tl;dr: service organizations who actually design their services are better than those that don’t. Otherwise, when crappy experiences happen to customers that happen to be service designers, they write blog posts like this and create a journey map to document the entire mess.


Recently, I was the victim of a really bad experience thanks to Comcast. Now this might not necessarily shock you based on where Comcast consistently ranks in customer satisfaction surveys. That being said, my most recent experience was at least a couple of standard deviations bad, so I wanted to take time to turn it into a cautionary tale that helps describe the craft of customer experience and service design (and what can go horribly wrong when attention is placed on designing services).

To the beginning of the story.

My most recent journey with Comcast began in a benign manner; they had made modifications to our cable last fall and neglected to re-bury the cables. Winter and several months go by and our cable is still exposed above ground. Getting weary of seeing it there every day, we build up the courage to call Comcast and request someone come over and bury the sucker. One chat session confirmed that we should expect someone to pop over super quick – in three weeks.

Now here’s where the first sinister turn is taken.

It’s Mother’s Day 2017, and we’ve packed up the family truckster and headed down the road a few miles to have brunch with my mom. After a few hours and many calories later, we return to find a fun surprise. Our internet is out. We do what everyone does at this point. We hit the kill switch on the router. When that doesn’t fix it, we unplug and re-plug the cable from the wall. When that doesn’t work, we panic.

And then get this.

I walk back out of the house and discover that the cable – which was previously exposed above ground – was no where to be found. Someone had swung over, evidently under cover of darkness (though it was the middle of the day), and mysteriously buried our cable. At least two weeks ahead of time (great!?). The problem with this, of course, is at least twofold. 1) We had no idea that our friendly cable company had paid us a visit and dug in our yard (can they even do that, legally?), and 2) it would make logical sense that there was a causal relationship between digging and bye-bye cable signal.

Here’s my first service design time-out.

A fundamental thing any service organization should do when delivering a service to a client is 1. properly communicate progress. I wasn’t expecting to see my friendly Comcast guy for at least another couple of weeks. If they would have sent me a text or email telling me that a technician was able to come over earlier, it would have actually been a welcome surprise. That didn’t happen. In fact, no communication happened.

Back to the story.

My lovely bride now gets out her mobile chat device and promptly communicates to our friendly Comcast rep that our internet is out and that we think it’s because SOMEONE JUST DUG UP OUR YARD AND DIDN’T TELL US. Despite that fact, we’re required at that time to go through a battery of (seemingly) unnecessary diagnostic exercises, after which point we yelled UNCLE and requested “please just schedule a tech to come over.” So they did.

Did I mention that my wife and I both run home-based businesses, that LIKE EVERY BUSINESS, require persistent internet access? A side benefit to this journey was being forced into upping my mobile plan so that I could tether data from my phone to my laptop SINCE MY INTERNET WAS OUT.

Here’s my second service design time-out.

2. Understand the context of the customers you are serving. Not only the physical environment, but the context of their relationship to you and your service. An internet outage of a small business whose lifeline depends on persistent internet is a bit more pressing than that of many casual users (though everyone freaks out when internet goes out, granted).

Back we go.

So the sun sets and the moon rises on the first day sans internet. The next day, we meet our (first) Comcast technician. I’ll name him Charlie. Charlie is eager to help solve the problem. He shows up to the door, is polite, and asks what the problem is. We fill him in on the details and he proceeds to check the outside and inside connections. He quickly validates our suspicion that, in fact, the digging of the cables is exactly what made the internet go away. Thank you, Charlie.

Charlie lets us know that this fix isn’t going to be a quick one because it involves the “construction team”. We ask “so a day or two?”. Wishful thinking we find out. “Hopefully by the end of the week if I can get someone out here quickly.” And here’s the kicker. We ask Charlie if we should escalate this further to speed things up and he says, “actually, I’m your best bet because calling the 800 number is next to useless.” He gives us his mobile number and says to call him back after a couple of days to get a status because he’s not working the next two days. Color my emoji a big smiley face.

Service design time-out number three.

