When AOL executive and Comcast customer Ryan Block recently tried to cancel his internet service, he ended up in a near-yelling match with a customer service representative who spent 18 minutes trying to talk him out of it.
Rep: I’m just trying to figure out here what it is about Comcast service that you’re not liking.
Block: This phone call is actually a really amazing representative example of why I don’t want to stay with Comcast. Can you please cancel our service?
Rep: Okay, but I’m trying to help you.
Block: The way you can help me is by disconnecting my service.
Rep: But how is that helping you? How is that helping you? Explain to me how that is helping you.
Block: Because that’s what I want.
Rep: Okay, so why is that what you want?
Block posted a recording of the call online, where it has been listened to more than 5 million times. During the ensuing media frenzy, The Verge put out a call and sought out current and former Comcast employees, hoping to shed light on the inner workings of the largest broadcasting and cable company in the country. More than 100 employees responded, including one who works in the same call center as the rep in Block’s recording.
These employees told us the same stories over and over again: customer service has been replaced by an obsession with sales, technicians are understaffed and tech support is poorly trained, and the massive company is hobbled by internal fragmentation.
The Verge will be publishing excerpts from these interviews over the next few weeks ahead of the company’s proposed merger with fellow cable behemoth Time Warner Cable. (If you work for Comcast and you’d like to contribute, email us at email@example.com.) This first installment focuses on Comcast’s relentless pursuit of ever-greater sales.
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Internet not working? Confusing charges on your bill? Moving, and need to cancel your service? It doesn’t matter why you’re calling Comcast — get ready for a sales pitch.
Dozens of current and former Comcast employees told The Verge they had to constantly push products, even if they worked in tech support, billing, and general customer service.
"The customer is calling in to tell you what’s wrong, and you’re looking for ways to sell them service."
Mark Pavlic was hired as a customer account executive at Comcast in October 2010 after graduating from a technical institute. He figured he’d be troubleshooting TV, phone, and internet service, but most of his month-long training focused on sales. Every day when he walked into the call center, he’d see a whiteboard with employee names and their RGUs, or revenue generating units.
"I didn’t know that I was going to be selling things," he says. "The customer is calling in to tell you what’s wrong, and you’re looking for ways to sell them service."
The longer he was there, the more the company emphasized sales. "They pushed it as a way for us to earn more money," he says. "[But] if you were low on sales, you got put on probation." He quit after 10 months.
Pavlic’s call center in Pittsburgh is operated by Comcast, but the company also uses third-party and international call centers. Exact training and incentive structures vary by call center, and on whether employees are working on business services or residential services. Our interviews revealed a common thread across facilities: what often started out as a carrot — bonuses for frontline employees who made sales — turned into a stick, as employees who failed to pitch hard enough or meet their quotas were chastised, or worse.
Brian Van Horn, a billing specialist who worked at Comcast for 10 years, says the sales pitch gradually got more aggressive. "They were starting off with, ‘just ask," he says. "Then instead of ‘just ask,’ it was ‘just ask again,’ then ‘engage the customer in a conversation,’ then ‘overcome their objections.’" He was even pressured to pitch new services to a customer who was 55 days late on her bill, he says.
He was even pressured to pitch new services to a customer who was 55 days late on her bill
Van Horn says he "couldn’t sell water to a man dying of thirst in the desert," but his other metrics were good: he had high scores on "first call resolution," meaning that customers’ issues were often fixed in a single call, as well as "attaboys," where a customer asked to speak to a supervisor in order to compliment him for a job well done. But after repeated reprimands for low sales, Van Horn was fired.
Comcast says it is not company policy to punish reps for having low sales. "Our customer service philosophy is to be there for our customers and to make them happy and provide solutions to their needs," Tom Karinshak, Comcast’s senior vice president of customer experience, tells The Verge. "I don’t want any of our employees to feel that pressure to go through and sell…or feel like they’re going to get fired. That’s not good for us."
At the same time, Karinshak says that Comcast may need to "do some retraining" to reinforce those values. COO Dave Watson also issued a memo acknowledging internal policies may be encouraging employees to overlook "the balance between selling and listening." You can judge for yourself.
The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. The Verge independently verified that all sources currently work, or have previously worked, in a Comcast call center.
That now-famous [Block] call with the retention specialist is something I have seen in my old job hundreds of times. We locked down the ability for most customer service reps to disconnect accounts. We queue the calls for customers looking to disconnect to a retention team who are authorized to give more deeply discounted products to keep subscribers.
The name of the game is RGUs (revenue generating units). Even if the subscriber disconnects cable, maybe we can keep them on internet or voice. A script pops up on the screen, and then another one comes up, then another one, every single one you’re eligible for. "Is it too expensive? You don’t use it? Maybe I can downgrade you to something if you’re only home once a week. Or maybe I can upgrade you. What if I gave you all the channels for a year and you’re still only playing $90?"
It’s not savvy in 2014 to do that — assume people are so stupid that if you rephrase the question in three ways maybe they’ll answer differently. That’s really the only approach they have.
-Billing systems manager, 2008-2013, Georgia
"[The rep who spoke to Block] was placed on leave, pending investigation. His desk is still set up, which means he still works for us. Yes, he is a good salesperson."
