The recording of the “Comcast Rep from Hell” has now been listened to more than 5 million times, sparking a conversation about the largest player in the nation’s cable industry. That debate is a timely one: Comcast is in the process of acquiring the second-largest cable provider, Time Warner Cable, and both companies are plagued by notoriously 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 the existence of a new consolidated company — with a projected aggregate of 30 million subscribers — is in the public interest. The process could take months.
In the meantime, The Verge interviewed more than 100 Comcast employees in an effort to explain the company’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 We heard the same stories over and over again: customer service has been replaced by an obsession with sales, technicians are understaffed, tech support is poorly trained, and the telecommunications behemoth is hobbled by internal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 about Comcast’s pursuit of ever greater sales here. This second installment focuses on Comcast’s technicians and tech-support staff.
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If you have cable TV or internet, you’ve probably spent some time waiting for the cable guy. And waiting. And waiting.
Comcast, like most cable companies, schedules appointments in time frames instead of set times to allow technicians some flexibility. But Comcast technicians told The Verge that they’re frequently booked solid throughout the day, making it easy to fall behind. On busy days, employees said, a dispatcher will even overbook technicians, figuring at least one appointment will cancel.
If technicians aren’t able to quickly diagnose and resolve a problem, they may kick the can down the road by scheduling yet another appointment, or "truck roll." To keep up with their stacked schedules, technicians are tempted to cut corners, resulting in shoddy work, customer complaints, and repeated visits. Third-party technicians contracted by Comcast are typically paid by the job, incentivizing them to cram as many visits into a day as possible.
On busy days, a dispatcher will even overbook technicians, figuring at least one appointment will cancel
Kesha Phillips of Atlanta, GA hasn’t had great luck with Comcast. When a technician came to her home to hook up her cable, he told her that her house wasn’t properly wired. Two more technicians were scheduled: one to do pre-wiring, another to install cable boxes. When the pre-wiring technician showed up, he said he would do the installation as well and told Phillips to cancel her third appointment. As soon as she did, he told her he had to leave for another job and drove away, leaving the installation undone.
Comcast also mixed up Phillips’ address, erroneously told her an appointment had been rescheduled when it hadn’t, and incorrectly charged her $90 for installation fees. She finally got the fees waived, and her internet and TV connected, after emailing "email@example.com," the company’s semi-secret emergency escalations line. "This has, by far, been the craziest experience I’ve had with anyone’s customer service in my life," she tells The Verge.
Benny Druin of North Miami Beach, Florida, is another victim of the triple-technician Comcast screwup. The first technician was foiled by branches that blocked the path of the cable. The second technician was scheduled to come first thing in the morning, but when he finally showed up at 6:45PM, it turned out he wasn’t trained to do the job needed. The third technician was a contractor who did not know how to do the job either; he stepped outside to call his supervisor and never came back. "After three days of not going to work and over eight hours on the phone … I am still without Comcast service in my house," Druin says.
Back at the call center, tech-support reps say they get anywhere from three days to eight weeks of training, depending on when they started, where they work, and whether they’re supporting business or residential services. "They don’t know what to look for," says Anthony Horrocks, who worked in tech support and collections from 2009 to 2013. "It’s easier to say, ‘We’ll send a tech out on Tuesday.’"
"After three days of not going to work and over eight hours on the phone… I am still without Comcast service in my house."
When that happens, the customer may end up just calling tech-support back. "I’d have customers who just recently had their service installed," recalls Scott Rice, who worked for Comcast through the subcontractor Support.com from November of 2013 to May of 2014. "No sooner did the install tech leave [than] their internet wouldn’t work. They [would] call us five minutes after an install."
Comcast says technicians are on time for their appointments 97 percent of the time, according to internal metrics, and "there is no double booking" of appointments. The company says new-hire technicians receive seven weeks of training and new-hire tech support and repair agents get six weeks.
"Our primary mission for any of our technicians is to respect our customers’ time; to be there to help our customers get the most out of our products and services," says Tom Karinshak, Comcast’s senior vice president of customer experience. "Our technicians do a really good job of giving our customer choice and control."
The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. The Verge independently verified that all sources currently work, or have previously worked, for Comcast or a Comcast contractor.
We had five weeks of classroom training, and I kid you not, 4 ½ of those weeks were on products and services and order entry. We didn’t actually learn about the troubleshooting aspect until we had two days left in training. Keep in mind, this is the repair department.
