This Is What Happens When Telcos Treat People Like Machines

The relationship between people and machines has been a recurring theme on talkRA. I discuss the tension between people and machines a lot. But I think the tension is not really between people and machines. The tension is between people who treat other people like human beings, and people who treat other people like machines. People are varied, difficult, unpredictable, individual, and demanding. It would be convenient for a business to have 500 employees who all behave the same way, and 5 million customers who all behave the same way. But people are not like that. Whether we talk about software, controls, or processes, there is a danger that somebody with little empathy for real people, and divorced from the consequences of their decisions, will make terrible choices that then become hard coded into the ‘rules’ of the business. These decisions may look good from the cold, abstract perspective of a spreadsheet, but can be terrible for the human beings affected by them. The end result is the kind of customer experience shared below.

American technology journalist Ryan Block called Comcast to cancel his internet service. After ten minutes of arguing with Comcast’s ‘retention specialist’, he decided to record the remainder of the call, capturing the final eight minutes. Afterwards, he shared the recording on SoundCloud, where it took just two days to reach 4 million people. Why did 4 million people take an interest in Block speaking to Comcast about cancelling his service? Because Comcast’s representative repeatedly demanded an explanation for why Block wanted to cancel his service – in the obvious hope that Block would simply give up and remain a customer. Listen for yourself…

I wanted to talk about this incident because these examples must be balanced against any data-centric analysis of how to boost revenues, reduce churn, and so on. This recording is also data. Unfortunately, it is the kind of data that is hard to compress into numbers and spreadsheets. But it is still vitally important data if we want to understand how well the business is performing. And this data says: “avoid Comcast as your service provider, because they treat customers badly.”

The recording also says that Comcast treats its staff like machines. Whilst the customer thinks they are talking to a human being, who has some discretion over how they behave, the customer might as well be speaking to an IVR. Comcast’s representative behaves like a slave to the rigid rules he is expected to follow. That means the employee is required to ‘save’ the customer by any means possible, even if the customer is absolutely determined to leave.

A statement issued by Comcast puts the blame solely on their representative, saying:

The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.

However, others have questioned Comcast’s corporate attitude. When Comcast tweeted to say they would take ‘quick action’, Block tweeted back:

I hope the quick action you take is a thorough evaluation of your culture and policies, and not the termination of the rep.

And somebody claiming to be a former employee of Comcast used Reddit to share a much more comprehensive analysis of why Comcast’s representatives would behave like this:

If I was reviewing this guys calls I’d agree that this is an example of going a little too hard at it, but here’s the deal (and this is not saying they’re doing the right thing, this is just how it works). First of all these guys have a low hourly rate. In the states I’ve worked in they start at about 10.50-12$/hr. The actual money that they make comes from their metrics for the month which depends on the department they’re in. In sales this is obvious, the more sales you make the better you do.

In retention, the more products you save per customer the better you do, and the more products you disconect the worst you do (if a customer with a triple play disconnects, you get hit as losing every one of those lines of business, not just losing one customer.) These guys fight tooth and nail to keep every customer because if they don’t meet their numbers they don’t get paid.

Comcast uses “gates” for their incentive pays, which means that if you fall below a certain threshold (which tend to be stretch goals in the first place) then instead of getting a reduced amount, you get 0$. Let’s say that if you retain 85% of your customers or more (this means 85% of the lines of businesses that customers have when they talk to you, they still have after they talk to you), you get 100% of your payout – which might be 5-10$ per line of business. At 80% you might only get 75% of your payout, and at 75% you get nothing.

The CAEs (customer service reps) watch these numbers daily, and will fight tooth and nail to stay above the “I get nothing” number. This guy went too far, you’re not supposed to flat out argue with them. But comcast literally provides an incentive for this kind of behavior. It’s the same reason peoples bills are always fucked up, people stuffing them with things they don’t need or in some cases don’t even agree to.

I find this account of Comcast’s rules to be credible. Comcast may have a rule saying their reps should not argue with customers. However, nobody is this overzealous unless they are motivated to be like this. In other words, something in Comcast’s rules, procedures and incentives is motivating this human being to be so dogged at retaining customers. Without a financial incentive, it would be normal for the rep to just do as Block asked, cancelling the service and ending the call as quickly as possible. Arguing for nearly 20 minutes shows that the rep has something personally at stake. In this case, the rep has too much at stake.

Whilst Comcast’s motivational techniques might deliver good results on their spreadsheet – there is no doubt this kind of high-energy ‘retention’ strategy will influence some customers – there are also downside consequences for real people which may not be shown by the data that management looks at. No matter how much data we think we have, when it comes it comes to marketing analysis, customer service, satisfaction and loyalty, we need to remember how difficult it is to reduce people’s attitudes and behaviour to numbers which computers can calculate. Decision-makers who ignore human consequences do not deserve respect, whether they intend to disconnect a batch of old services, and wait to see if any customers complain that they have been affected, or whether they give a salesman a big bonus for results, then plead ignorance of the salesman’s unethical tactics.

Data can be clean and straightforward, making it pleasant to work with. Much of business assurance is rightly oriented around data. Manipulating and managing data contrasts with the messy business of how people think and act, which is difficult to record, measure and describe using rules and formulae. But telcos exist to serve people, and business assurance professionals should always keep that in mind.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.