We made a decision this week to exorcise a long-standing demon from my house- it’s time for us to leave the cesspool of a company that is Comcast Cable. Like many Comcast customers we’ve been frustrated for some time now by their rapidly rising costs, their perennially terrible customer service, and their heavy-handed tactics, such as the bundling of a landline telephone, useless and outdated for many, in order to “increase value” and complicated channel packages with an introductory period whose cost then skyrockets when that period is over. All this as the television entertainment industry as a whole moves to a more user-friendly model. Our experience is not uncommon, and it will not change for most consumers until either A) more companies like Verizon FIOS and Google Fiber grow large enough to threaten the monopolistic hold cable companies have or, the more likely but protracted evolution, B) live streaming video becomes a viable replacement for the archaic cable model. While both alternatives have grown significantly over the last decade, they fundamentally also compete against each other, and FiOS stopped its expansion in 2010 in favor of Verizon focusing on their Wireless service. While this competition and innovation is good for business, the practical reality is that for many consumers a viable alternative for their tv and internet needs does not yet exist.
Comcast’s terrible reputation is no over-inflated myth. According to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ASCI), the subscription television industry is perennially the worst for consumer satisfaction with a grade of 63 for the industry as a whole, and Comcast is one of the worst in its industry, hitting 54 in 2015 for the #2 spot. Time-Warner Cable, with whom Comcast aggressively attempted to merge in 2013-4, is the only company to score lower with 51, the worst of any company the index measures. In 2004 and 2007, Comcast scored lower than any company, including the IRS before hitting its all-time low of 54 in 2008, which they then tied last year. For comparison, DISH Network and DirecTV scored 13 and 14 points higher respectively than Comcast while FiOS led the industry with a score of 71.
So how can it come to be in a free market society that a company providing service to so many can routinely be graded one of the worse in the nation, and not be swept away by the tide of competition? The answer lies in the monopolistic hold cable companies have on any given region. In Rhode Island it’s Cox (who scored a 62, by the way), here in Massachusetts we have Comcast, across a portion of the South it’s Charter. And the reason for that monopoly is a simple one of hardware. Laying cable lines is expensive and intrusive and requires the cooperation of several parties on the infrastructural level. As regional contracts are negotiated, towns often pork-barrel the process, requiring that a company like Verizon pay for a local project (like a new gymnasium, for instance) for the right to bring their product to their residents. Not only does this process act as a deterrent on its own, Comcast (and other cable companies) wield significant power on local levels, pocketing the influence of elected officials to protect their hegemony.
I was fortunate enough to have FiOS when we lived in Milford for a couple years and the difference is tangible on many fronts. But FiOS is no saving grace and their buildout has been met with its own share of dissatisfactions. Firstly, after hyping the product as the new alternative for the nation’s cable and internet needs, the FiOS buildout stopped abruptly in 2010 as Verizon Wireless made steep gains. To compound this lack of accessibility frustration, in regions where the product is available, most notably New York City, the service is spotty and skips streets, buildings, and even floors seemingly without explanation, failing to live up to its 2008 promise to outfit the whole city with FiOS. In response to an audit from Mayor Di Blasio’s office and City Council meetings organized to address the issue, Verizon has explained that they’ve met their obligation by “passing” all buildings in the metropolis, meaning they’re theoretically close enough for the service to be hooked up at some point in the future. This is not the experience of the nearly 50,000 residents with outstanding service requests. In a notable gaffe here in the Bay State, FiOS ran a commercial a few years ago with hometown boy Donnie Wahlberg in Copley Square and Charlestown, using the iconic city as a backdrop for a product that is completely unavailable in said city. In addition, there has been significant speculation that the plans to halt the FiOS install came as the company signed partnership deals with Comcast and other cable companies, leading many to worry that we were back to square one, with competition again reduced to virtual monopoly in most areas.
In a situation like this one of the biggest concerns, and one of the two chief reasons for our personal departure from the service, is price-gauging. Without rival companies to force someone like Comcast into competitive pricing, service rates as well as additional hidden fees rise without restriction. It was when our monthly bill climbed up north of $200 that we decided to consider our other options. In January, my wife called Customer Service to attempt to lower our bill and after a rather lengthy interaction was told the new Triple Play package would do just that while providing us with faster internet. Thinking ourselves the victors, we gladly signed up for what amounted to about a $30 monthly reduction. Upon examination of our bill, though, we discovered we’d been duped into “verbally agreeing” to a two-year contract that balloons by roughly 40% in the second year. We then pursued each of their three avenues for assistance (in-person, online, and by phone) for aid and that’s where our story gets so much worse.
Looming as a larger problem than pricing issues is the company’s perennially abysmal customer service experience. In an industry evolving to a user-defined, a la carte model of entertainment and information, Comcast is desperately scraping to gain ground before their inevitable extinction. And yet somehow both ironic to that extinction and economically natural given their monopoly, they continue to get worse at customer relations. They regularly court and prioritize the acquisition of new clients while abusing their existing ones. With Comcast, the tactic of new customer offers, common across many industries, is taken to great lengths, creating a pricing gap between their new and loyal customers. This is compounded by the fact that Comcast actually does not have a customer service department. Instead, each representative at their phone bank is a salesperson, tasked with getting the customer to spend more money, not with resolving their issues. This article from International Business Times details the practice with testimony from former Comcast employees. The company abandons their unsatisfied consumers to an intentionally obtuse customer service process, designed to wear down a large percentage of complainers before ever arriving at a solution.
