The now-infamous “Comcast Rep from Hell” recording recently sparked a conversation about the largest player in the cable industry, and it’s a timely one: Comcast is in the process of acquiring the second-largest cable provider, Time Warner Cable. Both companies are plagued by low customer-satisfaction ratings.
Comcast and Time Warner have agreed on a price, but the deal isn’t done. The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice must decide whether a new consolidated company — with an aggregate 30 million subscribers — is in the public interest. The review process will take months.
In the meantime, The Verge interviewed more than 150 current and former employees in an effort to understand Comcast’s lousy reputation. We heard the same stories over and over again: customer service has been replaced by an obsession with sales; technicians are understaffed while tech support is poorly trained; and the company is hobbled by internal fragmentation.
The Verge will be publishing excerpts from these interviews over the next few weeks as part of our Comcast Confessions series. (If you work for Comcast and you’d like to contribute, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Read part one here and two here.
This installment is about how Comcast’s splintered organizational structure undermines efforts to improve customer service.
Comcast’s cable company has 83,000 employees and 22 million subscribers. It brings in more than $64 billion in revenue a year. Its headquarters are in Philadelphia but its roots are in Tupelo, Mississippi. It has a presence in around 80 markets, including eight of the top 10 and 19 of the top 25.
It’s a big company.
Comcast country isn’t so much a nation-state as it is a federation of fiefdoms. Like other major players in the cable industry, Comcast grew by rolling up smaller (and sometimes larger) systems: E.W. Scripps in 1995, AT&T Broadband in 2001, and Adelphia Communications in 2005, among others.
After acquiring these companies, Comcast often left local infrastructure in place, including computer systems and management, which provided short-term continuity. However, this practice — coupled with other factors — fostered an organization with systemic problems and led to notoriously bad customer service.
Comcast frequently experiments with internal organization (in fact, it experiments a lot with everything — "‘C’ is for change" is a popular internal slogan). The company once had five national divisions; then it dropped to four, and now three: Northeast, Central, and West. Each reorganization was a radical shift. "The Houston area at one point reported to Boston. Then they were reporting to Atlanta. When I left, they were reporting to Denver," says an engineer who worked for Comcast from 2000 to 2011.
Comcast country isn’t so much a nation-state as it is a federation of fiefdoms
Every division had a unique management structure, as does each region, says an engineer who worked for Comcast in Pennsylvania until 2013. Initiatives that come down from the top are interpreted differently at the lower levels, where regions and divisions compete for resources. "They might as well be different companies," says a former employee who worked in human resources in the mid-2000s.
Comcast customers in different parts of the country are subject to different prices and different rules, often seemingly arbitrarily, employees told The Verge. Rate codes to enable services like HBO vary around the country, which can lead call-center reps to make mistakes when dealing with multiple regions. For example, in one market, a technician can’t be scheduled if the customer is behind on payments, while in others, they can be scheduled right up until the account is disconnected. "Even basic account management is different between areas," says one billing, internet, and TV-repair employee in Tennessee.
Promotional and regular pricing also differs by market, depending on what channels Comcast has decided to provide and how competitive it deems the area to be. As of this writing (Comcast constantly switches up its promotional pricing), the cheapest deal available online for Portland, Oregon was $79.99 a month for the first 12 months with a two-year agreement. That will get you 140-plus channels, 25 mbps speeds, phone, and a $100 pre-paid Visa card. Meanwhile, the cheapest deal available online for Knoxville, Tennessee, was $99.99 a month for all 24 months with a two-year agreement, which gets you 140-plus channels, 50 mbps speeds, phone, and a $100 Visa pre-paid card.
"It’s really hard to make a customer interface that works with all the variations that exist [because] prices are so different from area to area," says a former billing systems manager who worked at Comcast from 2008 to 2013.
The situation is compounded by Comcast’s heavy reliance on contractors in the US and overseas for everything from billing software to customer service to field technicians. One technician in Illinois claimed in-house techs in his area are outnumbered by contractors 10 to one, while a virtual account representative who works for a Washington call center says they were told contractors are taking a whopping 40 percent of their calls. Comcast says it relies on contractors to supplement seasonal needs, like when fall semester starts and students nationwide call in to request cable service. Contractors are judged by different performance metrics, because they work for different companies, and quality control is especially difficult with Comcast’s international call centers.
"The Houston area at one point reported to Boston. Then they were reporting to Atlanta. When I left, they were reporting to Denver."
