Comcast’s NPS Gamble: Can The Metric Help Fix The Customer Experience Culture?

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Recently, Comcast has received broad media coverage regarding its major customer experience transformation initiative. They have announced a multi-year plan whose key theme is creation of a culture which will be focused on exceeding customer expectations, at all levels of the company (and, presumably, in all functions). As quoted by Neil Smit, Comcast’s President and CEO of the cable division, “We are going to reimagine our whole experience through a customer lens.”

How does Comcast translate this statement into specific actions? To achieve their stated goal, Comcast is adding more than 5,500 customer service jobs over the next few years. In addition,



– Comcast is opening three new customer support centers – in Albuquerque, NM, Spokane, WA, and Tucson, AZ – with a total of 2,000 employees
– Comcast is developing a feature, called Tech Tracker, which enables customers to track the location and arrival of their technician in real time and then rate the experience
– Comcast will require that all employees – from senior execs to frontline staff – participate in additional customer service training every year
– Comcast will triple the size of its social care team, to serve customers more quickly on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media
– Comcast will hire 250 more employees to serve in its Xfinity stores around the country. Also, they are redesigning their stores, and adding new stores
– Comcast has developed new network tools so that their engineers can solve customer issues before the service appointment
– Comcast is hiring hundreds of additional technicians; and, if a tech doesn’t arrive on time for an appointment, the customer will automatically be credited $20
– Comcast is launching a new cloud-based platform to give employees a better view of customer account history

As Smit has concluded: “This transformation is about shifting our mindset to be completely focused on the customer. It’s about respecting their time, being more proactive, doing what’s right, and never being satisfied with good enough. We’re on a mission and everyone is committed to making this happen.”

Okay, but does any of the rhetoric, not to mention the enormous resource investment, address the more fundamental issues of culture at Comcast? As I’ve observed and commented in the past (http://www.targetmarketingmag.com/post/comcast-is-too-big-fail-but-not-too-big-suck/ and http://customerthink.com/how-customer-centricity-creates-bondingand-rejection-and-anger-yes-boys-and-girls-culture-matters/), improving (and sustaining) the customer experience requires considerably more than just adding staff, making process changes and enhancing employee training. If modifying cultural DNA isn’t a major priority of the ‘transformation’, throwing technology, bodies and training at the key challenges will likely result in little that is perceived by customers as positive experiential movement.

Comcast begins their initiative, which Smit believes is “the right thing to do” with a notable reputation for providing poor customer experiences. In fact, in the Temkin Group Q1 2015 Customer Service Ratings, Comcast was last out of 278 companies; and the company was 291st out of 293 companies in Temkin’s Q1 2015 Experience Ratings. Comcast clearly has a long way to go.

As noted, there’s real question as to whether making quantitative and functional changes, in terms of the number of people, and technology and capability upgrades, will make a difference to customers. For example, a Comcast senior cable executive recently stated that the company has reduced late appointments by 29% in the past year, and they have shown an 18% improvement in how fast phone calls are answered. How is Comcast intending to identify how well, or even if, these methods are working to improve customer perception of key experience components, and the corresponding reputation and image of the enterprise?

Their apparent answer to this array of questions is NPS. As quoted by Comcast CEO Brian Roberts: “We want to see progress on many metrics, but we want to see progress that people will recommend us. It boils down to the whole relationship that the consumer has with us when they are asked the question, ‘Would you recommend us to your friends and colleagues?’”



How will application of NPS scores change the overall Comcast culture, particularly as the metric applies to customer perceptions of service and value? One of the company’s biggest challenges is the level of engagement and ambassadorship of the service employees themselves. In confidential interviews, Comcast front-line staff often pass along stories of internal job demotivation, customer indifference, and poor supervisory capability. As one Comcast customer service representative stated, “We’re grown-ups, but it feels like we’re being treated like children. They monitor your computer screen constantly. If you don’t meet your sales, you get fired. Again, it feels like I’m back in school and it’s very strict – they use a lot of scare tactics, and you’re just so afraid all the time that you’re going to get in trouble for something” Will NPS give Comcast the insights to help make front line staff more engaged and more ambassadorial (http://customerthink.com/do-you-really-wanna-work-here/)?

Next, how will NPS scores influence Comcast management to stay the course? Will senior execs remain committed, be consistent, and have the tools to take targeted action? Recommendation, after all, is a fairly attitudinal and tactical measure and may not offer insights as to the real perceptions of quality and value (http://customerthink.com/how-much-do-product-quality-and-service-quality-influence-customer-behavior/) Also, Will NPS help Comcast senior leaders to be servants of the stakeholders, or will they continue to be focused almost exclusively on driving profits (http://customerthink.com/the-power-of-servant-leadership-to-build-and-sustain-stakeholder-value/)?