Remember tip number one about communication? Showing and communicating progress is an important service design principle. Related to that is this: 3. set proper expectations and then AT LEAST MEET THEM. Charlie gave us an extremely vague (and not-so-confident) description as to what the next week would hold for us. To make matters work, he took us out of the formal “standard protocol” of the service delivery by giving us his mobile number and telling us not to “call in to corporate” for a status. (We would later learn that Comcast techs get dinged for having customers call them within 48 hours of a call – even if the call is good news. More on this in a bit.) What Charlie should have done is set more concrete expectations (“I’ll have the construction team over by Thursday.”) and then created a communication channel (simple calls/texts would be just fine) to manage expectations as he went along.

Fast forward a couple of days and nothing happens…until something does.

I notice that a couple of flags were placed in the ground and our lawn was striped with spray paint. Did something happen? Was it about to happen? Again, a little communication would have been swell.

I send Charlie a text and ask if I should escalate the issue further. His text reads “yep. probably. sorry about that.” Now to be charitable, I probably interrupted Charlie in the middle of a family dinner (I did text him on his personal mobile number, after all. But it’s the only number I had and HE TOLD ME TO.), and I truly believed that he wanted to help. But sometimes (most of the time) the system is more powerful than any one individual.

So my wife hops back on the mobile chat machine and sends a ping back over to Comcast HQ. We let them know that our internet is still out and ask to get a tech over ASAP. This next part would have made me laugh if I wasn’t already crying.

They said they already had us down for an appointment in another 8 days. EIGHT MORE DAYS. Eight.

You might recall that we originally had booked an appointment and that the Comcast crew came way earlier than that appointment. But the appointment was on the books and the lovely person we were now chatting with had seemingly no exposure to what had already transpired. AND A LOT HAD TRANSPIRED. People dug in our yard. They broke our internet (how would we see all of those cat videos?!?!). They sent a tech out. He told us to call him on his bat-phone personally. Then he sent us back to her. But she didn’t know that. So she prescribed that they send over another “inside tech” to look at the issue. Once again, more laughing if I wasn’t crying. WE knew that the issue was outside at this point. Again, she didn’t.

At the end of our circular conversation, she agrees to send an “outside tech” our way tomorrow. At this point it’s been over a week without internet (btw, we were still alive!).

Outside tech (I’ll call him Comcast Chris) shows up at the end of the proclaimed service window and asks us what the issue is. Now this should sound familiar…Comcast employees asking us what our problem is, even after we tell them (more than once). We tell Chris the history and he promptly diagnoses the issue and fixes it (the new cable wasn’t properly fitted to the outside of the house – of course!). Chris wraps up the adventure, leaves his card, circles his mobile number!, and lets us know to call him directly with issues instead of calling the 800 number BECAUSE HE GETS DINGED IF SOMEONE CALLS WITHIN 48 HOURS. This was what I mentioned earlier. No matter WHY you call, IF you call within 48 hours, it looks bad on the tech’s record. And tech’s don’t like that…so they CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOR to work around this crappy-designed incentive structure.

Service design time-out numbers four and five.

4. Enable the people who are delivering the service with the data they need to a) do their jobs and b) respect their customer’s time. We were already fit to be tied at this point, but these nice Comcast employees had the opportunity to ease our pain and be heroes. Armed with the right data, they could have both prescribed the right next actions and put a band-aid on our boo-boo. Instead, it was salt in the wounds.

5. Service design isn’t just about the stuff the customer sees and experiences…it’s also about the hidden factors such as incentive structures. It’s vitally important that you consider how you’re compensating your employees and what types of incentives are being created by those structures. By decrementing a performance score whenever a customer calls within 48 hours, Comcast created all kinds of unintended consequences, including techs giving out their personal numbers and customers losing any visibility into what is going on regarding their service issues.

So that’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this cautionary tale about the impact of designing (or not) for the customer experience and how a service design approach would make this story a vague memory of things past. Which is probably good for everyone involved, right? Perhaps the true moral of the story is that a cable company should never to mess with a service designer because he’ll write a blog post like this as well as create the corresponding journey map for everyone to view in detail.

Call before you dig, people. And after.