Most afternoons, the Internet in Sarah Chambers' office at iFractal L.L.C. in Center City crashes and leaves her cyber-stranded without e-mail or online communication with clients.
When it happened for the zillionth time a few days ago, Chambers tried something new, once her Web connection reappeared. She shot Comcast a curt public online message on the social-networking site Twitter:
"My Internet goes out every day at 3:30. Why would that be?"
Frank Eliason, a Comcast Corp. manager in Center City with the daunting assignment of monitoring the nation's blogosphere for venomous posts aimed at the company, answered right away: "That should not be. We should have that looked at. Send an e-mail with account info to We_Can_Help@cable.comcast.com.";
Under siege for customer-service woes detailed on Comcastmustdie.com and other blogs, the Philadelphia cable giant has gone on the offensive, trawling the Internet for Comcast chatter. Eliason's assignment is very specific: If someone has a Comcast problem and is talking about it online, he contacts that person and offers help.
If Eliason thinks it's an emergency that could spiral into unpleasantness, like an expletive-loaded blog bomb, he gets on the phone and cuts through the corporate red tape.
But a cautionary note: Eliason's quick action and kind words don't necessarily lead to a quick fix, as Chambers discovered.
Eliason's blog spotting is part public relations and part acknowledgment that the Internet is playing a broader role in defining company brands. Technology companies woke up to this fact after "Dell Hell" postings by blogger Jeff Jarvis in 2005.
Comcast executives say the company's customer-service problems deepened as it expanded through acquisitions and added millions of high-speed Internet and phone customers. The company, with $31 billion in annual revenue, has leaned too heavily on outsourcers for phone help and repairs, they say.
"Customer expectation in today's world is much higher than it was five years ago. People want what they want, and they want it now," said Rick Germano, Comcast's senior vice president for national customer operations.
"Dead accurate" was what Germano said of national consumer studies that place Comcast near the bottom of lists for customer satisfaction.
The company has to "materially and significantly" improve, he said, noting it could take several years. "We're playing catch-up."
On Twitter, where users write blurbs on what they're doing or thinking at the moment, a passing complaint can be an early warning signal to Comcast. The site, said Biz Stone, a Twitter cofounder, is the sort of forum that Comcast should monitor.
"If Comcast can get to those influencers, the complaints will not grow to a full blog post," he said. Eliason has posted about 600 messages, or "tweets," on Twitter.
Comcast is "waking up to the fact that a bad rap in the social-networking space could spread like crazy," said Shel Holtz, a public-relations consultant in the San Francisco area. "If consumers are talking to each other about your brand, you should participate in that conversation and have a good story to tell."
The story in this case is more like a horror flick on Comcast's FEARnet channel. Comcast has had a public-relations nightmare with Comcastmustdie.com, launched in October by Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield.
In another widely publicized incident in August, 76-year-old Mona Shaw of Virginia busted up a Comcast office with a hammer because her phone hadn't worked for six days.
Moreover, the company with 24 million pay-TV subscribers ranks near the bottom of customer satisfaction lists by leading consumer-research firm J.D. Power and other organizations.
Satellite and cable industries place among the nation's worst-performing sectors for customer satisfaction, said Claes G. Fornell, a business professor at the University of Michigan and director of the National Quality Research Center. Comcast ranks second from the bottom in the cable-satellite group in his American Satisfaction Index, he said.
"There are clearly people who are angry," said Frank Perazzini, director of telecommunications at J.D. Power & Associates. Comcast's customer satisfaction is "below average across the board. . . . There are a lot of issues to address."
In the February issue of Consumer Reports, Comcast ranked ninth in a summary table of 10 big telecom companies. It was sandwiched between Time Warner Cable, at No. 8, and last-place Charter Communications Inc.
Saying it will improve the dismal rankings, Comcast has hired 15,000 "customer-facing" employees in the last 15 months and opened or expanded almost a dozen customer call centers. One of the largest new centers is in Newark, Del., where the company is hiring 800 workers.
On a recent tour of Comcast's customer-service operations in New Castle, Del., and Newark, company managers talked about the various projects.
There's the so-called Grand Slam software, which slashes the time for a quick diagnostic evaluation on the phone to seven seconds. Without Grand Slam, a customer service rep could take several minutes to access all necessary information on the Comcast computer systems.
The company is cutting back on its use of outsourcers - which explains some of the hiring - and seeking to solve customer problems on the first call instead of the second, third, fourth or fifth.
"What drives customer dissatisfaction is repeat calls," said Vince Alonge, regional vice president of customer care, who was hired last year from Yahoo Inc.
Eliason's interaction can lead to a glowing online post from a thankful and surprised customer - just the sort of buzz Comcast needs.
"It started small, and then it snowballed," Eliason, 35, said. As word spread on the Internet that he was available, people sought him.
Eliason works on the fifth floor of the new Comcast Center and uses Internet search tools on Google and Technorati to find Comcast blog references. He began blog trawling as a part-time assignment in September. His unit grows to five employees this week, and there are plans to add two more employees after that. Most times, he said, he gets problems solved "through normal channels" in Comcast.
On Twitter, Eliason's first postings are about 6:30 in the morning and his last at 9 at night. His fingerprints are all over cyberspace.
Charles H. Green in West Orange, N.J., posted an item on his blog, Trustedadvisor.com, on March 21 unfavorably comparing Comcast to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. The issue involved his girlfriend, Judy Lutzy, who couldn't get her former husband's name off her Comcast account.
In a phone interview, Lutzy vacillated between exasperation over the problem and kind words for Eliason. "He was wonderful," she gushed. "He's trying to do what he can do." They spoke for about an hour. Problem solved.
As for the Internet problems at iFractal, part-owner Frank Roche speculated that the Internet gets overloaded, resulting in outages, when students return from school in the neighborhood south of Rittenhouse Square.
Chambers, also a part owner, said telling clients that she couldn't e-mail a project was like saying the "dog ate your homework." Her company produces short videos, posters, brochures, and interactive Web sites to disseminate information to managers and employees inside corporations.
Chambers, who sent her online query to Comcast on Monday, received a voice message from Comcast on Wednesday. She returned the call without reaching anyone, and then received another phone message Thursday.
By Friday, she had no resolution and no repair appointment. But she remained optimistic: "They seem to be really trying."