Have We Become Slaves to the Number?

As a Finance guy and mathematics geek, perhaps my answer to that question should be, “Yes, and about time too.”

However, even I’m prepared to admit when things get taken too far. The number isn’t all that should be seen at the end of the day.

Take for example the recent news story about a Comcast employee, whose job it is to overturn cancellation requests.

Whilst on the phone to a customer looking to cancel, he became so dogged in his refusal to carry out the cancellation (until he was given a proper explanation as to why the request was being made), that the customer actually recorded the last 8 minutes of the conversation, and published it online.


The response? Four million plays within two days. And a massive social media response. The Comcast ‘retention specialist’ was called everything from “psychotic” to a “condescending, needy ex-boyfriend from hell.”

However, more interesting than that, has been the reaction of those within the industry who have argued that, whilst this particular Comcast employee took things too far, he would have been trained to do all he could to reverse the cancellation.

In this article, John Herrman writes, “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.”

So that conversation, as lengthy and tortuous as it was, will just be a number at the end of the day. A number that both he and his boss won’t like to see.

So my question is, is the reporting structure partly to blame in this instance? I’ve listened to the call and can’t imagine that the Comcast employee just chose to act in the manner he did.

He needed to know the reason behind the cancellation request because the reporting structure forced him to and for a bigger motive than simple curiosity. ‘Because we want to’ isn’t going to fly with his superiors.

Comcast initially tried to put the blame on the representative, arguing that what happened isn’t standard practice and that they would be ‘taking action’. Which of course only further fuelled the social media fire.

Many years ago I worked for Amazon UK, and dealt with the daily pressures of being measured against competing key performance indicators including customer satisfaction levels, volume and length of calls taken, number of emails responded to. The list goes on.

I would find myself justifying longer than average calls by explaining that those customers had left the call happy with the service received. Or those customers had gone on to place an order with me over the phone (something that wasn’t visibly measured at the time).

So what needs to change? Is it the behaviour of the retention specialists, is it the culture of the entire business, or is it the reporting framework underpinning the cancellation process?

Frances Frei, a professor and senior associate dean at the Harvard Business School and the co-author of Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business, thinks it’s about putting a better incentive system in place:

“I’m not even sure I would measure on conversions. I would measure on the question, ‘Are these customers likely to be ambassadors for our organisation at the end of this phone call?’…I am sure that would get more retention than their current system does.”

How would you measure that?

“Many companies have systems where, for example, they call or email people back and you ask them how they are doing. It’s a very well established thing.”

Chasing a number is one thing, doing it at the expense of alienating a customer ever becoming a customer again is quite another.

A data driven culture is a positive thing – it allows you to make better, more informed decisions, based on factual evidence. But what is critical is it needs to be the right reporting framework collecting the right data; the data that tells you whether or not something is working, and can go hand in hand with a great customer service strategy.

Let me know your thoughts on this – do you have a similar experience, and what do you think Comcast should do to turn things around?