Poor service at root of consumer woes

Consuming Interests

May 22, 2007|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

In the short time this column has been around, a nudge from me and compromise by both parties involved in disputes have helped people get apologies, save money, replace faulty products or receive refunds.

For that, some consumers have written in to praise. Some call to say thanks. One man sent flowers.

One particular person, though, was utterly effusive.

"Thank you for this major accomplishment," said John Carson, a 64-year-old retired police officer from Carroll County. "It means more to me than I can say. Thank you."

You'd think we helped him get a million-dollar refund or a new car. Nope. All Carson got was an updated television-channel guide from his cable company, and someone to listen to him.

That he was so grateful for such a wee bit of help gave me pause.

When complaints come in, I sometimes find myself getting into ridiculous quagmires. But much of the time, I end up trying to fix relatively straightforward problems that have stymied savvy consumers for incomprehensible reasons.

Many consumers find a level of arrogance, indifference or dysfunction that can astound. In many cases, I've found that both sides are shocked by how little effort it takes to resolve the issue at hand.

Is it any wonder then that poor customer service caused nearly half of U.S. consumers to switch at least one service provider over the past year?

Those results are from a 2006 survey by Accenture, a Massachusetts-based global management consultant. Accenture found that certain practices drive consumers completely bonkers; 72 percent said they hate being kept on hold too long; 70 percent dislike having to repeat information to multiple service reps; and 66 percent can't stand that customer service reps can't answer questions.

Sound all too familiar?

In Carson's case, he started calling Comcast Corp. in January with two problems. His first was a very basic request. He wanted an updated, printed television guide to help him channel-surf efficiently.

His second issue was more complicated. It involved a new, 50-inch, rear-projection, high-definition Sony TV, a possibly malfunctioning cable box and a picture that blinked on and off occasionally.

Despite a few visits from Comcast technicians to his home, Carson said he couldn't seem to convince anyone that he even had a problem.

"The box doesn't pick up the HD signal, sometimes," Carson said. "The TV will blink. Comcast has tried three other boxes to fix it, but it still happens occasionally when I watch an Orioles game. It was explained to me that the box might not be compatible with my TV, which has all the bells and whistles in it. I just wanted someone to acknowledge that I was having a problem and that somebody was looking into the problem to eventually solve it."

In regard to the first problem, several customer service reps told him an updated guide would be sent to him. Carson did receive a guide in the mail, but it was the same guide that he already had - and it was missing several channels he found on his TV.

On both issues, Carson spent almost five months talking to Comcast.

"It was anger that drove me to this," Carson said, explaining why he contacted the paper early this month. "I was not getting any success in reaching an ear that gave a damn about my problems."

This is not meant to pick on Comcast, which is far too easy a target. It has 24.2 million cable customers, 12.1 million high-speed Internet customers and 3 million voice customers across the country (in Maryland, Comcast has 1.1 million customers). Any company that big will make mistakes, miss some things or react too slowly and allow customers to fall through the cracks.

In Comcast's defense, the company responded quickly after my initial call. It put an expert technogeek on the line with Carson and promised to look into his unusual blinking HD problem. It also hand-delivered not one, not two, but three updated channel guides to his house.

A technician also took the time to explain to Carson that there's a digital guide available on one of the cable channels on his TV. That little tip was something "an old guy like me doesn't know anything about," Carson said, appreciatively.

Oh, if only that had happened when Carson called.

In taking over the Carroll County service territory from bankrupt Adelphia Communications, Comcast had to integrate 29,000 new customers into its system and "added more than 50 new channels. A new lineup was printed in January and another new lineup in March. Both were sent to him," said Jeff Alexander, vice president of Comcast's Eastern Division.

Alexander also said that Comcast advertised the lineup in newspaper ads and informed customers of any changes. Carson didn't see any of those and said he never received an accurate guide in the mail.

Carson concedes that he wasn't aware of many of these efforts. But he also didn't think he was asking for much when he called.

"I know it seems like I'm making a big deal about a channel guide, but it's your bible, really," said Carson, a devoted boob-tube watcher in his retirement. "I had a pretty simple request and Comcast ignored my repeated calls. It's just really puzzling."

He's not alone there.

"It remains hard for me to understand," Alexander said about Carson's frustrations.

I don't understand it either.

What I do know is that under the Consumer Columnist Protection and Perpetual Employment Act (props to my boss-turned-standup-comic for the witticism), my job security is guaranteed if the idea of service remains what it has become.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mailing consuminginterests @baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming.

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