Twitter may not have the user base of Facebook or MySpace, but as social networks go, Twitter contains a dense population of internet early adopters and technology evangelists. Scattered among the millions of 140 character messages floating through Twitter each day, when it isn't down due to capacity issues, are threaded discussions about consumer experiences with brands. Recently, Twitter users witnessed step-by-step “tweets” from one power user as she struggled with customer service at an Apple Store. She was having a terrible experience and her thousands of tuned-in Twitter followers knew about it. These are the sort of conversations that brands need to monitor and react to. Tracking twitter conversations is fairly easy. Doing something about what you find there - that's not so easy.
Enter Frank Eliason. Frank is the person behind the Twitter account Comcastcares. I first heard about Frank through a technology podcast called “This Week in Tech” (TWiT). They described a person at Comcast Customer Outreach who had taken the initiative to handle service questions through Twitter and respond to them promptly. During the recording of the TWiT podcast, which is usually done in one take without edit, they were able to use Twitter to reach Frank at Comcast through his comcastcares account, and get him to call into the show via Skype. I was shocked at how quickly they were able to get him on the phone (although the skeptic in me is still not convinced it wasn't staged like a “millionaire” lifeline call.)
To date, Frank has sent 4,000 public updates to his twitter account, each under 140 characters. He answers questions as well as he can and sometimes forwards information to his office for direct follow-up. I recently had an awful experience at a local Comcast branch (an hour wait in the rain to pick up a set top box) followed by a so-so experience with a pair of smart yet helpless technicians who visited my home. I decided to give Frank a try before I called Comcast to express my sentiments.
I sent a message to comcastcares telling him that my cable signal looks far better when I connect my cable directly to my TV then when I use their new high-definition cable box. This is only a problem on standard definition channels, which look great on my other HDTV on an older HD cable box. Two technicians had been out to look at it and told me that the problem was the new line of Motorola set top boxes and that they decoded standard definition channels poorly. I was told to find another out-of-service old cable box or “live with it”. The technicians, in their defense, were friendly and fairly knowledgeable, but had their hands tied. Within seconds I had a response from Frank asking questions. We exchanged short messages off and on for a little while and then he took my account number over a private message and said he would have someone from his office contact me. Within 24 hours I received a call from their executive offices who are now working the problem. I will update the post with news of how this turns out.
Frank is a breath of fresh air at a company that I was convinced had completely lost their way. Comcast may still have fatal flaws when it comes to pricing, quality, and service, but Frank is a big step in the right direction. By listening to the conversations on Twitter and answering them publicly to the best of his abilities, Frank is helping to turn some of the Twitter community into Comcast fans, which is both a tall order and a powerful PR achievement. The real question will be: Is Comcast simply satisfying the needs of these few in return for some positive word of mouth like this, or is Comcast taking this feedback from the tech-savvy Twitter crowd and using it to adjust their business? In other words, does Comcast really care, or is it just Frank? Time will tell and Frank will, hopefully, let us know.
Update: Shortly after the call from the executive offices, I received a call booking an appointment with a technician. That technician came to my house and while his knowledge was exceptional, mine was a problem he was not able to resolve. The technical description is below. The story from the perspective of customer service is simply: they made a good effort to resolve my issue. It was, ultimately, an issue that will require improvements in their infrastructure to resolve so I was fairly out of luck, but they tried. Am I happy with the result? Not at all, but I understand that this is the best they can do at this time. I will be giving Verizon a close look when my year of free digital voice runs out, listening to the reviews of my neighbors who are switching to Verizon this month. At the end of the day, all the customer service in the world can't save a bad product, and that may be what we're dealing with here. If they want to keep customers, I think they need to start acknowledging their shortcomings, make a road map to improving their product, and stick to it in a very public way.
Technical Answer: We tried swapping the NEW Comcast HD box with a previous model, which had been working beautifully in my house on a much larger TV. The result was that the picture did, indeed, get cleaner on standard definition channels, but my other TV still looked better. Apparently my other TV, a 3-yr-old Sony HDTV, has a much better ability to clean up crappy signals than my brand new Samsung. Both look great on HDTV channels. But the older model Motorola set-top box also crushed the contrast and color of the picture, and I rejected it. I preferred the noise. So it appears there aren't enough bits in each of the Comcast digital channels - they're compressing video into too narrow a signal, and depending too much on the set-top box and TV to decode and clean it up. Most of what we watch now is HDTV but most of the channels are still standard def, and most of them look like relative crap.