Ethics Center: Customer Service

Comcast Call from Hell: Ethical Lessons for Frontline Employees

What’s worse than requesting service from your phone or Internet provider? Listening to the Comcast Service Call from Hell.  If you ever wanted to scream, cry, or commit (insert felony name here) after talking with your phone or Internet company, then stop reading now. But if you’re a “rubbernecker” or want to learn from the mistakes others, then please stay on the line.

You may have already read about Ryan Block and his wife. Apparently, they were moving and had already selected another Internet provider. The wife called their current firm to cancel. But after about 10 minutes on the phone, it became clear the Comcast service rep wanted nothing of the kind. He repeatedly asked her why she wanted to cancel. When she persisted, he acted amazed that she wanted to leave the (allegedly) fastest provider in America.

After going round and round with the rep, the wife gave up and passed the phone to her husband, Ryan. Sensing trouble, the AOL product manager and former Engadget editor began taping the conversation, which lasted another eight minutes. You can listen to it here or read this brief excerpt (a longer one is available at

R: We’d like to disconnect please…

C: Help me understand why you don’t want faster Internet.

R: Help me understand why you can’t just disconnect us.

C: My job is to have a conversation with you about keeping your service, about finding out why it is you’re looking to cancel your service. If you don’t want to talk to me, you can definitely go into the Comcast store and cancel your service there. …

R: Can you cancel us by phone? The answer is yes, correct?

C: It sounds like you don’t want to go over this information with me. If you want to go over that information, that’s the easiest way to get your account disconnected.

R: I am declining to state why we are leaving Comcast because I don’t owe you an explanation. So, if you can proceed to the next question. If you have to fill out a form, that’s fine. Please proceed to the next question and we’ll attempt to answer that if possible.

C: Being that we’re the number one provider of TV and Internet service in the entire country, why is it you don’t want the number one provider? …

Twenty minutes later, Ryan was finally able to cancel their plan, but he was shaking with frustration, leading him to post the call on Twitter. Comcast responded to the inevitable firestorm with a statement saying how embarrassed they were with their representative’s behavior. They also promised to apologize to the Blocks. So ultimately, the episode ended well for the frustrated couple, but not for Comcast, which endured ridicule on social media after once again living up to its horrendous reputation.

So what can we learn from this event, especially from an ethics perspective? How could that frontline employee have applied ethical principles in order to better serve his customers?

First, when it comes to business ethics, balance is everything. The Comcast rep no doubt is rewarded financially for retaining customers. Chances are, if he can’t retain most of them, he’d get fired. So he had to respond to his employer’s incentives. But he failed to do so judiciously, balancing his own financial interests with the legitimate interests of his customers.

Second, an ethical employee must exhibit judgment and self-control. The rep’s argumentative behavior illustrated a dramatic loss of self-management, no doubt fueled by the lack of balance just discussed (AKA: greed).

Third, ethical workers must treat their customers with respect. That means listening to their concerns and actually HEARING them. This also means honoring their service requests.

Fourth, they should treat customers as they themselves would like to be treated. In other words, they must follow the Golden Rule, which leads employees to view customers as fellow human beings, not just metrics feeding a compensation model. Again, the rep in this case displayed no empathy and no concern for anything except “validating” his comp plan.

Finally, they should take the long view. Customer satisfaction, like business ethics, is a long-term proposition. Sometimes you lose customers, but if you treat them well as they depart, they may come back later. But if you alienate them, you can be certain they’ll never return.

At the end of the day, the customer-service rep—and his employer—showed their true (unethical) colors. The rep only cared about his next paycheck and the company only cared about its next quarterly earnings statement. With ethical values like these, it’s no wonder “Comcast customer satisfaction” is the oxymoron from Hell. 

For more information on ethical customer-service practices, please visit the National Ethics Association's Ethics Center.