A Tale of Two Customer Service Orgs

By Dr Obnxs | Nov 18, 2010

So recently, I changed my home phone from POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) to VOIP (Voice Over Internet Phone). This was driven by very high costs for the POTS system and the relative low cost of VOIP. Needless to say, the transition wasn’t that smooth. That’s OK, I expected some bumps in the road, but what was eye opening was how the two companies, Comcast (my cable provider) and Vonage (my new VOIP provider) dealt with the issues.

 Initially, Vonage had me doing some network diagnostics to see how good my connection to their servers is. This involved both pinging the server, to look for lost packets and transit times, and something called “tracert” that measures the propogation delay between internet nodes as the packet makes it’s journey to the server. These tools showed me that the I suffered both packet loss at times, as well as 102 ms transit time (average) to the Vonage servers. The packet loss was all or nothing, sometimes my internet connection dropped completely and was definantly a Comcast issue. The propogation delay was something else as well, and was in the Comcast backbone. Anyway, I had problems, so I started calling both Comcast and Vonage….

To contact Comcast, first you phone. You get a robosystem –So I have to say “please connect me to an agent”… The Robosystem responds “I understand you’d like to talk to an agent, but we can speed things up if you say what your problem is first. Something like “I can’t read my e-mail” or “my TV screen is blank” So I say “connect me to an agent” again. I get a message about how the gas line explosion here affected some underground cables blah blah blah and get routed to a human… All this takes a bit less than a minute.

Comcast #1: “Whom am I talking to? Can I have your service address?”…. “Thank you…. Can you verify the last four digits of the SSN of the subsriber?”….”Thank you… What can I help you with today?”

 Me: “I have high latency between me and my VOIP provider. It means that my call quality is pretty poor.

 Comcast #1:  ”VOIP? Can you explain?”

 Me: “Internet telephone. Where your phone system goes over cable.”

 Comcast #1: “I see… So you’re saying that your connection is slow?”

Me: “Not really, the bandwidth tests fine, but the latency is very long….”

 Comcast #1: “Have you been to the bandwidth testing page on the internet so we can see  how fast your connection is?”

 Me: “It’s not the connection bandwidth that is the issue… It is the latency….”

 Comcast #1: “I see…. Could you please hold a moment?”

 Me: “Sure!”

 Comcast #1: “Thank you for waiting. Could you please connect your computer directly to the cable modem?”

Me: “No, I have a VOIP line. If I do that, I can’t be on the call.”

 Comcast #1: “Well, do you have another phone line that you can call us from while we test your modem?”

 Me: “No, I live in a fringe area and my cell doesn’t work too well here.”

 Comcast #1: “I see… We have to have your computer connected to the modem directly to proceed.”

 Me: “Why? Do you actually connect to my computer?”

 Comcast #1: “No, we talk to the modem only.”

 Me: “So why do you need my computer connected directly to the modem?”

 Comcast #1: “That is our escalation procedure. We must have the computer connected directly to the modem.”

 Me: “This is absurd. You don’t connect to the computer, yet you insist that the computer is connected directly to the modem? Why is that exactly?”

 Comcast #1: “We must have the computer connected directly to the modem to test the line.”

 Matt: “But if I do that I can’t talk to you on the phone!”

 Comcast#1: “That is not our fault. Our customers typically have another phone line to talk to us from when troubleshooting.”

 Me: “No, you don’t get it. I’m a paying customer who is trying to use your product as intended and I have a problem. You are giving me absurd instructions about how to go about fixing the issue. What you fail to understand is that you have a very unhappy PAYING customer. That is NOT my fault. I’ve tested the system, and the problem is not my modem, it’s the propagation delay through your network. But you won’t believe that and want to test my modem bandwidth that is fine, and I know it’s fine already!

 Comcast #1: (Silence….)

 Matt: “(Now I’m getting a bit pissed). Look Comcast SELLS VOIP services as a replacement technology. You mean that you have no way to troubleshoot the system for your customers that don’t have another phone line?”

 Comcast #1: “You must connect the computer directly to the modem for us to proceed.”

 Me: “How about this, you just try to do what you need to do, and we’ll see what happens.”

 Comcast #1: “If you cannot be on the phone when we test the modem, you must first connect the computer to the modem and then we will test it without you on the call. I can then append the results to your account and you can call back.”

Me: “So, if I’m to understand properly, I now hang up the phone, go change the network topology so that my computer that you don’t contact is connected directly to the modem, you test it and then I call you back? Can’t you call me when the test is done?”

