Saturday, July 12, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

"Why Comcast would rather be feared than loved"

Harvard Business Review editor speculates about why the biggest cable co. makes it so tough to collect a cable-box deposit, even when you're moving out of their territory

"Why Comcast would rather be feared than loved"

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

"Cable companies do make occasional superficial attempts to be better-liked," writes Justin Fox, editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, in this screed (thanks to Tom Paine of PhillyTechNews for posting the link).

 "But the companies continue to keep one crucial element of the customer experience as difficult and frightening as possible. That would be the experience of disconnecting...

 "I was simply moving out of Comcast's service area... I had to call and talk to an actual human being... All that was left to do, he told me, was to 'drop off' my cable box and modem at a local service center...

 "I passed through the now-unlocked door into a scene from pre-1989 Eastern Europe. There were four or five service windows in the grim little office; all but one had 'closed' signs. The one window that was staffed had seven or eight oppressed-looking people waiting in line, and wasn't moving..."

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 Fox pushed his box into one of the unstaffed Comcast service windows. The Comcast staffer "said she was going to call the police. I pushed it back in through the window, and walked out...

 "After the weekend I called Comcast to get the price tag. The (perfectly nice) guy on the phone said there was no evidence in the system that my equipment had been returned," and if Comcast couldn't find his exact equipment, "I'd owe $250 for the cable box and $110 for the modem...

 "Libraries, video rental stores, and banks long ago perfected systems that allow people to drop off books, DVDs, and deposits without waiting in line or talking to anybody... Cable companies have instead chosen to stick with their inefficient, labor-intensive, maddening equipment-return ritual.

 "The most plausible explanation...: The equipment-return rigamarole is a customer retention strategy. Customers who can't conceivably be retained, like me, are just collateral damage in the effort to scare potential cable defectors into staying put... 

 "Their market penetration has probably peaked, as younger consumers increasingly opt for cheaper workarounds via their Internet connections. So the clearest path to continued profit is to lock in existing customers, and find ways to charge them more... The equipment-return thing is pure coercion. Machiavelli would have been impressed."

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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