Keeping up with the Comcast call-center fiasco

I’ve been intending for a while to write about the Comcast call-center fiasco, but it’s hard to keep up: The story just gets weirder and weirder.

Following the now-viral recording of the telephone call in which a customer service representative essentially fought with tech journalist Ryan Block over Block’s effort to cancel his service, and disclosures by former employees that the call was hardly atypical, the website Consumerist last month published an internal Comcast memorandum urging more respect for the customers, but also praising “retention professionals” who – this is where the language gets Orwellian – “make it easy for customers to choose to stay with Comcast.”

Then came the story of Tim Davis, who was promised a free visit from a technician for problems with his system, and was then charged $182 for the services, a charge from which Comcast adamantly refused to back off until Davis played recordings he had made of the earlier calls in which Comcast had made the promise. Even at that point, a Comcast employee said the only reason Davis was getting the refund was that he had recorded the earlier conversation.

Now it turns out that representatives at the Comcast call center – that is, the place you contact for technical support – are actually trained to try to sell you additional products and services even as they help you through whatever your technical problem is.

According to internal Comcast documents obtained by the Verge and republished by Ars Technica, the customer service representatives are trained in an “S4” strategy – the abbreviation reminding them to “Start, Solve, Sell and Summarize.” The representative’s task, once the underlying problem is resolved, is to “transition” to a relevant offer.

As Ars Technica summarizes the plan, trouble calls should “play out like an elaborately choreographed dance, with the Comcast agent leading the customer through a series of steps designed to both fix the customer’s problems and extract additional revenue out of them.”

It seems unlikely that Comcast is the only company whose workers get tripped up by similar strategies. And there is little doubt that high turnover rates among call-center employees make it difficult to foster the sort of atmosphere in which such traditional corporate mantras as “turn customers into clients” can really take hold.

The automation of customer service is likely to make the problem worse, not better. (The other day I suffered through an exhausting knock-down, drag-out match with the cheery computer voice at a leading men’s clothier, in my effort to check on whether my suit was ready.) But just now it is Comcast that is in the news, and Comcast that must fix the problems to avoid damaging its brand.

In the meanwhile, for those of you who are served by Comcast and are now reluctant to contact the call center, don’t worry. The reps are trained not to try to sell you anything if you volunteer that you don’t want them to, or if you sound “irate” at the end of the call, or if your account is 45 days or more past due.

Just yell a lot or don’t pay your bills, and they'll leave you alone.

Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a law professor at Yale University.