Patrolling Web for gripes

Comcast strives for quick response to unhappy customers

April 24, 2008|By Bob Fernandez | Bob Fernandez,The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA - Most afternoons, the Internet in Sarah Chambers' office at iFractal LLC in Center City crashes and leaves her cyber-stranded without e-mail or online communication with clients.

When it happened for the zillionth time a few days ago, Chambers tried something new, once her Web connection reappeared. She shot Comcast a curt public message on the social networking site Twitter:

"My Internet goes out every day at 3:30. Why would that be?"

Frank Eliason, a Comcast Corp. manager in Center City with the daunting assignment of monitoring the nation's blogosphere for venomous posts aimed at the company, answered right away: "That should not be. We should have that looked at. Send an e-mail with account info to We_Can_Helpcable.comcast.com."

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.

But a cautionary note: Eliason's quick action and kind words don't necessarily lead to a quick fix, as Chambers discovered.

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.

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.

On Twitter, where users write blurbs on what they're doing or thinking at the moment, a passing complaint can be an early warning signal to Comcast. The site, said Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder, is the sort of forum that Comcast should monitor.

"If Comcast can get to those influencers, the complaints will not grow to a full blog post," he said. Eliason has posted about 600 messages, or "tweets," on Twitter.

Comcast is "waking up to the fact that a bad rap in the social networking space could spread like crazy," said Shel Holtz, a public relations consultant in the San Francisco area. "If consumers are talking to each other about your brand, you should participate in that conversation and have a good story to tell."

Comcast has had a public relations nightmare with Comcastmustdie.com, launched in October by Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield.

In another widely publicized incident in August, 76-year-old Mona Shaw of Virginia busted up a Comcast office with a hammer because her phone hadn't worked for six days.

Moreover, the company with 24 million pay-TV subscribers ranks near the bottom of customer satisfaction lists by leading consumer research firm J.D. Power and other organizations.

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 telecommunications 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 past 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. Eliason's interaction can lead to a glowing online post from a thankful and surprised customer - just the sort of buzz Comcast needs.

"It started small, and then it snowballed," Eliason, 35, said. As word spread on the Internet that he was available, people sought him.

Eliason works on the fifth floor of the new Comcast Center and uses Internet search tools on Google and Technorati to find Comcast blog references. He began blog trawling as a part-time assignment in September. His unit is growing to five employees this week, and there are plans to add two more employees after that. Most times, he said, he gets problems solved "through normal channels" in Comcast.

On Twitter, Eliason's first postings are about 6:30 in the morning and his last at 9 at night. His fingerprints are all over cyberspace.

As for the Internet problems at iFractal, part-owner Frank Roche speculated that the Internet gets overloaded, resulting in outages, when students return from school in the neighborhood south of Rittenhouse Square.

Chambers' company produces short videos, posters, brochures and interactive Web sites to desseminate information to managers and employees inside corporations.

Chambers, who sent her online query to Comcast on a Monday, received a voice message from Comcast two days later. She returned the call without reaching anyone, and then received another phone message on a Thursday.

By the following Friday, she had no resolution and no repair appointment. But she remained optimistic: "They seem to be really trying."

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