Roy Exum: Comcast & EPB

Sunday, February 21, 2010 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Last Saturday, on a cold day when an inch of new snow blanketed Lookout Mountain, there came a surprising call from an Electric Power Board technician. He explained he had finished another job early and, noticing my computer was on his "to do" list for Monday, wondered if he might come by and fix the problem two days earlier than was scheduled.

How's that for the greatest reversal in customer service I've seen in the past five years? Yes, earlier in the week we had changed our cable TV, computers and telephones from Comcast to the new EPB Fiber Optics package and, in a word, the new EPB service is absolutely "incredible."

The computers are faster to respond. My 85-year-old mother says she likes the way the TV seems to work easier and claims the picture looks better. Comparatively, the EPB package is also a tad cheaper than what Comcast had cost per month, but the overwhelming reason we changed service companies is because the Electric Power Board is locally owned and operated.

The sad part of the whole thing came when we took back the Comcast equipment, canceling service, and the lady said quietly, "If you'll give us another chance, we'll give you one month free." My goodness, by then "the hay was in the barn," but if it didn't underscore the beauty and the power of healthy competition replacing what had been a lackluster monopoly then nothing ever will.

Personally, I've never had a major beef with Comcast, but when you call their Chattanooga office, some guy in Knoxville answers the phone. I don't like that. Add the fact it's not much of a national secret why Comcast lost 600,000 (of 23.8 million) customers last year.

The company's reputation for customer service has gotten so bad that the nation's largest cable TV provider recently announced it was changing its corporate name to Xfinity in an effort to "reboot" the company's image. So it shouldn't be too startling that with new eager-to-please providers like EPB now entering the market, Comcast officials are suddenly eager to keep customers rather than casually, and sometimes arrogantly, dismissing them.

A couple of weeks ago a Reuters reporter noted that one of the most-watched videos on the popular YouTube website is of a Comcast technician who quite literally falls asleep while sitting on a customer's sofa while waiting on the telephone for a reply from his main office. It's hysterical.

The same story quoted Comcast CEO Brian Roberts as saying the "core issue (of the impending name change) has been customers (who) are not necessarily thrilled with the relationship and the Comcast brand." Roberts also said "customer service" is now the corporation's No. 1 priority.

A noticeable change has also happened at EPB. Owned by the citizens of the community, the electricity supplier also has had a sullied reputation in customer service - this from its monopoly grip on the area. But with the introduction of its fiber optics service, EPB is working hard to wrestle away the huge market share that Comcast has had in the cable business. Obviously, the best way to do that is with a combination of kindness and performance.

Chattanooga's other utility monopolies, the Tennessee-American Water Company and the Chattanooga Gas Company, are both shameful. There is nothing "Tennessee" about the water company, from its 1-866 calling center to where monthly payments are mailed to a far-away bank. The gas company's emergency number, also a 1-866 call, is answered in Atlanta by a person who presumably has never been to Chattanooga.

Wait a minute, there are some wonderful people who work for Comcast, EPB, the water and the gas company. All four hire many of our neighbors who are near-heroic in providing services to us in the area, but many are as stymied as the customers. Just like the Comcast technician on YouTube, they'll tell you that "executive arrogance" repeatedly puts them in an adversarial stance by the time they can actually address and correct the problem.

Face it, there are a number of us who would buy water, gas and electricity from another provider if only we could. Any newcomer, just like EPB's delicious new fiber optic service, would offer immediate respect and performance. Customer service would be wonderful. That's the way it works in every industry where there is healthy competition.

When Costco opens this fall in Fort Oglethorpe, don't you think Wal-Mart will perk up the same way that Comcast is now changing the way they do business? If it were up to me, rather than offer one month free if a customer comes back, Comcast should launch a "loyalty program" to existing customers, something like, "One month free if you stay with me!"

Then again, that's too simple. Instead they are changing the name, "rebranding" as it is called in business school. If the new Xfinity treats customers so poorly they lose another 600,000 this year, it won't make much difference what they call themselves because, brother, EPB is so happy to get a new subscriber they'll even answer a service call two days ahead of schedule.

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