CHICAGO - Comcast's unhappy customers finally have gotten through to the nation's largest cable television company.

Comcast Corp. said Tuesday that it would hire 5,500 additional customer-service workers in the United States and hundreds of new service technicians, as part of a broad plan to improve its poorly rated service operations. The company has been bashed nationwide by cable and Internet subscribers as unresponsive and rude.

CEO Brian Roberts told reporters that the customer backlash had served as a "rallying cry to rethink how we do business."

The cost to execute its "aggressive" customer service improvements will be on top of $300 million Comcast has invested in recent years in service upgrades, company officials said.

Roberts and cable division head Neil Smit disclosed the customer-service improvement plan on the first day of the cable industry's annual trade show, held this year at McCormick Place in Chicago. It comes two weeks after the government rejected Comcast's planned $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable Inc. - a rejection that analysts partly attributed to the customer backlash against Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index has rated Comcast near the bottom of its customer satisfaction list, with its Xfinity Internet service placing 234th out of 236 companies and its TV service rated No. 232.

The only company that rated lower on the customer satisfaction index was Time Warner Cable, whose Internet service rated last in customer satisfaction out of 236 companies and its television service rated 235th.

A fresh annual index will be released this month, and Comcast is not expected to boost its standings based on the customer gaffes over the last year: billing mistakes; service outages; difficulties canceling services; and rudely worded customer mailings.

Roberts said during a press briefing, "We can do better. That is what today is all about. People have to give us a chance."

Tuesday's briefing was held at an Apple-like, next-generation Xfinity store in Chicago's gentrifying Fremont area - the company bused reporters to it - and was attended by most of the company's top executives, including chief financial officer Michael Angelakis.

Some thought that Comcast's desire and incentive to improve its customer service would fade after the federal government rejected its Time Warner Cable bid. Smit tried to dismiss that notion in a question-and-answer session with reporters. "Deal or no deal, we are committed to doing this, because it's the right thing to do," he said.

As part of the service improvements, Comcast intends to implement a policy this year of immediately crediting a customer $20 for a missed technician appointment. Also, the company is going to launch a Tech Tracker by year's end, so customers can track the location and time of arrival of technicians on their smartphones and then rate the service they receive.

Comcast plans to open three call centers, in New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. More than 2,000 of the 5,500 new customer service hires will staff those centers. The call center reps will be hired incrementally over the next two to three years.

Charlie Herrin, who was appointed to head Comcast's customer experience improvements last year, said in his presentation Tuesday that 84,000 Comcast employees will be given hospitality training to emphasize courteous and professional interactions with customers. "Every one of our interactions has to be smoother and simpler," he said.

Roberts, Smit, and Herrin gave their presentation on the afternoon of the renamed annual cable conference, which launched on Tuesday morning in Chicago as INTX: The Internet & Television Expo in Chicago.

Michael Powell, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the industry's lobbying association, said in opening remarks that the industry's troubled reputation has to be improved or it could find itself on the wrong side of public policy debates.

In addition to the rejection of Comcast's proposed deal for Time Warner Cable, the industry lost a political battle in Washington over new Internet rules this year.

The government's opposition rippled through the industry as related deals involving Charter Communications Inc. and Greatland Communications Inc. also unraveled.

"I have a firm belief that words and messages don't work if you are not liked," Powell said, adding that the industry is "not delusional" about its reputation.

Roberts followed Powell onstage Tuesday morning and showed a film clip of an exploding house from the Furious 7 blockbuster movie. The explosion slammed the actor Vin Diesel's face into the window of a car.

"That pretty much sums it up," Roberts told the laughing crowd of several hundred who watched him in person and on two flanking big flat screens. "So we are moving on."

Comcast Service Improvements

Hire 5,500 customer service reps, 2,000 of them at three new call centers in New Mexico, Washington, and Arizona.

Automatically credit a customer $20 if service technician is late for appointment.

Triple its social media care team to serve customers quicker via social media networks.

Redesign each of its 500 U.S. Xfinity stores and equip them with latest technology.

Launch Tech Tracker for customers to track technician location via smartphones.

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INSIDE

Comcast launches Kids Zone to aid parents in selecting programs, and a voice device. Business, A15.

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