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MUST READ AUGUST 2010
LET'S GO / Contributing editor April White brings a surprise cover
story each month.
Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us THE GIST / Business insight from Harvard Business Review, The Emily Y - emilyyellin.com ellin Look (new products you'll want), and blogs from the savviest writers around.
INTERACT / Put your knowledge to the test with crossword puzzles and a multiple-choice quiz.
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IN BRIEF / A monthly update from the editor's desk, plus recommended sites and blogs from the staff and readers.
CEO LETTER / Insight and the latest airline news from Doug Parker,
As the twenty-first century dawned, most people were feeling fed up. A public opinion poll in 2001 reported that 80 percent of Americans believed the constant coarseness, disrespect, and lack of CONTRIBUTORS / The experts at Harvard Business Review, consideration they encountered in society was such a “serious, pervasive problem” that it affected bloggers in the know, and more.
them “on a personal, gut level” and had grown into “a daily assault on their sensibilities and the quality of their lives.” At the same time, it seemed people didn’t believe they had much power to change things, so they simply resigned themselves to all the insidious incivility they encountered.
The Pew Charitable Trusts sponsored the poll, called “Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America.” Public Agenda, a national policy research group, conducted it. And in their introduction, the authors made sure to justify their examination of how we get along with each other in public every day: “At first, it might seem that conducting a survey on courtesy and rudeness is less serious or important than exploring citizens’ views on, say, health care or education or retirement policy. Y how people treat each other in their daily interactions — whether they take et steps to be respectful of one another, whether they are willing to moderate their own desires and comfort to accommodate the needs of others — seems to us to be profoundly important and indeed central to the definition of a ‘civilized’ society.”
It probably doesn’t take a scientifically conducted public opinion poll to find evidence of the contempt most Americans harbor toward bad customer service or to elicit testimony about the City Profiles effects of that kind of antipathy in their lives. Merely bringing up the subject at any gathering will generate at least one horror story from just about everyone. But in the years since that survey officially highlighted and validated the displeasure bubbling just under the surface of our everyday dealings with customer service, a few of those tensions have boiled over in very public ways. The news media, in tandem with various websites and social media, have played increasingly larger roles in amplifying them.Just ask Comcast, for example.
Trouble for the nation’s largest cable television and broadband provider started in earnest with the story of LaChania Govan, a mother of two in her mid-twenties who inadvertently became a public symbol of mistreated customers everywhere. Govan lives in suburban Chicago. She goes to work all week and attends church every Sunday. She has a pleasant and welcoming voice. She also has a strong sense of fairness.
In July 2005, Govan’s digital video recorder wouldn’t work. She called Comcast’s customer service line in Chicago but couldn’t get through. During the course of four weeks, she called more PORTLAND MAINE / Where the south's famed beaches yield to than forty times. She was repeatedly disconnected, put on hold, or transferred to inept or inert Maine's rockbound peninsulas, that's where you'll find Portland.
representatives and technicians. One customer service representative transferred her to the Spanishspeaking line. Govan knows only English. She just wanted someone to resolve her seemingly simple case.
She says she never raised her voice, but she was resolute. “Calling Comcast became my second job,” Govan said. “I had to ensure the cordless phone was fully charged and the kids were content.
And I sat and called. I cooked and called. I cleaned and called, and just called.” Almost every day, Govan prodded the big company’s customer service department as best she could. Finally, she found a rep who heard her out and took her case in hand. A technician was sent to replace her cable box at no charge, and she was credited with a free month of service. Govan’s perseverance paid off. Her headaches seemed to be over.
Then Govan’s August cable bill arrived. Her name did not appear on the bill. Instead it was addressed to “Bitch Dog.” Someone at Comcast had changed her account name. Govan said, “I was so mad I couldn’t even cuss.” Instead of becoming just another unnoticed casualty in the adversarial relationship between many companies and their customers, Govan went public. The Chicago Tribune ran her story. Within days, the mainstream news media, bloggers, and consumer advocates from everywhere were spreading her tale of woe. She appeared as the number-one story on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann. A Comcast executive left an apology on Govan’s home voice mail. The company claimed it identified and fired two employees responsible for changing the name on Govan’s bill.
She was offered all sorts of free service, which she refused. She wanted nothing more to do with Comcast.
Govan, who also happens to be a customer service representative for a major credit card company, is studying criminal justice with plans to go to law school one day. Eventually, she says, she hopes to become a judge. Her inherent sense of justice is what drove her to persevere. So she was speaking with conviction when she told the Washington Post that she believes customer service means “being friendly, helpful, and respectful. I know how it feels to be a customer service rep and a consumer on the other end. Y do not have to settle for less, and you do not have to be ou mistreated.” In 2006, Comcast was dealing with another public display of customer service missteps. A subscriber in the Washington, D.C., area found the technician that Comcast sent to fix his cable system had fallen asleep on his couch. The worker was kept on hold for so long by his own company when he called for help that he dozed off. The customer shot video of the napping technician and posted it on the Internet, where it went viral. Comcast issued another apology and again said the worker in question had been fired.
Then in August 2007, Comcast suffered what was perhaps its worst embarrassment to date when seventy-six-year-old Mona Shaw took her outrage with its customer service a few steps further than any disgruntled customer had done before. As she has told the story, it started when a technician scheduled to come out to her suburban Washington, D.C., home on a Monday didn’t show up. Comcast was supposed to install what it calls its triple-play service, which included the company’s new telephone service, along with its traditional Internet and cable television connection, all for under $100 per month. Shaw, a retired military nurse and secretary of her local AARP, as well as a square dancer who fosters stray dogs until they can be adopted, waited all day Monday.
