Comcast, me, and the long arm of Jeff Jarvis
Thanks to the intervention of Comcast corporate in Philadelphia, it appears our long
national apartmental nightmare may soon be over. (Knock on wood!) A team of cable techs is scheduled to come over at around 3:00 PM today to replace the entire series of tubes wires that runs from the cable "tap," over to the "lockbox," up to the attic, and down into our apartment, nothin' but net. (Er, scratch that last part. There's been very little "net" to speak of in recent weeks!)
There are no guarantees, but the hope is that this re-wiring will fix our long-standing, worsening, intermittent connectivity problems (about which, details after the jump). And, crucially, they're doing it free of charge -- contrary to the company's ridiculous standard policy of holding apartment dwellers financially responsible for necessary repairs to the wiring outside the four walls of their apartments. (More on that, too, after the jump.)
I mentioned the "corporate intervention" angle, and that's probably the most interesting aspect of this saga. It all started with my offhanded expression of bloggy frustration on April 3, after the cable guy never showed up for an appointment that I'd left work early for. (The phone rep had written down my area code wrong, so the tech couldn't reach me by phone to confirm that I was home, so he never came.) That post triggered an e-mail from Frank Eliason in Philly (Comcast's corporate home base), who filed a "corporate complaint" on my behalf. (Frank also commented on a later blog post.) Frank's complaint, in turn, spurred a full-court press by the local Knoxville office to get my problem fixed, which culminated in today's appointment.
What's interesting is, Frank's intervention isn't an isolated incident. It's part of a broad Comcast initiative, of which Frank is the point man, to improve the company's image by reaching out to bloggers, Twitterers, and others who use their online platforms to say nasty things about Comcast. The Philadelphia Inquirer had a front-page story about this effort in Saturday's paper, which revealed:
Under siege for customer-service woes detailed on Comcastmustdie.com and other blogs, the Philadelphia cable giant has gone on the offensive, trawling the Internet for Comcast chatter. Eliason's assignment is very specific: If someone has a Comcast problem and is talking about it online, he contacts that person and offers help.
If Eliason thinks it's an emergency that could spiral into unpleasantness, like an expletive-loaded blog bomb, he gets on the phone and cuts through the corporate red tape. ...
Eliason's blog spotting is part public relations and part acknowledgment that the Internet is playing a broader role in defining company brands. Technology companies woke up to this fact after "Dell Hell" postings by blogger Jeff Jarvis in 2005.
Ha! The arm of
Sauron Jeff Jarvis is long!
Of course, it goes without saying that one shouldn't have to pose a P.R. threat in order to get good help from a company that one pays upwards of $100/month to. Nevertheless, this is a smart thing Comcast is doing.
Moreover, I give credit where credit is due: in contrast to my dismal experiences* with Comcast's customer service last spring, almost everyone I've dealt with this time around -- not just the corporate people, but the techs and phone reps, too -- has been professional, courteous, and competent (wrong-area-code lady being an obvious exception). That, too, is apparently symptomatic of a broader effort by Comcast to, well, stop sucking at life, basically.
More on that effort -- and on my issue -- after the jump.
*The linked post, incidentally, was Instalanched, but triggered no response whatsoever from Comcast corporate. That was last June. So they're clearly getting better at the rapid-blog-response thing.
Again quoting from the Inquirer article:
Comcast executives say the company's customer-service problems deepened as it expanded through acquisitions and added millions of high-speed Internet and phone customers. The company, with $31 billion in annual revenue, has leaned too heavily on outsourcers for phone help and repairs, they say.
"Customer expectation in today's world is much higher than it was five years ago. People want what they want, and they want it now," said Rick Germano, Comcast's senior vice president for national customer operations.
"Dead accurate" was what Germano said of national consumer studies that place Comcast near the bottom of lists for customer satisfaction.
The company has to "materially and significantly" improve, he said, noting it could take several years. "We're playing catch-up." ...
Satellite and cable industries place among the nation's worst-performing sectors for customer satisfaction, said Claes G. Fornell, a business professor at the University of Michigan and director of the National Quality Research Center. Comcast ranks second from the bottom in the cable-satellite group in his American Satisfaction Index, he said.
"There are clearly people who are angry," said Frank Perazzini, director of telecommunications at J.D. Power & Associates. Comcast's customer satisfaction is "below average across the board. . . . There are a lot of issues to address."
