The Second Most Immoral Job I Ever Had
Tod Kelly recently wrote about the viral phone conversation that someone had with Comcast while trying to cancel service:
For those without media capabilities, the recording is of a telephone call Block and his wife made to Comcast in order to cancel their cable and internet service. Block alleges that there was an additional ten minutes of similar back and forth prior to his deciding to put it on speaker phone and record the conversation with the customer service rep. But even without that additional time it’s a jaw-droppingly painful listen. Throughout the call, all Block wants to do is cancel his service. But it’s rather obvious that the Comcast rep is trying to badger him into getting so frustrated that he eventually gives up, “choosing” to stay with the telecommunications provider rather than continue the frustratingly hellish and Kafka-esque experience that is dealing with Comcast.
In other words, the incentive structure is really about punishment. Reps start out the month with a full commission, but every canceled product deducts from that amount. Once reps fall below a certain threshold, they get no commission at all. That means a rep could get all the way to the second-to-last day of the pay period only to have a customer cancel four products. Suddenly the rep is below her goal, losing $800 to $1,000 off her paycheck.
Metrics-obsessed reps are therefore highly motivated to get every customer to not only continue service, but keep the same number of subscriptions — phone, internet, Xfinity — or add more. Essentially, these reps are trying to reach a predetermined outcome in the call, and they’re trying to do it in under 11 minutes. Comcast has turned its customer service reps into sales reps.
I used to take calls for one of the two satellite TV companies, which I will call CignalTV. Fortunately, I was not subject to the sort of incentives listed here when I worked for Cignal. Indeed, I was not even a retention specialist. Part of my job, though, was to prevent calls from having to go there. Which is to say that someone would call in wanting to either scale back or cancel service, and my job was to either (a) convince them not to or (b) wear them down to increase the chances that the retention specialist would succeed. As near as I could tell, if they wanted to cancel the account, I would present a whole bunch of reasons why they shouldn’t, and then if I failed they would go to a retention specialist who would then say all of the same things (maybe in a different order, maybe not).
There were a lot of things that I didn’t like about the job. I am not a phone person to begin with. I am not the most social or friendly person, and I was in a job where both were expected of me. Over the phone. I had angry customers, demanding customers. I was cursed and yelled at. Even one guy who liked me started cussing me out when he found out that he could not direct future customer service calls to me specifically.
But retention was the worst. It was why I quit after a relatively short stint. Because while the other parts of the job were unpleasant, this part of the job felt immoral.
I come from a particular background, and in that background financial responsibility is a moral responsibility. Paying your credit card bills on time is not a matter of avoiding fees. It’s a matter of making good on your debts. When times are lean, you cut back. If you’re really righteous, you won’t even have to look around because you will have kept a keen eye on where the cutbacks should come if necessary. This is the Truman way.
On the hierarchy of needs, satellite TV rates very low. When my wife cut back her hours, the satellite company was one of the first calls I made. I love television, don’t get me wrong, and have no problem with people choosing to spend their money on it. Indeed, hour for hour it can be one of the more cost-effective entertainment vehicles. But it’s also a luxury, and when you have to scale back, that’s among the first places to look.
So whenever someone called to say that they wanted to scale back or cancel their service, I wanted to say “Good for you!” out of reflex. I didn’t know the reason and didn’t need to. I assume, likely right most of the time, that they have their reasons and they are good reasons. This was especially true when I could glean where they were coming from. They have trouble making their payment… obviously paying way more for satellite TV than they can afford… good for them to cut back!
But if they’re turned off, the script says that they can get their service turned back on for just a $30 payment now. If they’re strapped for cash, I should try to explain all of the good program they’re going to be missing by cutting back. If they lost their job, I should explain that with all of that new time on their hands they need satellite more now than ever.
I hated it. I felt disgusting doing it. After less than a week, I stopped. If I got an audited call I would get in trouble for it, but I simply didn’t care. This was a luxury I had, knowing that if I were fired I had other opportunities. I left on my own volition shortly thereafter.
My employer wasn’t particularly evil. For a call center contracting company, they were actually pretty cool all things considered. They were unusually honest and straightforward about their expectations. I was paid well for the region and the job description. And where I was at the time, it was actually a good resume-builder. But the job itself was terrible, and there was no way around that.
Cancelling service is one of those things that should not require a phone call. Today, unlike then, cutting back on service doesn’t require a phone call. But there is no real incentive for them to make it easy on you to leave the company altogether except that it might provide a disincentive to restart service. But with such limited competition, you have to go back to one of the bastards if you want service.