July 20, 2014

Painting with a Broad Brush

By now the number of people who have listened to the Comcast customer service recording has probably climbed to to stratospheric heights; it had reached over four million listens in a few days and there didn't seem to be lack of folks talking about it in both mainstream and other media, so 'earviews' have likely soared.

Briefly, a woman called Comcast to cancel service; after about 10 minutes she handed the phone to her husband, and he recorded about eight minutes of his extremely patient, extremely frustrated attempt to cancel, in the face of an unrelenting call-taker who refused to believe that anyone would not want to have the fastest Internet in the world, would not want the best service, simply would not want Comcast.

The company expressed regret, noting
We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with (the customer) and are contacting him personally to apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action...
Quick action likely means the representative has learned his fate, but for the rest of Comcast's employees, the ramifications will linger. This will likely become a topic in the Comcast/TimeWarner merger discussions, for example.  And for everyone who works in Customer Service, chances are things will be a nightmare for a while, as typically happens when there's negative media attention.  And if those employees have families and friends like mine, there'll be some 'splainin to do, questions to be answered. And maybe, it'll be a few days before folks wander around sporting Comcast logos in public.

I'm familiar with this, because I work for a health insurance company, something that's not a secret to regular readers. I don't work in Customer Service - I have nowhere near enough patience for that -- and, (official disclaimer alert), I do not speak in any capacity for my employer, and have no involvement in corporate communications, media relations, or other similar functions. The opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone.

My company is still the Big Man on Campus (BMOC) here in Syracuse even though  through mergers, our home office is in Rochester. There are several hundred of us who work in the local office, and who every day give it our best shot for our many varied customers, including individuals, employer groups, medical professionals, and an alphabet soup of regulators. Not surprisingly, these customers have different and at times clearly competing interests, and sometimes it's hard not to fail in the eyes of one customer on an issue, and at the same time exceed the expectations of another on the very same issue. Such is the world we work in, and likely the world you work in as well.

  • Part of being the BMOC is media attention, and corresponding media heat.  For example, every year in March, there's an article about the salaries of people who earn more than $200,000. This information is public because of a required regulatory filing. The local newspaper, in service to their many and varied customer interests, gives this a lot of attention, and the comments in response to the article are, well, they're as you might imagine. On the one hand, my Dad, when he was alive, used to call me at work and let me know whether or not I had made the list. On the other end of the spectrum, anonymous comments have suggested the people on the list should be shot. 
  • We'll also take heat if a person has a claim denied, even a legitimate denial, and decides to take it to the local TV stations who encourage stories of this kind, as part of their charge to meet customer demands and expectations. Again, the comments include the good, the bad, and the ugly, with focus on the latter two. For some reason, doing bodily harm to a health insurance company's employees seems to be acceptable in some circles.

I'm not on the $200K list, and don't aspire to be. I hate the list, and empathize with the families of people who do make the list, having some experience with this type of media intrusion. When I was a kid, I got to read my Dad's salary in the paper, because it was 'important' for people to know how much teachers made, even if it was barely more than the average blue collar worker.

When this type of media attention happens, I cringe, because I know my company is about much more than $200K salaries and denied claims. I know that my company and my coworkers here and in all of our locations do a whole lot of good for people and our communities, day in and day out, and that's the norm.

The vast majority of those good things we do never get a lot of media coverage, any more than the hundreds? thousands? of calls that Comcast employees take every day, and likely handle with grace, get a lot of media coverage.

One horrifically notable customer service exchange. One sensitive denied claim. Fifty or so high salaries. These things do not a company make, but all employees get painted with the same broad brush, in the color horrible.  I wish it wasn't like that.