Comcast’s internal inconsistency causes frustration for frontline employees and customers. Frank Eliason, who worked at Comcast from 2007 to 2010, ultimately as senior director in national customer operations, says "leaders often took very different approaches, creating very divergent customer or employee experiences. Comcast is very entrepreneurial internally. This has many benefits including the technological innovations...[but] this spirit makes it difficult to implement structural changes that centralize parts of the business."
Comcast knows it has a problem with coordinating all its moving parts. D’Arcy Rudnay, Comcast’s chief communications officer, says the breaking point came in 2011. "Everything was completely different geographically," she says. "It became impossible to deliver the customer experience that we wanted to."
That was around the time Neil Smit took over as president of the cable operations and decided to streamline things, she says. Executives started talking about "OneComcast," an effort that successfully produced companywide tools like Einstein, which combines a number of functions for billing, troubleshooting, and product information into one screen. Einstein is being rolled out gradually to customer service reps, which Comcast says will standardize some of the historically fragmented policies. Meanwhile, the company’s general inquiry call centers were recast as "Centers of Excellence" that dealt with single, specific issues such as billing, repair, sales, or services for Spanish-speaking customers. Rudnay says the OneComcast initiative is still underway. "We’re only in the first, second, or third inning of this," she says. "There are so many pieces of the infrastructure that need to be fixed."
Some employees feel that the transition to Centers of Excellence hasn’t been easy. One employee who worked in Utah as a tech-support specialist from 2009 to 2013 found himself suddenly working in collections. "My training for collections was a total of three days," he says. Furthermore, Comcast hired a third-party contractor but gave them limited access to billing systems, which led to miscommunication and errors. "It was a very horrible experience for the customers," he says.
Still other employees told The Verge that the OneComcast effort seems to have lost steam. Monthly news blasts about OneComcast stopped in December of 2013, a field technician who works in Michigan says. "I honestly haven't heard anyone in senior leadership discuss OneComcast for quite some time," says a tech-support rep who works in the Boston area.
"It was a very horrible experience for the customers."
Lack of standardization, and the bumpy process of fixing the situation, poses serious difficulties as Comcast moves to buy Time Warner Cable. The deal also involves swapping some customers with Charter, the nation’s third-largest cable provider, which means Comcast will be sloughing off 2.5 million existing customers and absorbing nearly 10 million new ones. The new combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable would have a total of 30 million subscribers.
Comcast has promised the Federal Communications Commission that it will radically improve the service these customers are getting. But given the state of Comcast’s customer service and internal organization, not to mention Time Warner Cable’s equally abominable customer service, customers have reasons to be leery.
Comcast is prevented by antitrust laws from beginning its integration with Time Warner Cable until the deal is approved, but the two companies have had more than 40 planning meetings already. Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus says talks are going very well. Details are thin, however, and for the time being Comcast is busy untangling its own wires.
"The challenge is that we are an enormous company," says Rudnay. "It’s like turning around this huge ship."
Lead photo by Michael Shane. Russell Brandom contributed reporting. Chaim Gartenberg contributed research.
Disclosure: Comcast Ventures is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge's parent company.
When I started, they had just recently taken over Scripps Howard Cable. It was still a new transition, not quite the giant behemoth that it is now. It was more of a close-knit kind of operation.
I kind of think they're just too big. It's just a giant monster and it's impossible to properly manage that many customers, that many employees. It's kind of hard to pin down why it's so bad. [After] I left, they overcharged me by about $500 and it took me about two months to sort it out. I thought, I should have known this was coming, and now I know exactly how those people feel.
Honestly, more local tech support would be an answer, to try to get some of that stuff straightened out. But again, that's probably not feasible because everything's regionalized now. I'm not really sure there is a way they can improve. They've gotten to a point where they're so big, that's just how it is. Especially if they want to take over Time Warner, which is just a nightmare to even think about.
— Dispatcher, 1999-2013, Tennessee
"Each market is individualized." "Comcast is so compartmentalized." "We need a one-system-fits-all kind of deal."
I worked under [AT&T Broadband] for about a year before they were purchased by Comcast in early 2003.
Under AT&T Broadband, they treated all their services the same: cable, TV, high speed internet, and they were just starting to do telephone over the cable. AT&T Broadband saw themselves as a service provider. Prices were the same if you bought multiple services.
