companies face increasing competition from
"The general rule is the more competition, the higher the satisfaction," Van Amburg says.
As of June, Verizon had approximately 2.5 million FiOS TV subscribers and the service was available in 10.3 million areas. AT&T reported 1.6 million total subscribers for its U-Verse service. Such numbers may sound like small potatoes to a company like Comcast, which has 24 million cable customers and deployed 1.9 million digital boxes in the second quarter alone. Verizon plans to make FiOS TV available to 18 million homes by the end of 2010. AT&T plans to build out its network to pass 30 million homes by the end of 2011.
"I think it's pretty obvious if you look at our industry that competition is rigorous," Germano says. "We compete with two of the largest companies in the world."
To that end, the company is making a concerted effort to improve its image among customers.
Comcast recently began testing an interactive voice response system, which keeps track of customer complaints and saves customers from having to repeat the same information when they're bounced to a new agent. The system is running only in West Palm Beach, Fla., but the company plans to roll it out to other markets in the coming months.
The company also is trying an automatic dispatch and global positioning system that should help streamline operations and prevent technicians from making lame excuses about the Boston Marathon, whose route goes nowhere near my house.
Comcast also offers a $20 credit to customers when technicians miss their appointment window. And the company employs two guys who monitor Twitter feeds and blogs for complaints, and send personal apologies to the complainers. Such moves help explain why Comcast's ACSI score jumped from 54 last year to 59 this year. Not exactly a passing grade, but a 9% leap nonetheless.
"If tools and technology are one solution we're working on, the other solution is the human end," Germano says. "Slowly but surely, we're going to turn this ship."
-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston
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