Change the Way You Approach Customer Service: Why the Comcast Issue was Such an Epic Fail

[caption id="attachment_3287" align="aligncenter" width="400"]Customer retention is about creating happy customers, not your bottom line. Customer retention is about creating happy customers, not your bottom line. Image Credit: Ian Muir courtesy Creative Commons.[/caption]

By now, if you've been keeping up with the chatter on the Interwebs you've heard of former tech editor Ryan Block's epic customer service call with a guy who has to be a shoe-in for the most aggressive customer retention specialist in the cosmos. If you haven't, go ahead and give it a listen. I'll hold.

Now, aside from being the easiest way to raise your blood pressure, the recording serves as (to put it in Block's own words), "a really, actually representative example of why I don't want to continue with Comcast." Substitute "Comcast" with "customer support" and you'll probably get a good idea of why this particular incident has travelled so quickly through the internet.

Simply put: when most people think of customer service this is what they think of. You could argue that that's mainly the case for cable companies, but I can assure you travel, hospitality, financial services -- practically every industry out there -- suffers from the same problem.

In a sense the issue if not a "Comcast" issue alone. It's an issue for every major corporation, because most major corporations treat customer experience and customer service as a means of 'resolution' and 'retention': words that immediately indicate a preference for doing what is most expedient and meaningful for the company -- not the customer. This clear disconnect in what is important is one of the primary reasons TaskUs sprang into existence. I know that sounds like a shameless attempt at exploiting the situation, but it's for a good cause! There is something very important at the center of this issue that companies like Comcast don't realize that dovetails with why companies like TaskUs are growing.

"We'd like to disconnect"

The whole purpose of the now infamous call is to disconnect service. Clearly there was already a disconnect in effect. At the core of this exchange is a conflict. The customer wants out of the service, and the representative wants to keep him. Rather than be concerned with why the customer wants to leave, the rep should have been more concerned with facilitating the request or utilizing a customer save strategy that lined up with the not only the customer's needs, but also the company's values. For example, when we work with our clients -- many of who are progressive companies who put customer experience at the core of their value proposition -- we take the time to understand their brand values and culture. Then we immerse our teams in the brand using our rigorous training model and only let them field calls when they clearly demonstrate that they can live by the brand values and as a steward of the brand. They fact that they are providing customer service at that point is ancillary to the fact that they are acting as BRAND AMBASSADORS.

It's evident that the company that provides Comcast's customer service doesn't hold to that approach, but that doesn't matter. Right now, everyone that has listened to that recording thinks that Comcast doesn't hold to that approach! All of a sudden a horrendous customer service experience has turned into an expensive and time consuming PR nightmare. Comcast may not shut down as a result of it, but it will sure as hell lose a ton of cash over it for a while.

"If you need to fill out your form, proceed to the next question."

This one quote from Block is both sad and worthy of a long, generous eye roll. Sad because customers have become so used to being subjected to mindless processes in order for a customer service rep and the company to be able to mine data or something equally meaningless to the customer. In this case, the customer service rep's endless obsession with "finding out why you don't want faster internet" trumps his ability to see that he's not only about to lose a customer, but many more through the word-of-mouth effect that has been vastly amplified by the social media bullhorn.

Customer support must have structure. It must have process. It must be scalable and consistently good. No argument there whatsoever. But it cannot sacrifice humanity and empathy at the expense of profit or expediency. When we build a customer support team at TaskUs, we look at it as entrusting the heart of a business to someone. They have the power to make or break the company they represent, but more importantly they have the power to impact a total stranger's life. By going above and beyond the form and the process customer support can become something more meaningful -- it can become a relationship, which is the most valuable thing a business can hope to create.

In this incident, the customer was effectively turned into a problem that needed to be "resolved" so that the company could "retain" them and preserve profit. Is that a relationship? Is that how we want to do business?

"My job is to have a conversation with you about keeping your service."

Oh brother. If you or your customer support/service provider believe this is the whole point of customer care, it's time for an intervention. Yes, customer care is designed to help customers while also preventing 'churn' or the unfortunate fact of losing a customer. That said, in the 21st century -- in the era of Zappos -- putting corporate interests ahead of customer needs during a customer service call is the easiest way to signal that you're just going through the motions. Don't do it. There are better ways, though you'd be hard-pressed to find big customer care outsourcing companies (like the one Comcast likely uses) take this approach. It's more expensive and involves more care and attention than simply 'lifting and shifting' customer care operations to a big customer care outsourcing company, but the results are worlds apart.

TaskUs was not founded with the intention of becoming a customer care outsourcing company. Our founders started the company to disrupt the customer care outsourcing industry because it made no sense to perpetuate the robotic, dehumanizing, 'company-first' mentality that pervades the larger business process outsourcing and customer care outsourcing companies. Our aim was -- and is -- to create a customer care experience that is indistinguishable from an internal team by creating a strong connection between brands and teams, as well as customer care teams and the customers they will eventually serve.

Through immersion in our clients' brands and customer profiles and personas we're able to train representatives to be stewards of brands and to make sure that the lead with "what do you need" instead of "how do I keep you as a customer." It's a simple difference and one predicated on the fact that sometimes a customer may just want to disconnect. As Ryan Block said, "I don't owe you an explanation," but we -- as corporations and customer service professionals -- do owe customers something. It's called respect.

Michael Buenaventura

July 16, 2014