But when Comcast came in… [their philosophy was] "we’re a cable TV company, everything else is ancillary to cable TV." They started penalizing customers who didn’t have cable television. They wanted every customer to have cable television. They basically bumped charges for the internet $5 for non-cable television customers.
— CommTech 2, 2002-2004, Minnesota
[The office I worked in was] AT&T, and before that it was TCI, and before that they had merged a lot of smaller systems together — mom and pop systems rolled up to become conglomerates. Being a Comcast entity was relatively recent. They had only been Comcast for a few years.
There were interesting intercompany rivalries, and politicking and so forth, even more than I had seen in other places. Somehow we ended up in the New England division, and the perception was "the New England people think they know more than us." There was also Pittsburgh versus Philly a little bit.
It did seem to me that the various regions are competing with each other to some degree. "Our region had this retention rate and that sales rate." Almost to the point where there didn’t seem to be much interregional or interdivisional cooperation.
I would guess it has to do with how the company was put together. The level where that kind of collaboration would exist would probably be the director and VP level. But they didn’t come up together. They came from TCI and AT&T and whatever else and now were part of Comcast. Their counterparts at other geographical regions came up through Adelphia. There’s not that sense of connectedness and continuity. Things vary so much by the geography and the region and how long they’ve been part of the company. They might as well be different companies.
— Human resources, mid-2000s, Pennsylvania
Before the "OneComcast" malarkey, practices between different regions were as different as night and day. Even the computer programs were different, with different options and appearances.
With the "OneComcast" initiative, they lumped geographic areas together and arbitrarily assigned rules regarding length of time customers must wait for a repairman, or how many days pass before the accounts drop into disconnect status if they're not paid. Of course, those geographic [areas] changed within a year and nothing remained stable. For example, what used to be the "big south" region included parts of Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, eastern Missouri, and Florida. Then it was changed to "central" region and added select parts of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.
"Practices are still vastly different between areas. It was a dance to remember what must be done for each."
Practices are still vastly different between areas. It was a dance to remember what must be done for each. In one state, repairmen cannot be scheduled at all if a customer is behind on the bill (even if they're only behind by two weeks), while in others we could schedule repairs right up until the account is disconnected. In some areas we could get in to add customer-owned modems and handle the call in five minutes, while in others we were forced to email or wait for a personal "chat."
Want to add a modem in half of the areas? With one program, it's as simple as putting in MAC address and model number; with the other program, employees aren't granted access at all.
Even basic account management is different between areas. Billing dates in Knoxville aren't the same as Memphis, or Nashville. What counts as a "chargeable repair" isn't the same for all areas. Packages have different names, as well as contain different content. Some areas will allow tickets to be filed if there are no technician openings for the next three days, putting the customer at waiting four or more days for the first available repair opening, while others have pushed that out to seven or ten days.
— billing / TV / internet repair, 2005-2014, Tennessee
During my first year, I reported to four different supervisors. They ranged from completely hands-off and "don't call me" to micromanaged hell, and their rules superseded company rules.
Geographical regions shift and change every year, or every couple of years if it's a big change. There is always a certain amount of ramp-up time in order to facilitate the changes. The only things that changed would be senior leadership level positions.
I’d like to say that leadership is all trained the same way, but we [all] know that's not true, or possible, so to speak.
— Technical supervisor, 2006 to 2013, Connecticut
The Houston area at one point reported to Boston. Then they were reporting to Atlanta. When I left, they were reporting to Denver.
— Engineer, 2000 to 2011, Michigan and Texas
Each market is individualized. They have their own rate codes, prices, promotions, and so forth. If I’m in Boston and I’m paying for a static IP—a fixed IP address that my device connects with to the internet every day — I could probably pay anywhere from $19.99 to $29.99 a month based on what market center I’m going to. If I’m over in Seattle, Washington, I might pay $4.95.
Excuse my French, but Comcast does things very half-assedly. They use four or five different billing systems. They hodgepodge ‘em, they bandaid fix ‘em. They have never really scrapped anything and started from scratch and said, "Everything is going to be done in here."
For as much money as they take and make… it would go to reason that if you’ve got a system that doesn’t work, or that not everyone has access to, or you can’t get something unified across the board…. fix it. They don’t want to do that. On average, I’m logging into 16, 20 different systems on a daily basis.