In the February issue of Consumer Reports, Comcast ranked ninth in a summary table of 10 big telecom companies. It was sandwiched between Time Warner Cable, at No. 8, and last-place Charter Communications Inc.
Saying it will improve the dismal rankings, Comcast has hired 15,000 "customer-facing" employees in the last 15 months and opened or expanded almost a dozen customer call centers. One of the largest new centers is in Newark, Del., where the company is hiring 800 workers.
Read the whole thing. As I say, my anecdotal experience suggests that the recent efforts are paying dividends. And again, I'm not just talking about the fruits of the corporate intervention, which are unique to me as a blogger. I'm talking about the competence and courtesy of the "boots of the ground" folks I've dealt with.
One remaining issue that really burns me, though, is the company's standard policy of charging its customers for the sort of repair work that they'll be doing for me later today. As I said, they're doing this work for me free of charge, but that's an exception to the rule. The rule itself ought to be changed, in my view. Here's what I wrote in an e-mail to Frank about this, before I was assured that I wouldn't be charged:
I object to this in principle because I think I pay $100 per month (cable TV + internet) for service that works, not for service that doesn't work. If something breaks, I think the onus in Comcast to either: a) fix it, at Comcast's expense, or b) show me how it's my fault. If it turns out to be my fault, and Comcast wasted its resources fixing it, I don't object to paying for that. [Well, I might not object. It would depend on the circumstances. -ed.] But I don't think the assumption should be that I have to pay for getting my service to work. I'm already paying for it -- it's called a monthly cable bill.
That said, Comcast's logic, re: the wires being "mine," would make a reasonable amount of sense if I lived in a house. After all, then I would truly have control over the wires on my property, so anything that happens to those wires could be fairly attributed to me. But I live in an apartment complex -- as, I presume, do thousands upon thousands of Comcast customers. And from my perspective as an apartment-dwelling Comcast customer, it makes absolutely zero sense that I am considered responsible for anything outside of my apartment's walls. I don't own those wires, I don't control them, I don't even know where they are or how to get to them, and I certainly don't know who else might be tampering with them. So why should I have to pay to fix them, when they are -- from my perspective -- simply the final stage of the delivery system that gets the cable signal from Comcast's central hub into my apartment?
As I said, I'm looking at this from *my* perspective. Now, I like to think I'm a reasonable person, and I can see it from Comcast's perspective, too. Just as I don't control those wires, neither do you, at least not entirely; they're (I presume) in or over some common area that (again, I presume) at least the maintenance people at our apartment complex have access to, and so you don't know what might be going on there. So, they're in a sort of weird gray area. And from your perspective, I can see how you'd want to pass those costs on to somebody else.
But that's from *your* perspective. It's a company-centric viewpoint, rather than a customer-centric viewpoint. In light of your stated commitment to improving Comcast's customer service, I think it behooves you to look at these things from a more customer-centric viewpoint. And there is simply no way it is logical, from a customer's perspective, to say that I, or any other apartment-dwelling customer, should be held financially responsible for aspects of the Comcast signal-delivery infrastructure that I have literally no ability to control.
There are other reasons why I find this policy problematic. First off, I have no idea when that line was "laid down." It certainly wasn't newly laid for me when my cable was installed. Maybe it was for the previous tenant... or maybe the one before that... or maybe it was five or ten years ago. Who knows? I certainly don't. Regardless, why should I, as a customer who's only been using those cables for nine months, be held responsible for, among other things, the natural wear and tear that has occurred while God knows how many previous customers were using those wires? Why, in short, should I be responsible for subsidizing Comcast to keep its infrastructure up-to-date? Isn't that just part of the cost of doing business? Doesn't my $100/month already pay for that?
Secondly, while I have zero access to the cables in question, Comcast, although it doesn't have total control over them, does have some access to them, at least sometimes, because presumably at some points these cables are near each other, and so Comcast may be working near my wires while doing repair work for other customers in my building. Thus, if someone has damaged the wires (beyond the normal wear & tear), it is more likely, as between me and Comcast, that Comcast damaged them. Yet, by requiring me to pay (on the theory that the wires are my responsibility), Comcast essentially creates an irrebutable presumption (sorry - lawyer mode) that any damage is my fault. This doesn't make logical sense, given the reality of the situation, and it's bad customer service to boot.
