You can check out any time you’d like, but you can never… well, you know the song.Aurich Lawson
Comcast and Charter yesterday told US senators how they’re trying to fix their poorly rated customer service.
Executives from the nation’s two largest cable companies testified in a hearing in response to a Senate investigation detailing the industry’s shortcomings.
Comcast Cable Senior VP of Customer Service Tom Karinshak detailed some customer service initiatives, mostly ones that are already in progress.
Transcripts of the companies’ testimony along with Senate investigative reports are available here.
AT&T (owner of DirecTV) and Dish also testified.
“At Comcast, we understand why we are here,” Karinshak said. “We and the industry as a whole have not always made customer service the high priority it should have been. We regret that history and have committed to our customers that we will lead the way with initiatives to change it; we are committed to making every part of our customers’ experience better, and we have already begun to do so.”
Comcast said it has come up with a customer “Bill of Rights” with principles including these: more training and technology for employees; fair prices for customers; being on time and minimizing wait times; enabling self-service; keeping bills simple and transparent; re-assessing policies and fees that frustrate customers; crediting customers proactively for outages and billing errors; allowing customers to end their service without a hassle; [and] measuring employees on customer satisfaction.
A Senate investigative report found that Charter and its new subsidiary, Time Warner Cable (TWC), have been overcharging customers at least $7.2 million per year for equipment and service. While Comcast apparently isn’t as big an offender in that area, Senate Democrats released a second report detailing other failures common to Comcast and fellow pay-TV operators. The report gave special attention to the various fees that raise prices above advertised rates and how cable companies make it hard for customers to downgrade or cancel service.
Comcast has been particularly infamous in this regard, with “retention agents” refusing to process cancelation requests until Comcast customers convince agents that they really do have a good reason to cancel.
In response to senators’ criticism, Karinshak said Comcast has “provided additional guidance to our retention representatives about the disconnect process for our customers and continue to work on ways to further streamline disconnect requests.
For example, we’re piloting a program to make it easier to cancel service online.
As part of the pilot, customers can now log on, enter a request, and cancel their service. We follow up by phone within two days just to verify the request, which we have to do for privacy and identity protection reasons (e.g., to verify the identity and credentials of the individual who canceled the account), and we will even make arrangements for them so all they have to do is drop any equipment they have at a local UPS store and have it sent back to us at no charge. We are continuing to explore other ways to make this process even simpler for our customers.”
Even this process can’t be fully completed online and requires customers to explain why they’re canceling, we noted in a previous story about California legislation that would require ISPs to let customers cancel online.
As for fees, Karinshak said Comcast recently stopped charging “change-of-service fees” but said it continues to charge many others.
Charging for “optional add-on services like our DVR service or for enabling HD technology” allows customers to get a lower bill if they don’t want those services, he said.
Comcast has extended the time in which customers can dispute charges from 60 to 120 days, given “front-line agents” the authority to issue credits of up to $100, and “afforded customers who say that they returned equipment the benefit of the doubt without requiring a receipt,” he said.
Other ongoing Comcast customer service initiatives described by Karinshak include the following:
Creating more than 5,500 US-based customer service jobs over three years.
Automatically crediting customers $20 when technicians arrive late.
Giving employees a new cloud-based platform with “a better, holistic view of the customer’s account history so they have everything they need… to help customers faster and you won’t need to start over each time you talk to a different agent.”
Renovating and opening hundreds of retail stores.
Devoting 125 employees to handle complaints on social media.
Providing an interactive troubleshooting guide for customers within the “My Account” app.
Karinshak also said that pay plans for employees, including top executives, now depend on customer satisfaction scores—which are pretty low, at least when measured by third-party research firms.
But Comcast uses internal metrics to judge its employees and set pay, the company told Ars.
Charter’s plan and more details on overcharges
Charter, meanwhile, has its work cut out for it because it’s still in the early stages of integrating Time Warner Cable (TWC) after an acquisition that made the company nearly four times larger.
Charter has been trying to improve customer service since 2012, in part by “insourc[ing] thousands of Americans jobs that had previously been located overseas,” said Charter Executive VP of Customer Operations Kathleen Mayo.
Charter expects to hire another 20,000 US citizens as it continues to in-source service operations. “Today, nearly 90 percent of our customer calls are handled onshore and in-house, and 95 percent of our in-home service visits are performed by Charter employees, rather than third-party contractors,” Mayo said. “By bringing those jobs in-house, Charter is better able to manage and train the people who work directly with our customers.”
As we reported yesterday, Charter has agreed—under pressure from senators—to identify billing overcharges and automatically credit customers.
Out of 11 million Charter boxes in customers’ homes (excluding TWC), Charter found 63,000 instances where customers were overbilled for the boxes at some point over the past 9 months.
Since Charter acknowledged that it has overcharged customers at least $442,691 per month, that works out to average overcharges of $63.28 for each box victimized by over-billing.
Before the TWC merger, Charter had 6.8 million subscribers, so there’s more than one box per customer.
“We were pleased that our accuracy rate [more than 99 percent] was as high as it was, but I will never be satisfied until we have zero instances of over-billing,” Mayo said. “For the affected customers we identified over the course of this review, we will explain in their next bill that they were overcharged and will be issued a 12-month credit for those equipment fees.
During the course of this process, we also discovered approximately 9,000 boxes for which customers were not billed, though they should have been. We will correct and explain the discrepancy moving forward but will not seek to collect those fees that should have been charged.”
To eliminate this type of billing problem going forward, Charter has implemented “controls to catch any box/customer mismatch on a daily basis.” The Senate report said this is progress, but added that it doesn’t offer a complete solution.
Charter has not yet completed all the work necessary to determine how much it has over-billed customers, the report said.
That’s why the numbers are described as the minimum that Charter has overcharged customers, rather than the full amount.
Charter also “estimates that it has annually overcharged approximately 5,897 Missouri customers a total of $494,000 each year,” nearly $84 per customer.
This data came in response to a query by Sen.
Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
TWC—which was still independent when the Senate began its investigation—has started performing monthly audits to find overcharges and issue automatic credits, and it will move from monthly to daily audits under Charter ownership.
But the changes won’t involve refunds to customers for all of the overcharges they’ve paid over the years. Neither Charter nor TWC automatically refunded or credited customers during the 6.5-year span studied by the Senate investigation.
Time Warner Cable’s total overcharges worked out to $1.9 million a year, affecting a small fraction of the 37 million pieces of equipment in service. “Our equipment billing error rate for video subscribers is a very small .07 percent and for Internet subscribers, .03 percent,” TWC Chief Operating Officer John Keib said. (Keib left the company after the Charter acquisition.)
Mayo said Charter is trying to be “a different kind of cable company.”
“To improve the customer experience and focus instead on our products, we don’t charge common industry fees like additional modem fees, sports surcharges, separate USF [Universal Service Fund] fees, or early termination charges,” Mayo said.
Charter says its metrics show a 12-percent increase in customer satisfaction since 2011. While senators pointed out that customers often cannot get their problems resolved on the first phone call, Charter said it is resolving problems on the first call 80 percent of the time.
There’s still a ways to go for both Charter and Comcast: a recent Temkin Group customer survey rated ISPs and pay-TV providers as the nation’s least-liked industries.
As we previously reported, “Among eight ISPs rated, four got very poor ratings: Time Warner Cable (48 percent), Charter (48 percent), Cablevision (47 percent), and Comcast (40 percent).” Comcast scores remain low even though Comcast Executive VP David Cohen pledged major changes in front of a Senate hearing more than two years ago.
Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns about 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications.
Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.