Sympathy for the Comcast Rep from Hell

Above is eight solid minutes of empathic pain. It is a recording of a calm, polite caller, Ryan Block, attempting to cancel his Comcast service. The representative, by the time the recording starts, already sounds angry: He demands, again and again and again, to know why Block is leaving Comcast for a smaller provider, to know what it is that he—that Comcast—can’t supply that this other company, this obviously objectively inferior company, this loser company, can. Just tell him what he did wrong, he says. Just explain to him. Just make him understand this stupid mistake.

The rep sounds, when he demands to be convinced of something that is both his company’s fault and none of his company’s business, like an abusive partner; that is how I interpreted this call, anyway, the first time I heard it. Judging by Twitter, where people are sharing similar experiences, many others did too. (One of the last times I dealt with a cable company, Time Warner, it was to try to reinstate an account and associated email address that had been removed for days because a young rep insisted there was “no other way” to transfer the decades-old account from my deceased father to his spouse, my mother; a few weeks later, moving apartments in New York, I realized that here, as at my family home, as at my last apartment, I had no other option but Time Warner, who I then called and have been paying ever since. That’s why people hate monopolies.)

But overnight my sympathies shifted: If you understand this call as a desperate interaction between two people, rather than a business transaction between a customer and a company, the pain is mutual. The customer service rep is trapped in an impossible position, in which any cancellation, even one he can’t control, will reflect poorly on his performance. By the time news of this lost customer reaches his supervisor, it will be data—it will be the wrong data, and it will likely be factored into a score, or a record, that is either directly or indirectly tied to his compensation or continued employment. It’s bad, very bad, for this rep to record a cancellation with no reason, or with a reason the script should theoretically be able to answer (the initial reasons given for canceling were evidently judged, by the script, as invalid). There are only a few boxes he can tick to start with, and even fewer that let him off the hook as a salesman living at the foot of a towering org chart. The rep had no choice but to try his hardest, to not give up, to make it so irritating and seemingly impossible to leave that Block might just give up and stay. The only thing he didn’t account for was the possibility the call would be recorded. Now he’s an internet sensation. The rep always loses.

What the rep really wanted, and what Block could have provided, was an excuse. Lie! Mention something about leaving town. That would have saved everyone time and energy, and given the rep the escape he needed from this particular circle of service industry hell. Two people trapped in a shitty situation, acknowledging how shitty it is and escaping in the least costly, least painful way possible.

Of course, it’s absurd that a company like Comcast is able to force two humans into combat like this in the first place. If you don’t take the existence of a near-monopoly company like Comcast for granted—and why should we?—the situation is as clear as can be: The rep didn’t abuse Block, and Block didn’t torture the rep. Comcast, the organization, is tormenting them both.

Comcast and Time Warner are in the process of merging in a paper-swap worth somewhere north of $40 billion. They are doing this to consolidate power, to consolidate assets, and to make the relationships like the one they once had with Block not just deep, but permanent. Comcast’s call script could not account for the possibility that a customer might choose to switch to another company that isn’t “number one,” as the rep repeated, out of distaste. A merger might fix that: It brings these companies one step closer to making sure there’s no number two.

I hope this tape gets played in front of Congress.

Update: You! Under the bus, now.

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and are contacting him to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.