-Business services and metro Ethernet support, 2007–present, Colorado
We’re still regionalized. There are codes [that] go on cable boxes to make [them] work. Like, you can use an asterisk and semicolon to make HBO work — that kind of thing. The Tallahassee market may not [use] the same code they use in Philadelphia. Somebody overseas who is dealing with everyone in the United States — those codes they put on the box may not be the right codes. We need a one-system-fits-all kind of deal.
— Commtech 3, 2008 to present, Florida
Comcast is so compartmentalized. We all have different promotions. What you might be offered on the phone in repair is different than what you’re going to be offered by the person that’s knocking on your front door, and that’s different from what you’re going to be offered in the cable store.
We’ll have a customer who had a sales rep knock on their front door and offer them this service and tell them it’s going to be great, we’re going to give you a free installation. Then their bill comes and it has $100, $200 of installation charges. We don’t have the same promotion, so we can’t do it. There’s not really any way to fix it.
We can give credit, but they do not want us to give credit. We can give free HBO, Starz, and Showtime all day long. They want us to give away everything but credit.
We have people who are up in corporate who have never been on the phone with a customer, ever, and they're making decisions about what I should be doing on a call. It's a like a blind person telling you how to drive.
— Virtual tech support in repair, 2006–present, Washington
One division was very autonomous, they had a large engineering staff as well as more employee techs through the regions. One region had a smaller engineering staff handling basic tasks and one relied solely on national engineering for the work, so even to that point, they were very different.
There was no "standard" layout for division and regional staffing, it was up to who was running the division to make the call.
Some leaders were better at getting money from national to be able to divert it to maintenance, others weren't as good and their maintenance plans were quite a bit less ambitious. It seemed like it was always a struggle for money to properly maintain the infrastructure (referring to the fiber and cabling to your home and not really the network side, 90 percent of the problems in a customers home or area are related to this) and the coffers only really opened when a large project was pushing it.
"More than 50 percent of the time, the [system] hangs up on us."
When voice was launched, there was a large influx of money to get the systems ready to handle voice calls over the plant, everything met a certain standard, but then the ongoing maintenance money seemed like it didn't keep up with costs. It seemed like money always moved to the next shiny thing with less left around for ongoing maintenance.
Some areas are better than others, and with no real structure around divisional organization structure, they were almost like three different sub companies fed up through one "parent."
There was always a bit of contempt (maybe not the best word) between divisions and national just due to the fact that the divisions are much closer to the customer then national. There was always engineering communication between national and divisions, but once you get to maintenance or customer service its more of a "here are metrics to meet, send us reports on how you are doing" without any real guidance or ideas on how to drive down customer complaints.
— Engineer, 2001-2013, Pennsylvania
One of the biggest complaints among my peers is that outsourced agents can wreak so much havoc on accounts, leaving us to deal with the angry customers, with seemingly no consequences.
Agents flat out lie about appointments, billing rates, channel lineups, and much more. If a direct employee creates a mess on an account, there are ways to communicate internally and hope the issue is addressed. If the agent is outsourced, there are no apparent repercussions. The company appears to have no interest in re-evaluating its dependence on outsourcers. This is a large ingredient in the toxic environment for customer service at Comcast.
As the old guard retires or fades away, my hope is that new leadership will continue moving customer service in the right direction. Internally, we're being reminded that it's a "new day" at Comcast, and I'm even starting to believe it.
"Outsourced agents can wreak so much havoc on accounts, leaving us to deal with the angry customers."
Both "C is for change" and "OneComcast" are things I heard mostly in training class. If I could paraphrase the OneComcast idea, my understanding is that the company doesn't want you to blame the tech or previous agent for problems. "Take ownership," is something you hear and read frequently. Really it's just corporate spin. The [slogan] "C stands for change" effectively means that your job description is subject to change.
The company does experiment with different methods of customer service. Over time, agents have had more mixed assignments, i.e. billing, tech support. Recently, the company seems to be moving to a more silo approach where the roles are more clearly defined. It's complicated, and a hard problem to solve.
— Customer service, (video repair), 2013 to present, Alabama
Probably my biggest complaint as a support tech is that when we try to transfer a customer back into the Comcast [interactive voice response, or phone tree], we're met with all sorts of issues.
First, we have to look up which number to transfer them into (Comcast has so many divisions / regions, and many have specific call centers or service methods) and then we call that number, enter the customer's info sometimes, and then choose where they need to go.
More than 50 percent of the time, the [system] hangs up on us. We then have to start all over.
— remote support technician through Support.com, April 2014 to present, Colorado