[The rep who spoke to Block] was placed on leave, pending investigation. His desk is still set up, which means he still works for us. Yes, he is a good salesperson. I mean if you don’t have stellar numbers, you get fired. One of the issues with [the recorded call] is he actually did his job, just went WAY overboard with it. According to our retention handbook, he did not violate any of the things that can end your employment.
-Retention supervisor, 2012-present, Colorado
Eighty percent [of our training] was sales training. From time to time they would pull us from the phones for in-depth training on how to sell. [They told us] to say how much better Comcast is than the rest of the competition. "Why would anyone leave us?"
I would be frustrated because I would tell them we need customer service training as much as sales training, but it came from Philly [Comcast’s headquarters] so that’s what we had to deal with. [Managers] would listen to the call, even have secret shoppers call in. If we didn’t ask [customers] to get more products we would be spoken to. Eventually, selling became part of tech support and billing.
There would be such frustration from tech support. We would tell our supervisors that our customers are upset. Why would you sell them something? They would say, ‘If the customer is upset, then don’t attempt to sell.’ That was fine, but sales became more and more of what we were graded on. A lot of reps were so worried because the management put too much stress on sales. And tech support reps just aren’t sales oriented.
-Tech support, 2003-2013, California
There were incentives for making sales. The last months that I worked there, there was a constant push to ensure that at the end of every call you make an offer for a new service, or premium channel, or whatever.
I think there was a honest emphasis on customer service. The rule of thumb was "first call resolution" which translates to: "Make sure the customer doesn’t have to call again to fix the problem." In practice, it was difficult to achieve. I believe we didn’t have enough tools to guarantee first call resolution. There was almost no offline time to work. So you didn’t have time to do follow-up checks on their services, or whether the technician arrived at the scheduled appointment, etc.
-Customer service, 2008-2009, Mexico
"A 90-year-old woman called to add phone to her account and my boss told me afterwards, 'she was probably senile… but you should have upgraded her cable.'"
We were coached on three things mainly: explaining their self-service options, showing empathy, and the number one was pitching products and services. We were coached that, regardless of [the customer] wanting to cancel, or being declined after a pitch, we had to offer at least three rebuttals.
-Video repair, April -July 2014, Illinois
I just had coaching today and it was brought up that I’m not using the new opening. Now when we open a call, we are supposed to push for an account number so that we have them authenticated on the call to make changes, and then offer something on every call. Tech support does not have to authenticate for the call to assist in troubleshooting, so it’s squarely to be able to make sure we can push a sale. I got docked pretty hard for that on my quality, so it’s now definitely being pushed harder than it has been in the past.
-Tech support, 2013-present, Utah
Sometimes if I knew the customer was scared of their technology, I would spend 40 minutes or longer on the phone trying to help them, because it’s good customer service. A good average call time is between 360 and 480 seconds. Imagine how much a 40 minute call affects your metrics. Your manager will sit there and listen to your call and pick it apart for things you should not have done.
We communicated using IM on the floor. Occasionally on a long call (or any call that was chosen to be monitored by a manager), I would get a pop up message asking me why I have been on the phone so long, or that the customer has two lines of business and why haven’t I pitched an offer to them.
-Customer service, 2010-2011, Pennsylvania
I was there for almost seven years. The last four years or so, everything went downhill. It all began with the "integration" of sales department into our customer service department. They told us we would never [have to] become sales representatives. [The sales department was] just there to help us grow. Well, that was a big fat lie. We slowly became sales. We were given quotas. We were at one point told if it’s not a sale, direct them to the 800 number.
-Customer service, 2007-2013, California
I remember thinking and asking my co-workers, ‘If the company has a sales department, why do we have to make two sales a day?’ One day I asked my manager about this. He said it’s revenue, but eventually they lowered the quota [to] one sale a day. It still was hard to keep up.
-Customer service (video), 2011-2013, New Jersey
The pay was great and everything else about the job was a nightmare. I remember when a 90-year-old woman called to add phone to her account and my boss told me afterwards, "She was probably senile… but you should have upgraded her cable. I don’t think you are going to be sitting in this seat for very long."
-Sales, 2011-2014, Massachusetts
"Most people live in permanent fear, checking their numbers after every call. I decided to quit before I shot myself in the head out of desperation."
Although we were the sales department, the calls were what they called "dirty." Every time you called Comcast, hit Spanish, then sales, you should hit one of us. But that wasn’t always the case; many times the calls were just randomly thrown to any agent regardless of what the customer chose, because at that precise moment who they asked for was not available. At least that’s what we were told, though it never seemed like that; more like everything was just done randomly without order.
Then comes Xfinity Home [security system]. We are to sell as many as we can, but there’s just not a market for it in the Spanish community. There really isn’t. But they keep pushing it to the point they’re just about to implement it as a multiplier. In other words, our commission will depend on it.
You can only fail one scorecard. Then you’re fired. Most people live in permanent fear, checking their numbers after every call. I decided to quit before I shot myself in the head out of desperation.
-Sales, February 2014 to July 2014, Florida
Lead photo by Michael Shane for The Verge.
Disclosure: Comcast Ventures is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge's parent company.