Will NPS be able to guide Comcast in not only improving the customer experience, but also in the closely related goal of rebuilding its damaged brand reputation and image? Any research needs to incorporate this important component if only because of its enormous impact on consumer decision-making (http://customerthink.com/corporate_reputation_and_advocacy_linkage/)

What will NPS tell Comcast about making a more emotional connection, and building and sustaining trust, among customers? (http://beyondphilosophy.com/trust-really-emotion/ and http://customerthink.com/other-than-that-mrs-lincoln-how-was-the-play/). Trust and memory, earned through positive emotions and outcomes, are essential in customer experience. Being connected, and assuring that the entire enterprise is aware of exactly what’s working and what’s not working in building and sustaining trust, goes along with these insights.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts seems to care only that the company’s NPS score, somehow, is continually improving. Further,he doesn’t appear very interested in learning how and why it is changing. As he’s stated, “So as long as it is progressing. You start with wherever your baseline is today. As long as we move in the right direction every day, then we are on the right path and the question will be, ‘How fast can we move it?'” And, what will Comcast do, i.e. what is the ‘right direction’, if the NPS metric flatlines (http://beyondphilosophy.com/when-b2b-and-b2c-key-performance-metrics-flatline/)?



For Comcast to change its experience culture, to truly become more customer-centric, taking meaningful, granular and consistent action will be essential. Can learning about what drives recommendation be enough to get Comcast to the promised land? Along with many other customer experience research and consulting pros, I’m a long-time skeptic (and a critic)….but I can offer a suggested prescriptive for consideration: http://customerthink.com/want-or-need-higher-customer-satisfaction-loyalty-and-recommendation-scores-the-real-question-is-why/

11 COMMENTS

  1. Michael, excellent points. As Drucker once said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, it is especially true of fostering and sustaining a CX culture. It starts with senior management, and Mr. Roberts seems to be saying the right things, so that’s a good start. Behaviors need to follow. Then it really it comes down to rewards, recognition, process, training, resources, and most importantly: who you hire. This makes all the difference. Culture runs very deep ruts into behaviors, and let’s face it, Comcast’s are not the best and likely very deep. They will need to put a focus on who they attract, select, and usher out of the organization in order to real turn that big cultural ship. It can be done, but very rarely. Nice read. Thanks!

  2. Dave –

    Thanks for your comments. Drucker’s theorem always rings true, virtually irrespective of company size, industry, or location. Culture drives just about everything in an enterprise, and its reflection can be found in stakeholder experience.

    Regarding the CEO ‘saying the right things’, the tone of his statement seems to be that the NPS metric would be the magic bullet for giving Comcast insights and guidance about the elements for granular cultural, process, and management/employee behavior improvement. This smacks of NPS’ original ‘the one number you need to grow’ puff positioning, from the HBR article and related research in 2003.. From my perspective, and as addressed in the blog, that’s where the gamble arises.

    Michael

  3. Michael, I share your skepticism, although perhaps for a different reason.

    If culture is “how we do things around here” then it seems that Comcast is making a serious attempt to change its culture… by changing what it does. How is that not a good thing?

    The “will you recommend” metric, whether packaged as NPS or not, is a reasonably good place to start for a consumer-focused company. With loyalty ratings so low (near the bottom with Time Warner Cable), opportunities are plentiful to focus on detractors, fix processes, simplify experiences, etc. In other words, stop the bleeding.

    Intuit went through this quite a few years ago, then hit then wall when it found that fixing problems helped reduce detractors, but didn’t add promoters. They had to focus on innovation — not just problem solving — to continue to improve its NPS score.

    I’m not writing any of this as a defense of NPS, or any one metric for that matter. My research has found that the choice of any one metric or set of metrics is not a performance differentiator, it’s how companies act on feedback that matters most. .

    I just think that the actions Comcast is taking shows they are serious. For now.

    One risk I see is not reliance on NPS in particular, but rather a focus on improving the score. If that becomes the goal, the metrics-driven people of Comcast will quickly figure out how to game the system to get the scores the CEO wants. This same problem would exist with any metric.

    Another risk is simply that Comcast will lose conviction over time. If scores improve and business doesn’t, management could reevaluate the investments. These changes will take years. We’ll have to wait and see if they have the fortitude to stick with it.

  4. Hi Bob

    I wonder whether Comcast really need to bother with improving their customer service. Due to the geography and demographics of the USA, many customers do not really have a practical alternative to Comcast. If they want cable and all that comes bundled with it today, they, in effect, have to take Comcast. Why go through all the bother of improving customer service if you have a largely captive audience? Of course, it makes for great headlines, particularly when you are the perennial customer service laggard. But how much are headlines worth to the bottom-line?

    I notice that Comcast’s share price has risen continuously over the past year too. Equity markets obviously think that Comcast is still a good bet. I notice also that the announcement of Comcast’s new focus on customer service in May didn’t noticeably affect its share price (once you remove background volatility). Maybe markets know something about the customer service transformation that we don’t.

    People often bang on about customer service as though it is a fundamental human right. It isn’t. It is a hard-nosed business decision that should be driven by a calculation of the optimum level of service to maximise shareholder value.