 Comcast #1: “We cannot call out of this center. We can only accept calls at this location.”

 Me: “I see. So now your marginally satisfactory process is for me to hang up, you to do your tests, me wait what should be a proper amount of time, and call you back to hopefully talk to someone who can actually help me?”

 Comcast #1: “Yes sir. That is the process.”

 So anyway, I agree to the absurd test. I hang up, and go connect to the modem…. Then I go do something useful for 15 min or so. Then I reconfigure the network and call in….

 Comcast #2: (Robosystem) “Can you tell us your problem, something like “I can’t read my e-mail” or “my tv screen is blank?”

 Me: “Please connect me to an agent.”

 Comcast #2: “I understand you’d like to talk to an agent, but we can speed things up if you say what your problem is first. Something like “I can’t read my e-mail” or “my TV screen is blank”

 So I say “connect me to an agent” again. I get a message about how the gas line explosion here affected some underground cables blah blah blah and get routed to a human… Another chunk of time down the tubes….

 Comcast #2: “Thank you for calling Comcast… What is your name and service address?”

 Comcast #2: “Can I have the last four digits… blah blah blah…”

 Comcast #2: “How can I help you today?”

 Me: “I’ve got poor sound quality on my VOIP line. It’s because of latency on your connection to my VOIP provider.”

 Comcast #2: “Please hold while I test your modem…” (grrrrrrrrrr, why didn’t the first person just do this!)

 Comcast #2: “I see that we don’t have any dropped packets. It’s all fine on this end. This must be an issue with Vonage.”

 Me: “This is not an issue with Vonage. I’ve tested the speed that you get packets to Vonage, and it’s very slow. It’s over 100 ms.”

 Comcast #2: “Our tests show that you have excellent bandwidth.”

 Me: “Bandwidth isn’t the issue. It’s latency. It takes too long for the packets to get to Vonage. This results in poor audio. Also, sometime the internet drops and I lose all connection.”

 Comcast #2: “But we didn’t loose any packets on our test. Our test indicates everything is fine….”

 Me: “Can I please speak to someone up the food chain?”

 Comcast #2: “What do you want?”

 Me: “I’d like to talk to a manager or someone who understands what I’m talking about and will address my issues.”

 Comcast #2: “Please hold while I contact a manager…”

 While on hold, the line dies. No internet, no contact with Comcast. After about 5 min, connection restores all by itself. I call back…

 Comcast #3: (Robosystem) “Can you tell us your problem, something like “I can’t read my e-mail” or “my TV screen is blank?”

 Me: “Please connect me to an agent.”

 Comcast #3: (Robosystem) “I understand you’d like to talk to an agent, but we can speed things up if you say what your problem is first. Something like “I can’t read my e-mail” or “my TV screen is blank”

So I say “connect me to an agent” again. I get a message about how the gas line explosion here affected some underground cables blah blah blah and get routed to a human… Another chunk of time down the tubes….

Comcast #3: “Thank you for calling Comcast… What is your name and service address?”

 Comcast #3: “Can I have the last four digits… bLah blah blah…”

 Comcast #3: “How can I help you today?”

 Me: “I have high latency to my VoIP provider. It’s screwing up the voice quality…”

 Comcast #3: “Are you measuring to Comcast, Vonage or some other server to test speed?”

 Me: “(Ah hope, someone who asked a real question…) I’m pinging Vonage servers. Here’s the IP address. I’m getting over 100 ms average, occasional peaks of 200 ms and every now and then a dropped packet. Sometimes the connection is dropped for minutes at a time.”

 Comcast #3: “What was that IP address? (I give it to him…, I hear him type,  I hear him gasp “Oh My!” Then he is reading the test results fastest 97 ms, slowest 194 ms, average 109 ms….)

 Me: “I say, you’re getting the same results that I am, plus or minus. This is very slow. I traced the route and found that it slows down in Sacramento CA and doesn’t speed up until Dallas Texas. These are all Comcast backbone issues.”

 Comcast #3: “Yes, it seems fine in CA but really slows down when it leaves the state until Dallas.”

 Me: “I see it as fast after Dallas to Atlanta then to Vonage in Vergina, but it’s dog slow through your backbone.”

 Comcast #3: “Yes, this is very slow through our server jumps. Especially for a 12 MB connection….”

 Me: “At least I’m talking to someone who knows what they are talking about! The last two people who I spoke with about this issue were clueless, and told me it was my fault…”

 Comcast #3: “I’m sorry to hear that. Yes there is an issue here but I can’t do anything about it now. What I can do is do a high priority escalation to the network engineering staff to see what the source of the delay is and what to do about it. The problem isn’t with your modem at all.”