When Comcast finally arrived two days later, the technician left the job half done and never came back. On Friday, the company cut off what service Mona and her husband, Don, still had.
Without phone service, the Shaws couldn’t call to get help, so they drove over to their local Comcast office in Manassas, Virginia. They asked for a manager and were told to wait outside in the August heat.
By Monday, after a weekend with no phone, TV or Internet, Shaw was so angry that she took, matters into her own hands, literally. She got her husband’s hammer, and they went back to the local Comcast office. This is how Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker described Shaw’s
account of what happened next:
Hammer time: Shaw storms into the company’s office. BAM! She whacks the keyboard of the customer service rep. BAM! Down goes the monitor. BAM! She totals the telephone. People scatter, scream, cops show up and what does she do? POW! A parting shot to the phone!
“They cuffed me right then,” she says.
Her take on Comcast: “What a bunch of sub-moronic imbeciles.” Being a responsible newspaper, we must note that this is a misdemeanor, a crime, a completely inappropriate way of handling a business dispute.
Who among us has not longed for a hammer in this age of incompetent “customer service representatives,” of nimrods reading from a script at some 800-number location, of crumbs-intheir-beards plumbing installation people who tell you they’ll grace you with their presence between 12 and 3, only never to show? And you’ll call and call and finally some outsourced representative slings a dart at a calendar and tells you another guy will come back between 10 and 2 next Thursday? And when this guy comes, pants halfway down his behind, he’ll tell you he brought the wrong part?
And there is nothing, nothing you can do.
Until there! On the horizon! It’s Hammer Woman, avenger of oppressed cable subscribers everywhere! (Cue galloping Lone Ranger theme.) “It had never occurred to me to take a hammer to a phone company before, but I was just so upset,” Mona Shaw told the paper. “After I hit the keyboard, I turned to this blonde who had been there the previous Friday, the one who told me to wait for the manager, and I said, ‘Now do I have your attention?’ ” Shaw, who has a heart condition, said during the incident her blood pressure rose and she started hyperventilating. In addition to calling the police, someone called an ambulance. By the end, she was fined $345 and given a three-month suspended sentence for disorderly conduct, as well as a one-year restraining order prohibiting her from going anywhere near the Manassas Comcast office.
For months afterward, Shaw was a television and Internet celebrity of sorts, appearing on Good Morning America, Nightline, and Dr. Phil. A Mona Shaw fan club formed with a Web site, and she was hailed as a folk hero on numerous blogs, as well as on ComcastMustDie.com.
That Web site was initiated in fall 2007, two months after Shaw’s Comcast encounter, by Bob Garfield, Advertising Age columnist, author, and cohost of National Public Radio’s On the Media, who had his own customer service dust-up with Comcast. Garfield describes the ComcastMustDie mission on his site’s home page: “Actually, I have no death wish for Comcast, or any other gigantic, blundering, greedy, arrogant corporate monstrosity. What I do have is the earnest desire for such companies to change their ways. This site offers an opportunity — for you to vent your grievances (civilly, please) and for Comcast to pay close attention.” In conversation, it isn’t hard to get Garfield to air some of his own frustration. “I don’t know about anybody else, but already, as I’m dialing 1-800-COMCAST, my blood pressure is 180/140, because I know what’s going to happen. I try to start on an even keel, but my worst fears are realized within the first few minutes. And then, you can’t really sob on the phone — that’s unmanly. But I’ve tried everything else. I’ve tried begging, I’ve tried reasoning, I’ve tried threatening. I’ve tried it all. Nothing works. Y just hope the gods align on your side.
ou “I’ve had real tragedy in my life — really painful stuff, the stuff of real life. But I have never been as close to blowing an aneurysm as I was on the phone with Comcast. It is just so frustrating and so infuriating — the combination of rage and the sense of absolute impotence. It’s not a happy feeling. It gets back to the golden rule. Y would never treat somebody this way yourself. It’s ou against everything we’ve ever learned, from the time we were ambulatory. The experience we have is antithetical to everything that we ever have been told about what constitutes the way to get along with others.” Garfield believes Comcast and other companies ignore a changing business landscape at their own peril, a landscape in which the Internet is giving new power to customers. “Now we can aggregate to have our voices heard and to put pressure on these people. Customer service and customer relations management is going to be so critical to all corporate futures. Marketing, as we have
Hundreds of customers posted their complaints on ComcastMustDie right away. Many then reported online about getting a personal call from a Comcast customer service worker who was monitoring the site and made sure to solve their problems. Garfield was happy with that but thought the company should go further. “It’s not just servicing the customer; it is befriending, exploiting, collaborating. And they have to create a technical infrastructure and also empower employees to deal with customer complaints in a logical, honest, straightforward manner. They are very far from being there.”
While all this public turmoil was taking place on the customer side of Comcast, the shareholders were getting restless and squeezing the company from their end as well. Heretofore in the cable television and broadband Internet industry, only one of a handful of companies provided service in any local market. But those local monopolies started to face serious competition from the dominant national players in the telecommunications industry, such as Verizon and AT&T. Those companies began offering broadband Internet access and television just as Comcast was breaking into the telephone business. Comcast lost some customers, but it also poached some from its new competitors. By the end of 2007, apparently due to pessimism about the company’s ability to compete, share prices for Comcast had fallen 35 percent despite the fact that revenues were up and the company was still profitable.