Why ATT Is Fabulous and Why Comcast Should Not Be On Twitter.

This is the story of two wonderful people and two ways of handling customers. Because of one this is not a rant, but a piece about good customer service. MYSTERIOUS FORESHADOWING: This piece ends with the rather unlikely event of more than just I ending up as an ATT U-verse customer thanks to ATT-Sarah in Bloomington.

First, the setting:

@Comcastcares has done a lot of good work from the looks of it. He (and I assume his helpers) have been talked about on podcasts and at blogs around the net for solving problems customers have had that were not solved by Comcast’s standard customer service center. And that’s good. You need to oil the squeaky wheel quickly.  But as part of that process you really should be fixing the cause of all those squeaky wheels.

In twitterspeak: #FAIL

No offense meant to Frank (Evidently the real live person behind @comcastcares), as a matter of fact he is a hero to some.

But this feels more like the story of the Little Dutch Boy who put his finger in a Holland dyke to stop a leak.  It only turns out OK if others come to the rescue in the end. I think Frank and his team of twitterers is trying to hold back a flood caused by miscues in their customer service operation, and this looks bad for Comcast.

You could say I’m cranky because @comcastcares didn’t answer my tweets. But I understand that is not a fair complaint given they occurred during the great twitter-apocalypse a little while back where tweets and replies became unreliable at best. I hold no grudges against @comcastcares and I hope he continues to spread his good work through the web.  I just wonder if anybody is taking the lessons learned back to the customer service reps you reach with a phone call, because if Frank can solve problems, why can’t everybody?

Events of the past two months.

  • Account 1: Changed spaces in Bloomington and wanted to take Comcast with me. (I’ve been a customer for a very long time, it was a comfortably irritating relationship). It was a new building and Comcast evidently hadn’t figured out it was built yet. After several weeks of calling and being told each time “This is easy to fix, call back in a few days” I realized no one I was talking to was giving me the correct answer. I assume the correct answer should have been “We’ve decided not to service that building” I had been successfully stalled to the point that the move date was a week away. Uh-Oh. I was going to be in trouble.
  • Account 2: My mother lives in Chicago and received a very attractive offer for Comcast cable. Given the difficulties of the new digital life up here she decided to try out cable. She ran into aggressive Comcast sales people (she had to call several times) who confused her with technical questions and consistently tried to upgrade her off the special offer price. She finally placed the order but called me because she was still uncomfortable, the price was a bit different and they were charging her $50 to plug in the modem. (My mom is going Broadband-Facebook look out). I had already met ATT-Sarah, whom we will talk about in a moment, so I felt confident telling my mother that she should cancel the appointment.
  • Account 3: My daughter is in college and moving into her first apartment. She needs cable for maybe a year, maybe 9 months. Things are fuzzy when you are in college. To get a decent price from Comcast you had to sign up for TWO years. (There may be a one year option, but to be honest it felt like the offer kept changing depending on the questions I asked. I have to be smart to get the best price?)

Going into this I had no intention of purchasing the ATT system. I am already an ATT cell phone customer and really wanted to keep the different services separate. I’m anti-single source. Long story. [DISCLOSURE: My wife did work for the Ameritech/Americast fiber/cable operation about a decade ago. Through various acquisitions that became part of ATT. However, since I’m cranky, we were Sprint cell customers during that time and only switched to ATT because of the iPhone.) The paperwork for the new space in Bloomington came with three phone numbers. Electric. (Easy) Comcast (A local line that pushed you to their national center, I think.)  ATT U-verse (Sarah’s associate’s number, who was on vacation but provided me with Sarah’s number and the ATT national number. Real voice-mail. Real person. Real name. WOW.)

Sarah solved our TV and internet problem and got the space up and running within a week of the order. She made it appear that she didn’t have to do anything special. It was easy for her. And the topper – when I had a question I could call her back.

Having one good experience told me I knew who to call when my mom ran into trouble. Sarah solved her problem with a package that was better than the Comcast offer and again it was effortless. Computer hook ups, phone conversion, modems – no problem. Hard to wire home, no problem. My mom thought she sounded nice.

My daughter needed a reasonable price without a long contract, again Sarah to the rescue.

I might have lucked out. Because I was given a local GREAT person I missed problems that might have occurred going through the national number. I certainly could never of gotten the same operator twice and that would have been a shame. Because as unlikely as it seems, Sarah was the leading edge of a series of fabulous interactions. So, while I am not actually an ATT evangelist yet, I guess I’m a Sarah evangelist and ATT happens to be the beneficiary. Real people who make a difference can generate a following and build loyalty. That is Real Social Networking. Now, there’s more here than just Sarah. The follow-up calls were timely. The installers went above and beyond and were incredibly friendly. They even had news about how hard the Chicago branch was working to improve Cell coverage after a spike in usage. Sometimes things work because you’re lucky and sometimes they are made to work because the company is that good. This time round I think ATT is on the path to making things work in a way that is significantly more powerful than Comcast’s model.

