Demonizing the Customer

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By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005

Find yourself muttering the "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" consumer mantra more often lately? Since misery loves company, check out this bizarre episode from the Customer Service Encounters of the Worst Kind folder. It's a case about one company even misery may have trouble loving.

When LaChania Govan couldn't get her cable-TV's digital recorder working, the 25-year-old working mother complained to Comcast Corp., her cable company. More than 40 times over four weeks she phoned Comcast's customer-service department asking for help. "Calling Comcast became my second job," says the Elgin, Ill., consumer. "I had to ensure the cordless phone was fully charged and the kids were content -- and I sat and called, I cooked and called, I cleaned and called, and just called."

Govan says she was disconnected repeatedly, transferred to the Spanish-speaking customer queue (not her language), put on hold, transferred to technicians who didn't have a clue, "and so on and so on."

Eventually she reached a "savior," that gem of a service rep everyone hopes to reach. The rep sent a technician to replace Govan's cable box at no charge and credited Govan with a month of service.

Case closed, right? If only. When Govan's next monthly Comcast bill arrived in the mail, it was addressed to "Bitch Dog." Go ahead, rub your eyes in disbelief, then read again. Govan says her initial reaction was "come on, you have to be kidding me!" Then, she felt "shocked and appalled," she says.

The Chicago Tribune scooped the story in mid-August, and follow-ups have appeared in the Trib, the Associated Press, MSNBC and elsewhere. Govan's case has become something of a cause clbre bringing to a head the rage consumers increasingly feel toward inept and uncaring customer service -- and now vice versa.

"The demonization of customers is not an uncommon or rare event, but getting caught demonizing the customer as this company did is really rare," says Scott M. Broetzmann, president of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, which recently released its annual Customer Rage Survey (see the Oct. 30 column, " 'Service' That's Anything But").

Customer service personnel commonly "ventilate" about customers they deal with all day, he says, but seldom to the customer's face. When one of his clients held sensitivity training for its customer-service employees, asking them to draw pictures of their customers, most of the drawings were "hideous, grotesque," he says. There's even a Web site called Customerssuck.com (slogan: "The customer is never right!") where "frontline retail types" tell their horror stories.

"It's a high-stress job," says Broetzmann, not making excuses, just stating the fact.

Govan, you should know, is a customer-service rep herself. She works for a credit card company and has been in the business for six years. That training helped keep her from flying off the hook through the incident. When you hear what she thinks customer service ought to be about, you may wonder why Comcast doesn't hire her. Customer service "means to me being friendly, helpful and respectful," says Govan. "I know how it feels to be a customer service rep and [to be] a consumer on the other end. You do not have to settle for less, and you do not have to be mistreated."

To Comcast's credit, the supervisor to whom Govan first told the story was aghast, offered her two months of free service and promised to investigate. When the initial story ran in the Trib, a Comcast executive left an apology on Govan's answering machine. In a later conversation with Govan, he apologized again and offered six months' free service to make amends -- which Govan has refused. Comcast, she says, "has to accept the fact that they have humiliated me, not just by the bill" but by the fact that people associate her with this story. "It affects everyone around me and my children."

Comcast reportedly fired two customer-service employees connected to the incident and changed rules to allow only supervisors to change customer names on billings.

"This goes beyond losing your temper and saying something you wish you kept to yourself," says Cheryl Reed, spokeswoman for Consumers for Cable Choice Inc. (CCC), an Indianapolis alliance of consumers, advocacy groups and other organizations founded in June to promote fair prices, choices and better service in the cable TV marketplace.

Inspired by Govan's story, CCC last month launched the MyCableNightmare.com Web site as a consumer grievance forum encouraging cable customers to voice their frustrations.

"We're not anti cable, we're anti bad cable," says Reed, adding that Govan's story and those on the site are indicative of an industry problem -- no competition in cable, video and broadband services is why cable's prices are skyrocketing and customer service is hitting rock bottom. "Consumers need a better deal, and competition by its very nature will give them a better deal."

But one disclosure is needed: When CCC got started last summer, it received a $75,000 start-up grant from Verizon Communications Inc., a telephone company that has a vested interest in promoting changes in regulations to open the cable marketplace to competition.

"We are quite open that we have accepted industry funding," says Reed, adding that 38 member groups and organizations also supply support. "We don't care who provides the competition that will give consumers a better product and better price . . . but we're passionate about having competition."

Got questions or comments? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details toconsumer@washpost.comor write to Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Because of the volume of mail, personal replies are not always possible.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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