Comcast in Portland: A Cautionary Tale

By , 18 August, 2008, No Comment

My friend Steve just moved to Portland, OR. Being a 22-year old man with clear priorities, he immediately set about acquiring food, a TV and a couch. In that order. Food is easy to come by in Portland, apparently: there are free ice-cream cone giveaways on the streets, and $1 hot dogs at minor league baseball games. Setting up cable, however, proved a challenge.

In a city that hosts chipmaker Intel, it’s only fitting that Steve would turn to the web to set up his new Comcast account. But instead of filling out an online form to request a visit from the cable guy (which is fairly standard across the country), Steve found himself handing over credit card information via an instant message.

The process was a lot faster than calling one of those corporate 800 numbers and dealing with an automated menu (“press 1 to pay us, press 2 to pay us more”), but Steve wasn’t pleased. This is “f***ing retarded,” he said. “Horrendous.”

First off, there’s the uncertainty of putting your credit card info into an IM that you have no confirmation page for. Halfway through the transaction, the IM client crashed when Steve tried to open a new tab on his browser.

Secondly, there’s the increased chance of fraud: the credit card Steve used actually belonged to his girlfriend Dana.

Thirdly, an IM conversation is an ideal place to make typos and grammatical gaffes. The Comcast rep asked to “ruin a credit card,” and after setting up a time for an installation told Steve, “Please make sure that there should be someone 18 years old and above, who is English speaking must be present for the duration of the appointment. Please be inform that the technician will call you 15 minutes before the installation.”

I don’t buy the whole Google-makes-you-stupid theory about internet users, and I don’t think the Comcast rep speaks this way in real life. Rather, I believe the same individuals can be less articulate over fast-paced communication technologies like IM or SMS than they are in print or even over e-mail, where there’s time to spell-check and proofread. And while error-prone IM is fine for personal conversations, Steve says that’s not okay when $100 a month is at stake. I agree.

And Steve is a tech-savvy guy. Like most 20-somethings, he uses the web to listen to music or surf YouTube!; plus, he has a subscription to a service that allows him to watch live coverage of professional sports that don’t make prime time on ESPN. That he still expects a certain formality and decorum from commercial relationships is a telling sign: just because the internet allows us to abandon all the old playbooks, doesn’t mean the Google generation wants that. That’s an important lesson for any companies trying to navigate the digital age.

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