 Me: “Thank you. All I’m hoping for is to have Comcast recognize that there is an issue and to start looking at what to do about it. With the location of these propagation delays I can’t be the only one with issues….”

 Comcast #3: “Here’s what will happen. Can you wait while I fill out the escalation document? (I say yes, he says thanks and starts typing it up.)

 Comcast #3: “Anyway, here’s what will happen. Our standard response to things like this is 24-72 hours to get a reply. But probably you will hear back in a day or maybe sooner. This doesn’t get dealt with by line tech support because it’s a back bone issue.

 Me: “Me: That’s what I figured. So I’m happy with this escalation path. I wasn’t thinking it would be fixed with just a call, I was thinking that it would start to be addressed with just a call. I was wrong, it took three calls to get to someone who started to address it, but that’s OK.”

Me: “One favor I have to ask. Could you try to make sure that your co-workers get the same training you’ve gotten? You have been helpful, understood what I was talking about, and while my issue still exists, at least it’s flagged as an issue and you’re not telling me it’s my fault!”

 So we wrap up the call and I get on with my day… A bit later, I get a call from Vonage! I’d put in a service request via their web page. And I’d looked on their user forums for help too. (FWIW, there are many Vonage customers who complain that Comcast support for Vonage issues has gotten much worse since Comcast launched their own VoIP service… Hmmmmm…..)

 Vonage: “Hi Matt. This is Brian with Vonage. I’ve looked over your case, and while the latency is high, I don’t think that’s the biggest part of your problem I think you have an SPI firewall enabled on your NetGear router and that’s what’s hitting your voice quality… I can walk you through disabling it…

 Me: OK, let me log onto my router….

 Brian: “Go to the set-up tab, then advanced. Uncheck the box for SPI (standard packet inspection) firewall and reboot the device. When you reboot your router we’ll lose the call. I’ll call you back…”

I do it, and when the call drops my cell phone rings….

Brian: “Hi Matt, this is Brian with Vonage… The call dropped on the router reboot. Let me know when the VoIP modem says that it’s OK to make calls or shows the day and date again. I’ll call you back on the VoIP line” I do that, he calls back instantly…

 Brian: “So, I’ve also reset your VOIP modem to high audio quality, and how to things sound on your end? I say it sounds pretty good from this end!” Brian then says that he’ll e-maill me with a summery, and that if I have any further issues, to reply to that e-mail and it will go directly to him. He’ll get back to me in a day or sooner. The e-mail arrives while we are still talking….

 So, to sum up, Comcast employs front line service personnel who don’t really understand their product, and they don’t have a conditional escalation procedure that can easily be accessed for those of use with only VoIP in the home. Their system can’t use caller ID to see if there is an ongoing service issue, and each and every time one calls in, one has to re-educate the latest service rep about the current issue. It’s a crap shoot if the person will understand what you are talking about. And yes, while I did finally get someone who did understand my problem, I never heard from Comcast again, except for an e-mail that came in three weeks later saying pretty much nothing at all.

Now Vonage was responsive, had someone who knew what they were talking about reach out to me, and actually provided some useful information!

Overall, the Vonage VoIP service is good. I occasionally get echoes on the line, mostly with me tri weekly call with my business partner in Germany, but a quick call back usually cures the problem. So I’m saving over 75% per month compared to POTS, and I’m pretty happy, with Vonage….. But Comcast? They could learn a lot from how Vonage deals with it’s customers.

2 Comments so far
  1. ComcastMark November 18, 2010 12:52 PM

    Thanks for sharing this and I appreciate you providing the opportunity to improve our service. If it is not so much of a trouble, will you please contact me; provide your account info and a link to this page? I would like to share your experience with our local leaders so that we can address this on our end. Most importantly, we will like to evaluate your experience so that we can prevent any recurrence in the future.

    Thanks in advance and I sincerely apologize for the poor experience.

    Mark Casem
    Comcast Corp.
    National Customer Operations
    We_can_help@cable.comcast.com

  2. Dr Obnxs December 2, 2010 3:37 PM

    As you all can see, Comcast found my blog and left a message! Anyway, I had an e-mail exchange with Mark, and someone from Comcast called me up to apologize for my service experience. I was also told that my blog post has been forwarded to management so that they can use it as an example about how not to deal with a customer. I hope good things come from it (as they are my cable provider!).

    So, maybe something good will come from all this. Time will tell…

    Matt

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