1:37am

Fri July 18, 2014
All Tech Considered

Better Culture Could Have Prevented Viral Comcast Call

Originally published on Mon July 21, 2014 9:13 am

This week, one man's customer service call to Comcast turned into a badgering — a simple request to cancel his service was repeatedly beaten back by the employee on the other end of the line. It was a familiar feeling for a lot of us, which perhaps explains why more than 4 million people have listened to it in less than a week.

"It was frustrating to listen to. It's almost a PTSD we have with bad customer service," said journalist Emily Yellin. She wrote a book on the customer service call experience — Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us.

Yellin suspects the agent on the Comcast call was getting paid more if he kept the customer. (A former Comcast call center employee confirmed that sort of financial incentive on Reddit, and it was verified by Slate.)

"It's really not that person on the other end of the line's fault. It's the company's fault, and the culture of the company that creates a culture around this person that makes them do something like this," Yellin says.

Comcast wouldn't comment on the record about its compensation practices. But Yellin says frustration about these calls is bigger than a single company. You're calling strangers, occasionally on different continents. Your goals may be opposing.

"It really sets up this dynamic where you're not going to relate to each other as full human beings. And that really in my opinion is the responsibility of the company to circumvent that. And it is hard. Doing customer service well is hard," Yellin says.

Some companies have figured it out. Zappos.com, a billion-dollar online shoe retailer owned by Amazon, built its reputation on "wowing" customers with great service.

Despite selling most of its merchandise over the Internet, customers "want to be able to phone in if they need to," says Rob Siefker. He heads the Zappos call center, which fields an average of 10,000 customer calls and chats each day.

"The promise that we make to customers is that we're going to provide a great experience. If we're going to market that and say that's what our brand is, then when somebody calls us, that needs to be the experience they have," Siefker says.

Zappos prioritizes its responses, so callers don't have to navigate automated menus when they call. The company staffs its call center with enough employees — and 24 hours a day — so hold times are no longer than 20 seconds. And when it comes to human phone interactions, the emphasis is on humanity. Employees are empowered to make their own decisions during calls, as the situation warrants, without getting supervisors for approval. Even if the call is off topic.

"We've had people call up and ask to find a restaurant near their hotel or help them order a pizza, and our employees have helped people in those instances," Siefker says.

Zappos and other companies, like FedEx and Kimpton Hotels, get high marks for their customer service. But if you need to brace yourself for a less pleasant call, Yellin says it helps if both ends of the line think of their roles differently.

"Companies need to treat the customer service interaction as something more personal and customers need to treat it more as a business transaction," Yellin says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you've ever called the cable company to complain, it's entirely possible you were not thrilled with the response. This week, one man's customer service call to Comcast went a little wrong. The recording of the call went viral and more than 4 million people have viewed it online. So NPR's Elise Hu decided to explore why these calls can be so unpleasant and what some companies are doing to make them better.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: There are so many ways customer service calls can go wrong. The call drops - the hold time is too long - and if you're really unlikely, you can get bullied by the service rep at the other end of the line.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUSTOMER SERVICE CALL)

RYAN BLOCK: We'd like to disconnect please.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, so why is it that you don't want the faster speed? Help me understand why you don't want faster Internet.

BLOCK: Help me understand why can't just disconnect us.

HU: Ryan Block was trying to cancel his Comcast service. The agent he encountered was making it pretty difficult. So after 10 minutes of pleading to get his service cut off, Block started taping the call because he couldn't believe what was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUSTOMER SERVICE CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm trying to help you, OK? You are not letting me help.

BLOCK: OK, the way that you can help me right now...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I decline the answer - it's by doing all this.

BLOCK: The way that you can help me is by disconnecting our service. That's how you can help me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But how is that helping you though? How is that helping you?

BLOCK: Because that's what I want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Explain to me how that's helping you.

BLOCK: That's what I want.

EMILY YELLIN: It was frustrating to listen to. It's almost a PTSD that we have with bad customer service.

HU: Journalist Emily Yellin wrote a book about these phone calls titled "Your Call Is Not That Important To Us." She says it's likely the agent on the Comcast line was getting paid more if he kept the customer.

YELLIN: It's really not that person on the other end of the line's fault. It's the companies fault and the culture of the company that creates a circumstance around this person that makes them do something like this.

HU: Comcast wouldn't comment on its compensation practices, but Yellin says the fact that the recording was so widely shared shows frustration about these calls is bigger than a single company. You're calling a stranger. He might be on a faraway continent. You and the agent probably have different goals for the call.

YELLIN: It really sets up this dynamic where you're not going to relate to each other as full human beings. And that really, in my opinion, is the responsibility of a company to circumvent that. And it is hard. Doing customer service well is hard.

HU: Some companies have figured it out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to our customer service department. This is our largest group here at our headquarters.

HU: At the Las Vegas headquarters of zappos.com, wowing customers with great service is how the online shoe retailer built its reputation.

ROB SIEFKER: Well, we think of the phone call as an incredible opportunity to reinforce the brand.

HU: Rob Siefker is head of the Zappos call center, which fields an average of 10,000 customer calls and chats each day.

SIEFKER: The promise that we make to customers is that we're going to provide a great experience. If we're going to market that and say that that's what our brand is, then when somebody calls us, that needs to be the experience they have.

HU: Zappos doesn't have automated menus when you call. Hold times are no longer than 20 seconds. And when it comes to human phone interactions, the emphasis is on humanity, even if the call is off-topic.

SIEFKER: We've had people call up and ask to find a restaurant near their hotel or help them order a pizza and our employees have helped people in those instances.

HU: Zappos and other companies like its parent Amazon, JetBlue Airlines and Kimpton Hotels each get high marks for their customer service. But if you need to brace yourself for an exchange with any call center, author Yellin says, it helps if both ends of the line think of their roles a little differently.

YELLIN: Companies need to treat the customer service interaction as something more personal. And customers actually need to treat it more as a business transaction.

HU: Even that advice probably couldn't have helped in the Comcast call heard around the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUSTOMER SERVICE CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I mean, what about those savings, those services are you not wanting?

BLOCK: Are you done?

HU: It's done now. Comcast has said it's embarrassed by its employee's behavior and a company executive personally apologized to the caller. Elise Hu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.