-Video repair, April–July 2014, Illinois
A lot of [tech-support reps] just don’t fully understand how the system works and don’t know ways to troubleshoot properly. I think a lot of them just go off the flowchart script. They don’t know the ins and outs of actually fixing things.
It’s pretty decent equipment, but … it just gets recycled so many times. A lot of the guys at the warehouse would turn in a defective modem and then see it again two days later, supposedly repaired. But you look at it and you know it’s broken.
-Dispatcher, 1999–2013, Tennessee
"A lot of the guys at the warehouse would turn in a defective modem and then see it again two days later, supposedly repaired."
Let’s say I have a trouble call. You don’t know what you’re going to run into — I could have to replace the line from the pole to the house. Right off the bat, I’m pretty much behind the eight ball. Now I’m running late. Supposedly we’re supposed to have an hour for each customer, but I have to drive to get there.
You can try to get stuff moved, sometimes move your next job, sometimes take it to somebody else. You have to jump through five hoops for them to move a job. It’s a couple times a week now that we don’t make it [to at least one job].
My whole theory is, they just throw shit at the wall. They think a customer might cancel, or you might have an easy job. When we had lots of snow, they still had the quota really high. We couldn’t get to the pole, we couldn’t get to [the customer’s house]. What they need to do is, start with the quota low. You can always raise it higher. But they don’t do that. Instead, you’re inconveniencing all these customers.
-CommTech 3, 2007–present, New Jersey
They schedule the jobs expecting that one of your jobs will cancel. I usually run over somewhere and have to make up the time at another job. You have to start trimming corners to make up that time you lost. It’s gotten worse lately because of the extra stuff they’re making us do, and they haven’t given us any extra time.
-CommTech 3, 2008–present, Florida
"Frankly, a lot of those guys are shady ... and I would never let them in my house."
Comcast implemented two-hour windows in the central Pennsylvania region around 2008. Prior to this, Comcast would give techs several jobs all scheduled in the same four- to five-hour time frame. The tech might elect to do two jobs consecutively because they were on the same block, or they might choose to do easy jobs first so if they got tied up on a difficult job, they wouldn't be late for everyone. It gave the techs the ability to be as efficient as possible.
When Comcast first implemented two-hour windows, there were only easy trouble calls scheduled in those short time frames— picking up equipment, swapping a bad box, replacing a remote. If the tech got done early, they would pick up another job or help other techs get their work completed.
After a while, though, Comcast got sloppy and started scheduling impossible tasks in a two-hour window. They often scheduled multiple jobs in the same window. They would only give you 45 minutes to install a triple play (voice / internet / tv), but those jobs can be complicated and can take up to four hours.
This means the tech is late for every job; often hours late. I personally complained about this to my regional supervisor and was told that Comcast knows that with this scheduling scheme, there will be days when it is impossible to get all your work done in a timely manner, but many jobs take less time to complete than two hours, so it should generally average out. In other words, Comcast knows techs can't possibly do the scheduled work on a regular basis, but that's okay as long as it "averages out."
Comcast often brings in contractors when the in-house techs can't cover the workload. Contractors make money per job and don't really care if anything works or not. Frankly, a lot of those guys are shady as fuck and I would never let them in my house. I tell everyone — when you make an appointment, specify "Comcast employees only."
-CommTech 4, 2005–2014, Pennsylvania
"They don’t want to pay benefits or pensions anymore so they contract out the labor."
We were paid per unit and a base [fee]. So if I installed three products, it would be a base of around $18, plus each unit, about $2.85. So, four converter boxes would be $18 + $2.85 × 4. It didn’t matter how many phone lines were being installed or the time it takes to do it. I never could understand when I was working in-house why we had so many contractors until I was on the outside looking in. It’s obvious the ridiculous profit [Comcast] makes from it.
We still had service on install (SOI) metrics [to ensure the service was working] and repeat rate metrics [to measure how many customers had to call back]. Both were [supposed] to be below 9 percent. There really was no punishment. I saw some horrible techs with 50 percent. Last month, mine was at 2.3 percent.
Instead of Comcast sending an in-house tech for the re-work [a repeat job], they would give it back to the contracting company I worked for and I was responsible for fixing it. When you have 10 or 11 jobs, it makes it nearly impossible. Toward the end, I didn’t really care [that] I had three repeats I never showed up for, because after my 7AM-9PM day, I wasn’t about to go back out to three more jobs.
As far as what they could do to make things easier and [more] pleasant for the customer, they need to hire in-house. A lot more in-house. The problem is with the profit margin: they don’t want to pay benefits or pensions anymore so they contract out the labor.