Thirdly, suppose I have those wires re-laid, on the advice on Comcast techs... and it doesn't fix the problem that they said it'd fix. I'm still on the hook for that $35+, yet my problem remains unsolved! If I'm going to pay at all for a repair -- which, again, I object to in principle, because I think my monthly fee means I'm paying for service, not for non-service -- I'd at least like to have confidence that the repair will fix the problem! This is different from doing to a car repair shop or something, because again, I'm paying Comcast to give me cable service, which, in my mind, includes an implicit guarantee that everything cable-service-related that's outside the walls of my home works properly.
Depending on the results of the repair work, Comcast may have bought my continued loyalty, for now, by deigning to make an exception to its customer-pays repair policy. But the policy remains objectionable, and if Comcast is serious about improving customer service, it ought to be changed. If that necessitates increasing everybody's cable bill by $2/month or whatever -- and I doubt it does, but if it does -- then so be it; that's vastly more fair than requiring randomly unlucky individuals to pay potentially exorbitant additional fees simply to get the cable and Internet services that they already pay for... particularly when those individuals don't own the property on which the wiring in question is located,
Anyway... if there's anybody still reading at this point, perhaps you're interested in knowing the details of my Internet issue. I can't imagine why, but hey, whatever floats your boat. :) So, here's an excerpt from an e-mail that I sent to some of the corporate folk yesterday (before today's appointment had been scheduled), explaining the latest on my situation:
[B]asically the only time we've had fully functional service since Friday evening was on Monday afternoon, when the tech came to check things out. (Doesn't that figure?) Otherwise, we either get no service at all, or intermittent, on-and-off service. Last night, I was actually using my cell phone as a modem to "live-blog" the Pennsylvania Primary results, because my Comcast connection was down. The situation has really deteriorated -- it used to be "intermittent" in the sense that it occasionally didn't work; now it's "intermittent" in the sense that it occasionally works. I.e., most of the time, it's broken. It's gotten totally intolerable, and worth far, far less than $52.95 a month (!).
As best as I can tell, the technical problem appears to be mostly related to our "upstream" connection. I don't understand a lot about how these things work, so forgive me if this explanation doesn't make sense, but it *seems* like what happens is this: we are often unable to get any packets of information *out* onto the Internet (including simple requests like "please download X or Y webpage"), and when they do go out, they often go out quite slowly. However, when we *do* manage to get packets out, there is no speed problem in the *downstream* response. So, in other words, if we manage to send a signal to X or Y website that we want to download a page or a file, that page or file, once it actually begins downloading, will do so at a normal speed. But, often it won't download at all, because the request to download it never gets sent out. And sometimes it'll download one portion of a website at normal speed, then stop for a while, then download another portion, etc.
All of this seems to indicate, to me at least, an upstream rather than a downstream problem. I've also run numerous speed tests which seem to confirm this behavior: it'll take forever to start pinging or downloading anything, but when it finally does so, the ping and downstream speeds are fine. The upstream speed, though, is either abysmal (I've had it register as low as ~100 kb/s) or nonexistent. It's happened several times that I've gotten a downstream speed of 6000 kb/s or better, but then never even registered ANY upstream speed because it simply refused to start uploading anything. (For example: http://blog.brendanloy.com
/2008/04/more-comcast-we.html) I actually took an interesting screenshot video of this phenomenon, which I showed to the last tech. Alas, as I said, the problem wasn't happening when he was at our apartment.
I know that the problem isn't my wireless router, because I've had the same issue with and without the router. I can't be 100% certain it's not my cable modem, because I don't have an alternate cable modem to test it with. But the three technicians who have visited our apartment haven't mentioned anything about the modem as a likely culprit, and it doesn't "feel" to me like a modem problem. It "feels" like a signal problem. (Why would a faulty modem produce only *intermittent* problems?)
The tech who visited on Monday was very friendly and helpful (they all have been), but he was unable to actually diagnose the problem -- in part because, as I said, there *was* no problem at the moment of his visit. But he ran a battery of tests, physically inspected all sorts of wires and connections both outside and inside (he even let me tag along to look at the lockbox and such), and was unable to find anything obviously wrong. His suggestion was that we have the outside wiring replaced, all the way from the tap to our apartment, on the theory that -- although the signal *appears* to be fine -- some unknown defect may be causing our Internet to have these problems. He said he's seen exactly that sort of scenario many times before. Having done some amateur tech support myself, I know exactly what he means: sometimes technology just doesn't work, and nobody knows why; you just have to replace it. That's basically what he's recommending.
And now, that's what they'll be doing. Hopefully it fixes the problem. Stay tuned, as they say!