It’s as hard or harder evaluating customer service for software you might adopt than evaluating the software itself. Mainstream computing magazines tend to drown us in all the new features without making the time or resources to evaluate how long choices will last.
By contrast, last year’s Idealware.org assessment
of open source content management systems advised, in part, that what you select in the end may have a lot to do with confidence in who will be your line of support. While evaluating service from consultants is different from generally anonymous commercial enterprises, there is a lot to be said to looking at standards, positive and negative, set by those with the most resources.
At home we are coming to the end, I hope, of a protracted process of updating our cable access subscription. Last fall, when we added Internet and phone service to our Comcast TV account, we took for granted that since the physical pipe out to the Internet would be the same, service would remain the same or even get better. As it happened, there were some kinks in the upgrade process. Even so, despite the need for several service visits to our house, I come out of this with nothing but admiration for Comcast customer service. And it made me think hard about customer service standards that we and colleagues might have.
Thinking back, I can tick off some lessons and for the most part admired in the response. And before that, let me add, this does not mean I’m necessarily endorsing Comcast products over other options. Please: that's a different article! And the service standards may vary nationally. I did see some at least regional service standards that I found admirable.
1. If you have a customer service response line, monitor it. I’m sure many of us have experienced the routine follow up survey after service on a car or such thing. Usually pro-forma and you don’t really expect much back if you had issues. In this case, after the initial upgrade, before even calling back, I posted honest comments about where we stood on a generic Comcast customer satisfaction form. Definitely not irate, but not entirely happy.
Quite surprised, within a day I got a phone call from a regional office quality assurance manager. She identified herself by name, gave us a direct phone line to her desk, let me know her hours of availability, and said she would stick with us until our issues were resolved. Latoya patiently listened to everything and got the wheels moving. Since then, she has responded to all our inquiries and followed the case through. Very impressive. Thanks, Latoya!
2. Don’t blame the customer. My wife Linda and I had direct contact with a bunch of different field and office staff. At no point did they blame us for being stupid, not following instructions, exaggerating problems, not “reading the manual,” not being able to isolate incidents or any such thing. It was quite refreshing. When they came on site, they questioned us carefully, and then went about their work. Every time they tried something new, they explained what they were doing, showed us the monitoring tools they used yet didn’t expect us to grasp the intricacies.
3. Don’t ignore the customer’s expertise. This precept balances the previous one. I’m sure most everyone has had the computer company phone support calls experience, where they completely ignore your technical level of expertise, make you go through painful diagnosis steps even when you are pretty sure you know what the problem is. “Are sure, really sure, really really sure you have paper in that printer? I’ll wait while you check.” Doctors and hospitals can be like this too, for sure. Well, at least with technology, if you have skills, you often want to participate, both to get to the solution faster and to advance your own knowledge. The Comcast folks wanted to hear what we had tried on our own, note our subjective impressions on the issues, take it all seriously and incorporate it into their own diagnostics. This is the other side of the previous point, and we appreciated both.
4. Be prepared to support what you offer. We used our neighborhood association email list to see who else might be having problems. We overlaid this “grass roots” information over incident research Comcast did. It turned out some that cabling further away from where we live needed replacement. I’m imagining that as more people took the promotions to upgrade, demand grew and aging switching equipment faced greater stresses. (Kind of ATT’s mobile broadband woes writ small.) Suddenly cables and switches around the neighborhood had to be checked and upgraded. You wish it had been happening before all the past year’s upgrade promotion offers and not after more folks started upgrading, yet once Comcast saw the problems, they escalated the field response to “plant” to deal with it. Manholes opened up and new cables put in.
5. If the customer has made a mistake, discuss it matter of factly without recrimination. As the field response escalated, a senior “plant” level engineer came on site. While not saying we did anything wrong technically, the engineer was not pleased that when we continued to have problems, we didn’t call him back directly. He had also given us a direct line cell phone number. I had misplaced it, and figured since we already had a “friend” in the Central Office, I should just stick with her. That turned out to be not the best, since it led to different field people coming out, the “plant” team losing sight of our situation. It muddied their diagnosis. I could tell the guy was irked both because he had lost time and information on fixing the problem, and also just maybe because the Central Office had expressed impatience. Yet he never blamed us or said we had made things worse. I appreciated that. We listened and learned and after that, made calls to both, and the response closed in on solutions faster.
6. Especially if they are not all “yours,” be sure of your entire chain of service delivery. Comcast is a unionized workforce, with senior service engineers with impressive experience. They also use contractors. The initial crew who came out to do the upgrade were contractors. We were impressed with their initiative in making improvements to our wiring and so on. Yet much later on, Comcast field staff took a closer look at the cable modem and some of the new wiring. The cable modem was both late model and refurbished. Nothing necessarily wrong with that since it’s theirs and they are supporting it. But it took a long time after we had started having problems before anyone thought of just swapping it out. Ditto for the VOIP phone wire they put in. I have no idea whether the contractor work orders ever went from their home office back to Comcast, and it was a missing piece of information for quite a while.
7. Stick with the customer.
At one point, we gave Latoya the option to just give us up, cut their losses, and move on. I bet we have all at one point or another been in a project that, hmm, hadn’t gone as smoothly as everyone hoped. What we both most appreciated was Comcast’s commitment to making us whole. Latoya said plain and simple Comcast doesn’t walk away from their customers. We in the nonprofit sector may expect that kind of ethic as well, and it’s much harder for a small consulting practice than for giant Comcast. Yet it’s not the kind of commitment that one necessarily expects to see from the big impersonal guys out there. Given that it will probably take five years or more of billings to us before Comcast balances out the cost of all the service calls, I’m especially impressed. For what its worth, here is the "Comcast Credo
Now should we measure our sense of Toyota’s responses to its current crisis against these kinds of criteria? I personally don’t know enough about Toyota to comment. Commentators are wondering what they knew and when they knew it and say it will take a long time for Toyota to fully recover its previous reputation.
And the experience made me reflect back on an experience we had a year or so ago. We were consulting with a client on what to do about commercial software they had previously licensed from a national nonprofit vendor. They felt they were not getting the service they deserved given their annual costs. The organizational staff dealing with the software publisher definitely had above average internal technical ability. Yet open tickets lingered for weeks and months. We asked the client to give the vendor another chance and let us look into things. When we called and said among other things we were evaluating whether the relationship was a good one, all of a sudden, things started to fall into place. We had calls directly from a senior corporate officer. We got technical information we could translate into action and relay to the client. Service has improved and the organization is still using the software. But the whole process left me with an uncomfortable taste and came back to me as I wrote this post.
Despite our problems with Comcast, I come away prepared to recommend them again because of these elements of their response, and in fact just have to a co-worker making the same switch. I wrote this without researching what’s out there for customer service guidelines, , and I’m sure they exist and maybe readers will post them. And I haven't checked whether my experience was typical and so on. Its just based on what I observed here. I liked what I saw.