-In-house and then contract technician, 2010–2014, Massachusetts
"It’s damn ridiculous that a tech calls a customer’s home phone number when the service call is for the home phone not working."
One of the things that we are graded on as technicians is our missed time frames. You’re routed with 9 to 12 calls per day, and if you take into consideration travel time, we have anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes to repair a problem. It is very tight. And if it takes longer to repair a problem, then it’s frowned upon because we spent too much time.
If we’re running behind… we send an email to a traffic controller who manually assigns repair jobs. Sometimes they will [reschedule the job], sometimes they won’t. It depends on the amount of workload they have; it depends on their mood.
If we can’t find out what’s wrong, we’re encouraged by management to close it out in such a manner that it will charge a customer-service fee… so they’ll learn to live with it or they’ll switch to someone else.
One gentleman had a total of 15 technicians go to his home. I got a phone call from my supervisor telling me, "This guy’s calling back in, there’s already been a lot of people there. Whatever you do, don’t give [him] my phone number."
Personally, I keep working. I’ve been to a call for six hours. I stick my nose on it and I don’t give up until I find out what the problem is. I just have late appointments for the rest of the day.
-Corporate CommTech 3, 2010–present, Georgia
"They schedule the jobs expecting that one of your jobs will cancel."
We have a $20 credit [we can offer to customers] when a tech is late or doesn’t show. We are only supposed to give this credit if a customer requests it. We were giving so many of these credits out last year that now [only] dispatch is [authorized] to apply these credits.
We had some of our supervisors sit in with dispatch in Chattanooga to see how they work. One supervisor told me there was a group in dispatch who shuffled appointments all day. They would do this without notifying the customer. If a tech is going to be late, from what I see, most of the time the customer is not notified.
The main reason [technicians] miss appointments is because the tech called the wrong number. Techs are supposed to call before coming to make sure someone is at the residence. It’s damn ridiculous that a tech calls a customer’s home phone number when the service call is for the home phone not working. We get customers all the time saying the tech didn’t call, and now their appointment has been canceled as a result. We have no way of verifying what number the tech called.
There was an update to our systems earlier this year which now doesn’t allow us to change callback numbers on service calls. So say you want the tech to call 222-222-4444 before they come. Then you call back and say, Can they call 222-333-9999 instead? We are unable to make that change. And telling the customer you don’t have the ability to change the callback number sounds ridiculous.
-Tech support, 2006–present, Tennessee
When I started, you had to have a technical background. I’ve got two degrees. When I started as a tier-one agent, I had a 100 percent resolution rate. People would ask for me by name. I’ve had Mr. Roberts [Brian Roberts, Comcast’s CEO] himself escalate stuff down to me.
When they [hired] Jeff Cooper [Comcast’s director of customer care for business customers], he wanted to make all the agents a one-stop shop. Technical abilities… anything like that became null and void.
They tried to get us to upsell. I nipped that one in the bud right off the get-go. I’m not here to do sales.
-Business services and metro Ethernet support, 2007–present, Colorado
"We don’t have the manpower to handle the problems that we’re creating ourselves."
If I don’t have the tools to fix [a customer issue] I’ll submit a ticket. There’s lot of agents who submit [support] tickets rather than trying to fix it… they just don’t know how, so they submit a ticket.
If a customer has an On Demand problem, a lot of our "fixes," per se, are to open up a ticket. The clincher on that ticket is that if we submit an On Demand ticket, those never get worked, ever. We’re telling the customer, okay, this is going to be fixed in 72 hours when really it’s not. We don’t even look at those.
If it starts working, the customer thinks that we fixed it. But I’d say 9 times out of 10, they call back and we end up having to schedule an appointment, because usually if it’s an On Demand problem, they have some kind of signal issue. Rather than scheduling an appointment, [Comcast] wants us to submit a ticket and give the customer false hope that we’re fixing it when we’re not. There’s too many [On Demand tickets] and there’s more pressing things to Comcast, like a customer’s phone service or a billing problem. We don’t have the manpower to handle the problems that we’re creating ourselves.
They used to talk about "moments of misery." If a customer has a bad time, they used to call it a moment of misery. They don’t use that term anymore because we don’t really care. If people are miserable, too bad, so sad.
-Virtual tech support in repair, 2006–present, Washington
Lead photo by Michael Shane. Russell Brandom contributed reporting.
Disclosure: Comcast Ventures is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge's parent company.