Their in-person option isn’t any better. As part of its attempted 2014 merger with Time Warner Cable, Comcast underwent a customer service internal review, implementing a lengthy list of bullshit improvements, not the least of which was an overhaul to their brick-and-mortar locations. Ever had the privilege of stepping into one of these new super-white hellholes? After a fruitless phone attempt, we recently visited our nearest location where a receptionist (I suppose that’s what she is) gave us a number and directed us to wait DMV-style in their sitting area where a 70” plasma spewed HSN three feet from our faces. We waited a half hour as one employee serviced all customers, while the receptionist and another seemingly useless employee remained unoccupied. When our turn arrived, the rep, whom we’ll call ComcastDenise, was polite enough but powerless to seek out other options or make any changes for us. “We just don’t have access to it from here,” she claimed and proceeded to give us a flabbergasting piece of advice: go home and call, pretending we knew nothing about the contract, and that they’d be able to help us where she could not. Seriously??
A few days later we made another attempt for aid, this time beginning online. Have you been to the disjointed mess that passes for Comcast’s website recently? Let’s begin with the problems in the “My Account” section, the most-visited section of the site, used for paying bills and checking account details. Technical problems with this section, such as an infinite sign-in loop that never goes through, extend back as far as 2011 (the earliest incidents I could find on complaint forums). Employees routinely explain that it is a “back-end” issue and they are working on it, but a permanent fix would only provide their customers with more information, making it easier to recognize that they’re being taken for a ride and thus it is not in the company’s interest. If you try to click through to the sections about pricing and packages the site will only allow the viewing of upgrades, hiding prices of lower packages or individual products by requiring address input. To research their actual prices one must visit a third-party site such as this one. Customers are able to shop and upgrade their services with ease but attempting to make other changes leaves the consumer in a quagmire of frustration.
So finally last week my wife made another attempt by phone, clearing her afternoon for the resilient and stubborn pursuit of answers. For an hour I listened to her frustrations from the other room, first at simply reaching a live human, then in a lengthy back-and-forth with a dismissive representative, and finally in attempts to escalate to a supervisor (which was never actually achieved). As mentioned above, all “customer service” reps are actually salespeople and once this particular rep discovered that there was no way to upsell our service his tone quickly changed. He acted as though my wife was wasting his time, regularly scoffing at her questions and attempting to convince her that our package, crammed with things we don’t want, was actually a great deal, especially since that same service would cost so much more one year later. When she brought up the new user service rates he repeatedly denied their existence. When she requested to escalate to a supervisor he initially refused to connect her saying “there’s nothing else he’ll be able to tell you”. He then left her on hold for several minutes, I’m sure hoping that she’d hang up, and then finally offered a supervisor callback, which could take anywhere from 2 to 24 hours. Many times during this conversation my wife, who works in sales, brought up the concept of loyal customer patronage, of rewarding rather than penalizing their “valued Comcast customers”, remarking that we’d like to stay with the company if only they’d work with us on finding the right product. The rep simply reacted with disdain.
As I mentioned at the outset, our Comcast experience is not an uncommon one. Comcastmustdie.com and the Comcast subreddit have long displayed the widespread frustrations with the company’s service and tactics. A call between Comcast customer service and tech entrepreneur Ryan Block as he attempted to cancel his service went viral in 2014 after Block posted it to his Soundcloud account. The Verge ran a “Comcast Confessions” series with current and former employees lending voice to the company’s shady tactics. If fact, all you need to do is Google “Comcast employee confessions” and you’ll be inundated with former customer service workers eager to tell their stories. And I suppose there’s something to note in that, a sentiment often echoed by those same former employees and overlooked by us, the irate: those employees are people, doing a job, with many of their actions dictated by corporate policy. Though our particular customer service representative was indeed a douchenozzle, many are not and would like to do well by their customers if so allowed. My wife, ever the kind soul, implores me to include the story of the Comcast repairman who came out in a snowstorm to fix our disrupted service immediately prior to the 2015 AFC Championship Game. We sent him away with lasagna and beer and our sincere thanks. In such moments we are reminded that it is not generally the individual workers that should earn our anger but the corporate greed and socially bad monopolistic business practices that create such a situation.
So what’s the solution? In our particular case there is no clear choice. We will probably end up going the route of DirecTV or Playstation Vue and still having to crawl back to Comcast for internet service. While Satellite may offer good alternatives on the television end, satellite internet is far inferior to its wired competitors. With time the individual streaming applications will provide a vibrant and competitive field of content providers for consumers to choose from but that revolution won’t truly catch full wind until we are somehow able to break the greased-palm ties between Big Cable and the major basic television networks. And that still changes nothing about the dearth of Internet Service Providers. TV may certainly be a luxury item but internet service is quickly approaching the level of a utility and will continue to remain the more urgent issue for many consumers. Personally for us, it simply seems to be time to break Comcast’s greedy, dispassionate grip. Here’s hoping there is indeed a better way to be found.