    Customers may have all the money (as Sam Walton was want to say), but if you are the only Cable Co in town they are going to spend it with you anyway, even with awful customer service.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  5. Bob (and Graham) –

    Three quick points.

    1. Customer service excellence is important, but (as we’ve seen with companies like Sprint) just improving this component of the customer experience frequently isn’t sufficient to a) improve the overall perception of product/service value delivery and b) improve, even with broader employee training, the customer-centric culture of the enterprise. And, it is indeed true that culture trumps strategy (and good intentions).

    2. Years ago, as marketing research and planning director for a major multi-regional fast food company, the CEO would often call me for the ‘magic bullet’ viewership, awareness, and purchase intention numbers every time a new commercial was aired. Similarly, Comcast’s statements, as noted in my blog, reflect the emphasis on moving the single number upward, seemingly without much attention on what is making the needle move. If insights aren’t granular as to value, they aren’t actionable.

    3. Cable television customers DO have a choice: Dish and DirecTV .

    Michael

  6. Graham, your point is well taken. Why indeed should a company invest in customer service or anything else if it doesn’t generate a return to shareholders?

    I’m not sure about Comcast’s motivations (Michael can you shed any light?) but I could speculate that:
    1. Leaders are tired of the embarrassing media reports about bad service and low ratings
    2. They are losing business to AT&T, a chief rival in a number of markets. AT&T gets better marks.
    3. They are concerned about channel cutters and the general trend to stop buying cable and purchase content on-demand from Netflix, Hulu, etc. Netflix has very loyal customers.

    Yes, Comcast has had a good run, leveraging a semi-monopoly into good financial performance for the past few years. But I’m guessing that they are seeing signs that the party is over, and want to be prepared to compete on service with AT&T, Verizon and the new breed on online content providers.

  7. Comcast’s motivation for this initiative is pretty transparent and well-understood. Finally, there is recognition at senior levels that the customer experience, which they see principally as a service issue, needs to be addressed. Hence the splashy and expensive investment. Their goal is to keep the sales and profits flowing, and the public ostracism has hurt their image and reputation (http://customerthink.com/corporate_reputation_and_advocacy_linkage/) which takes business away. Anyone active in the Greater Philadelphia business community – and that includes me – knows about the Comcast culture. Comcast is not very proactive or engaged with customers. The offline and online negativism they’ve earned, a direct function of notorious poor service and a Theory X culture, will take more than the superficiality represented by NPS scores to overcome.

  8. Michael, Bob

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses to my challenging comment.

    If we look back in time we see that customer service, as a competitive issue, comes along each time (more or less) that Western economies start to climb well clear of the most recent recession. When you have pared costs back to the bone there is little more incremental benefit that can be had from increasing efficiency further. Not without seriously damaging corporate adaptability. So companies have to invest in increasing the more complicated effectiveness and the more complicated still, productivity. It looks like Comcast is at this point in its economic cycle.

    I do not know Comcast as intimately as either of you do. However, my experience directing transformational change projects over the past twenty years suggest that they will really struggle to put in place a more customer-oriented work climate and to change their current sales-first culture. Introducing new systems, processes and working procedures will be tough enough. Building out the complementary capabilities to get the most out of these will be tougher. Managing the associated change will be tougher still. And using all of these to catalyse a change in the business operating model – to the new customer-oriented Comcast – will be the toughest of all. The history of change efforts such as these, particularly where there is no obvious existential threat to Comcast’s survival, suggests that it will fail big time. We will have to wait and see.

    Despite Comcast regularly appearing in Customer Service Hall of Shame, none of this appears to have significantly damaged its share price. And as I noted earlier, the introduction of the transformation programme didn’t move the stock ticker needle either. I really do doubt whether markets care anywhere as much about Comcast’s poor customer services as the popular press and their chattering classes readership do.

    I wish Comcast well. But I don’t really think it matters all that much whether they succeed or fail. Not to the markets. As we all know in our heart of hearts, customers don’t really count all that much.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  9. Graham –

    Comcast does a pretty good job managing their stock price (and their relationship with the financial community), so that doesn’t appear the primary motivation for this initiative. They are more about sustaining continued growth, in part by acquisition (NBC-Universal in 2011, tech companies PowerCloud Systems and FreeWheel Media in 2014, etc.) and revenue flow, as well as controlling the tide of negative press and social media commentary which stems from their customer service performance and culture. When the potential acquisition of Time Warner Cable was cancelled earlier this year, it was widely reported that Comcast’s spotty-to-poor service performance record was what drove the FCC to schedule hearings (despite Comcast’s claims to the contrary)

    Michael.

  10. The goal at Comcast is profit, and measuring customer value (which would include innovation, employee ambassadorship and emotionally-based relationships) doesn’t enter into their corporate thinking. I addressed these elements in an earlier article: http://customerthink.com/building_valuable_customer_centric_and_trust_based_relationships_a_well_established_concept_tha/ NPS can’t identify elements of creativity, drivers of trust or employee commitment.

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