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Comcast's aim: Making you happy

The conference calls begin at 9 a.m. sharp each Monday on the 22d floor of the Comcast Center. There was Charlie Herrin, the head of customer experience in jeans and a blazer, at the table leading the call of about 30 executives and managers, seeking to ease customers' frustrations.

Tom Karinshak, senior vice president for customer service, stands before monitors in the National Resource Optimization Center, which show the company's performance on customer service.
Tom Karinshak, senior vice president for customer service, stands before monitors in the National Resource Optimization Center, which show the company's performance on customer service.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff photographer

The conference calls begin at 9 a.m. sharp each Monday on the 22d floor of the Comcast Center.

There was Charlie Herrin, the head of customer experience in jeans and a blazer, at the table leading the call of about 30 executives and managers, seeking to ease customers' frustrations.

This was the new base for a reimagined Comcast, one in which its millions of subscribers are happy and the company anticipates problems before they go viral.

First up last Monday was a discussion of Comcast bills. The company's cable system in Portland, Ore., had mailed out new streamlined ones as a beta test. Local officials in Portland seemed encouraged by the reception: There hadn't been a surge of calls to complain.

But there was another issue. Comcast was sending off-cycle bills to customers who had changed homes or apartments within company franchise areas, Julie Rohmer, executive director of customer experience on strategy, told the room.

"Some people were getting second bills even before the first bills were due," she said.

The conversation moved on to a stream of complaints about weak WiFi signals in homes. Comcast could place the self-install directions for the proper placement of WiFi routers on the shrink-wrap of the self-install kits so subscribers couldn't miss them, said Piers Lingle, a vice president on the customer experience team.

The idea hung out there for a moment, and was slated for more review.

"We say customer service should be our best product, so OK, let's treat it like a product," Herrin had said in an interview before the call. "Every touch point with the customer," he added, "is under review."

Big problems many times require big - or bold - solutions.

At Comcast, the bold solution to bad customer experiences began with appointing the head of product development, Herrin, to fix things.

An executive vice president in the cable division who is coming off a highly successful X1 set-top box project - Comcast says it's installing 30,000 X1 boxes a day - Herrin has taken charge of the daunting customer experience task with a $300 million budget.

Most of his team works together on Comcast Center's 22d floor. In an interview, Herrin pledged an "end-to-end rebuild" of the Comcast customer experience, but this is a process that could take years.

The task is huge.

In one of the latest dismal reports, the American Customer Satisfaction Index placed Comcast's Internet service 297th out of 301 companies for customer satisfaction in July. The index placed Comcast's TV service at 298th. The only companies with worse satisfaction ratings were Spirit Airlines, Mediacom Communications, and Time Warner Cable's TV service.

The Internet teems with stories of abused Xfinity customers and Comcast arrogance. And the cable giant has said before that it would fix its customer service woes and didn't.

Even customer service professionals say Comcast will have to make fundamental changes to its corporate culture to move the needle on customer satisfaction.

"They really have to think about how decisions were made in the past. That will be the hardest part: having open conversations about things," said Frank Eliason, a former Comcast employee who developed its first social media outreach on Twitter and who in 2012 published the book @Your Service about attracting customers with better service.

Steve Beck, managing director of the consulting firm cg42, said Comcast has "to address the signature frustrations of why customers are so upset. And these signature frustrations include nickel and diming, paying for services they don't want . . . and newer customers getting better deals than existing loyal customers."

In a study last year, Beck's firm found that 53 percent of subscribers to big cable companies would leave their current provider if they had an option.

David VanAmburg, director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, said: "It's puzzling to us who have been looking at customer service for the last 20 years why these companies can't seem to wrap their collective minds around a good business model for customer service."

VanAmburg believes the focus at Comcast should be "on baby steps. You are not going to do everything in a day or even a year."

Eliminate 'pain points'

Comcast, the nation's largest cable company and Internet provider, spends 8 percent to 8.5 percent of its cable division budget on customer service - including its 50 call centers.

That's a hefty expense but also one that Comcast has been disciplined about keeping at a consistent level for years even as it added millions of new high-speed Internet customers and WiFi to its network, boosting call center volumes.

In the second quarter of 2008, for example, Comcast spent $430 million on customer service - or 8.2 percent of its cable division operating expenses. In this year's second quarter, Comcast spent $575 million on customer service, or 8.3 percent of total division expenses.

Tom Karinshak, senior vice president of customer service, has made Comcast call centers more efficient in recent years by standardizing the voice-response and ticketing systems. Comcast also has developed an internal software program, Einstein, to help call center employees quickly solve subscriber problems through logic trees.

Still, Comcast routes many calls to overseas centers when it can't handle the U.S. volume. As part of its plan to improve customer experiences, Comcast is now opening three call centers on the West Coast, in Arizona, New Mexico, and Washington. Overall, it is hiring 5,500 additional call center employees and technicians.

"I am always in the delicate position of saying, 'Thanks for all the work you have done in the last few years, but we still have a ways to go,' " Karinshak said of his call center employees. He spoke during an interview earlier this year.

Herrin, the customer experience czar, is taking a holistic view of Comcast's products, billing policies and operations. He would like subscribers to solve problems themselves or not have to endure them at all - eliminating the "pain points." That way, they won't have to dial the call centers.

As call volumes diminish, more calls will be answered in the United States, Herrin said.

Generally, the company would like its customer experience to be more like Amazon's than - Comcast's.

On a recent tour of the 22d floor, Herrin said that when he was developing products such as the cloud-based X1 set-top box, he kept everything secret.

Now as customer experience czar, he seeks to be open with employees and the public: Whiteboards throughout the 22d floor list time lines and goals.

He also took key staffers from his product-development team to the 22d floor, giving the customer experience team more cachet.

Among those staffers is Dana Wilson, a chemical engineer who worked for Rohm & Haas in its Spring House labs before joining Herrin in product-development strategy. Now a vice president for customer experience, she's revamping the "onboarding" - a.k.a. enrolling - process for new customers.

Earlier this year, Wilson recruited seven new customers in the Philadelphia area and tracked their actions with a GoPro camera as they attempted self-installs in their homes. Her goal, she said, is for a new subscriber to self-install service in 30 minutes or less.

CEO: A 'cultural shift'

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has called the customer experience changes inside Comcast "a mind shift, a cultural shift. . . . We've talked about it over a number of years."

Comcast expects to retrain all of its employees and executives - about 84,000 people, including the CEO - to look at "everything from the customer's, not the company's, perspective," Roberts told analysts during the company's second-quarter earnings call.

An analyst asked Roberts and other top executives whether the company would benefit financially from the extra millions spent on customer experience. Executives say the financial return will be happier customers and lower turnover.

Roberts concluded the earnings call in July with this observation: "This is going to take a long time to see some of the results, but we're going to stay the course."

Comcast customers can only hope.

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