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Published: May 08, 2015 10 min read
comcast van
Robert Galbraith—Reuters

Comcast finally seems to have owned up to a fact that's been apparent to the rest of the world for years: Its customer service stinks.

“As a company, we haven’t always put the customer first and we need to do a better job,” Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit wrote, with great understatement, in an email sent to Comcast employees this week (HT: Consumerist).

The note details a 10-point action plan that's part of a new multi-year Customer Experience Transformation freshly introduced to the public. The goal of this plan is to fix the customer service problems that have generated so much hate for the pay TV-Internet provider over the years.

The plan includes the creation of three new customer support centers in the U.S., as well as the hiring of 5,500 more customer service agents, and consumer advocates will applaud many of Comcast's goals. Among other things, Comcast says it will soon automatically credit a subscriber's account $20 if one of its technicians fails to show up for a scheduled visit. Comcast also states that it is "reassessing all of our policies and fees and getting rid of ones that customers find particularly frustrating," and that it will redesign subscriber bills and be more consistent and transparent with pricing.

In fairness, Comcast is hardly the only pay TV provider that's renowned for appallingly bad service. Time Warner Cable and the pay TV category as a whole routinely get dismal customer satisfaction ratings compared to other industries. In an interview this week with Re/code, Michael Powell, the head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said that America's pay TV giants are "highly conscious" that the industry is rife with complaints and has a horrible image, and that actions—not mere words—are needed to win over the public. "I’m a firm believer that words and messages don’t work if you’re not liked,” Powell said.

Comcast is taking action to address customer service woes, but when the cornerstone of these efforts is the hiring of thousands more customer service workers, it demonstrates that Comcast isn't truly committed to having the best customer service possible. After all, instead of hiring more people, wouldn't it make more sense for Comcast to eliminate many of the frustrations that cause subscribers to have to call up the customer service line in the first place?

Companies like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix don't achieve their excellent customer satisfaction ratings because they have legions of service reps awaiting customer calls. In fact, one explanation for why customers are so satisfied is that there is usually no reason to have to call these businesses.

With this and a few other ideas in mind, we'd like to offer Comcast a handful of suggestions that would make subscribers genuinely happier with their service.

1) Let people change service—including downgrades—online. "If you’d like to downgrade or change your package, we are not able to do that online yet," Comcast's "Help and Support" page states. "However, our customer service agents are happy to assist you."

Comcast's planned "Transformation" makes no mention of changing this policy, and in today's day and age, the inability to update and change one's account online is completely unacceptable. We know that Comcast is technically able to handle subscribers making some changes online—you can upgrade or add channels, for instance—so the only reason you can't downgrade is that Comcast wants to give its representatives an opportunity to talk you out of any scenario in which you wind up paying less per month.

This policy serves Comcast well. As for customers, it does them a disservice. Come on, it's 2015! The only reason people ever dial up a customer service center is because there is no other viable option. The policy also creates situations in which customers must fight with the agents who supposedly exist to serve subscribers. Comcast is heralding an app that allows subscribers to schedule a time for an agent to call, thereby eliminating the need to wait on hold. That's good. But eliminating the need for subscribers to have to talk to anyone would be much better.

2) Let customers cancel service online too. Cancelling Netflix, or putting the service on hold, can be accomplished online in mere seconds. Heck, even old-fashioned subscription businesses like newspapers and magazines allow customers to use the Web to cancel or put delivery on hiatus. Not so with pay TV operators like Comcast.

What's the explanation for this? "We want to make sure we’ve done everything we can to give you the best experience, price and package." That's the line Comcast feeds consumers. In other words, as mentioned above, Comcast wants to give one—or perhaps several—agents the opportunity to try to talk you out of your decision. Again, this policy exists to serve Comcast, not consumers, and it creates uneasy, antagonistic, argumentative relationships with customers. If a customer wants to close an account, let him do it quickly and painlessly online. If the service is good and worth the money, he'll have little reason to cancel.

3) Make billing consistent, fair, and truly transparent. In most industries, the main job of customer call centers is to answer questions and help customers if there's a problem with a product. A large chunk of pay TV customer service calls, however, have nothing to do with the product itself but with what it costs. The pay TV business model is one in which new customers are frequently drawn in with low new-subscriber rates, which often turn into exploding bills once the introductory rate expires. The result is that the best, most loyal, and uncomplaining customers face higher and higher bills, while those who dial up, complain regularly, and periodically threaten to cancel are rewarded with rollercoaster pricing that soars and dips. Another result of this billing structure is that customers getting the same exact service may unfairly and seemingly haphazardly be paying very different monthly bills.

One of Comcast's newly announced goals is "Keeping Bills Simple and Transparent," but this wording implies that its pricing is simple and transparent right now—and that's not remotely the case. How could it be when no one knows exactly what a package will cost without a phone call to Comcast, and when the price of your monthly bill may be $20 or $50 more than your neighbor receiving the same service?

Again, pointing back to services like Netflix or Amazon Prime for the sake of contrast, it's a safe bet that almost no one contacts their customer service centers about exploding monthly bills—because these companies charge the same set amount, month after month after month.

4) Stop gouging customers on fees. Comcast's new plan promises to get rid of some fees, naming charges for change of service and equipment returns in particular. But this doesn't go nearly far enough. The fees charged for things like renting modems cost customers far more because they're added onto each and every monthly bill. Customers essentially pay off the cost of this equipment after a year or so of monthly bills, so afterward the $8 to $10 tacked onto each bill is pure profit for the pay TV provider.

These fees inch up with regularity once every year or so, and when they do, the arrival of new pricier customer bills kicks off—you guessed it!—a fresh round of complaint calls to customer service lines. Without the gouging on a variety of mysterious, ever-rising fees, subscribers would have one less reason to have to deal with customer service.

5) Offer more flexibility and customization. Verizon recently opened the door to the possibility of personalized pay TV packages, in which subscribers would receive a basic bundle of channels and then choose themed "channel packs" focused on genres like sports or kids entertainment. The concept is meant to address a classic cable TV gripe—that the average customer watches only 17 channels, and yet he's forced to pay for a package with triple, or perhaps five times as many.

If Comcast and other pay TV players truly wanted to increase transparency and improve customer satisfaction, they would figure out a way to de-bundle TV packages and deliver exactly what the individual customer wanted. Instead, the status quo is for consumers to be able to choose among a very limited number of pre-packaged options, with opaque pricing to boot.

Most Americans have only one or perhaps two pay TV options where they live, so there's little recourse for someone unsatisfied with what's being offered other than cutting the cord. We guess you could call up your pay TV provider's customer service line and complain. See where that gets you.

Read next: How to Watch All the TV You Want Without Paying a Cable Bill