Now, back to Twitter: It is a fine platform and Comcast is definitely benefiting from @ComcastCares activity. But somewhere within the Comcast customer service model it appears that measurement or motivational tracking factors have gone off kilter. Solving difficult problems (the dreaded 1%) cause efficiency measures to backfire. If a customer rep prefers to say “Sorry I just can’t help you with that, is there something else I can help you with?” rather than sweating out the issue or forwarding you to someone who can help there is a reason for that behavior and it is probably systemic. If your customers do not feel as if they can get their problems solved by a phone call, do you really want them screaming about you on the web?

FIX THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM. Firefighting is fine, but it only goes so far.

Now if I could only get Sarah to work on that recent degradation of the ATT cell signal in Chicago…. But that probably wouldn’t be a fair thing to ask.

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8 Responses to Why ATT Is Fabulous and Why Comcast Should Not Be On Twitter.

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Fred, Great post, in which you prove once again that you can’t solve fundamental operational problems by throwing technology at them. I’ve had a few experiences along these lines installing fancy CRM systems in order to “fix” sales problems. Guess what? Rather than solve problems, we merely added another layer of complexity that rendered them even more problematic. It could be that Comcast is going down a similar path with Twitter. You know a lot more about this kind of stuff than I do, but it seems to me if you’ve got a complex problem, the first order of business is to simplify: take away variables, eliminate, streamline, get down to basics.
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..10 Essential Twitter Writing Tips =-.

  2. Terry says:

    Here’s an idea (now watch some company start doing this . . . I’m such a thought leader, y’know). Give customer service people their own extensions so we can keep those we gel with and like. Heck, why not even give them their own Twitter IDs? At the very least, let them add their initials or some other short ID to company tweets so we know it’s them . . . or use hashmarks with their initials or a number so we can search for their previous helpful tweets.

    Yeah, I probably won’t get credit for the idea when someone runs with it. Oh well, that’s the cost of brilliance.
    .-= Terry´s last blog ..Writing Goals for Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow =-.

  3. kay plantes says:

    There are reasons companies can compete above the lowest price and yours is but one story. Behind AT&T’s Sarah is a hiring system, a training system, measurements and maybe incentives, IT systems, a continuous improvement culture, good leaders and policies that put the ability to please a customer in the hands of a trained customer service person. The result? AT&T wins one customer’s loyalty and then the next. Getting everyone in your organization focused on how you want to win business creates AT&T-type of alignment. Great post, Fred.
    .-= kay plantes´s last blog ..What’s Your Version of Out-of-the-Box? =-.

  4. J.D. Meier says:

    > when I had a question I could call her back.
    I always love when I can actually call a human.

    > The installers went above and beyond and were incredibly friendly.
    I’m always pleasantly surprised when I find stellar customer service. It seems like stellar service somehow gets priced out of the market or goes out of fashion (or I’m just lucky like that 😉
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Cell That Read Minds =-.

  5. Hi Brad, Customer service is a very hard nut to crack since you are balancing costs against your public face. As you say, sometimes we run down a technological pathway that complicates or simply locks in habits that were wrong to begin with.

    The interesting thing about the Twitter experiment is that it can undermine their standard customer service. As more folks realize that they can get around a problem at the phone center by using Twitter then a flood of contacts will overwhelm the twitter resources (why bother calling?) Since the phone system is optimized and mature (even though it has problems) vs twitter being young and breakable this wouldn’t be my first choice for rolling out a fix.

  6. Hi Terry, I’m beginning to think this might be a great idea. It’s been avoided in the past so that customers get to a live operator quicker. But if 5% of the customers would prefer to be ‘operator loyal’ it seems that could be a pretty interesting feature to add to any call center. Rather than wait for the next available operator I leave a message for a specific operator. Most folks would still simply want someone to talk to immediately, but for the few with more difficult problems or simply attachments. All of a sudden a large corporation becomes Sarah.

  7. Hi Kay, Absolutely. That’s why I mentioned that the good experience went beyond just Sarah. This is hugely difficult but may be the primary differentiator between larger organizations in the future. If the products are equivalent then people I like certainly matters.

  8. Hi J.D., It does make my day as well. I agree that the drive for efficiency can unintentionally destroy customer experience. Of course customer bad behavior can destroy it as well. Once it got around that some stores were trying to live by the “Customer is always right” philosophy people came in and abused the system. The reaction is rules and regulations that make service folks look like they don’t trust anyone. The pendulum is swinging back but always is a moving target.

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