Customer Service Showdown: The Cable Company vs the DMV

The stories you are about to read are true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Wait a minute—there are no innocents! Let’s name names. It’s the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles vs. Comcast Cable.

And believe it or not, one of these is a wildly positive story about customer service. The other, of course, is not (lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, especially if that place is New Jersey).

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to guess which story is which.

First, the disaster story—courtesy of my friend Judy.

Judy called XYZ about a common transaction. “Sure,” they said, “here’s what you need to bring, and we’ll take care of you.”

She gets there: “What? Who told you that! You need to go back home and bring the other thing.”

She returns. “You can’t do this, your ex-husband’s name is on the records. We need a copy of the twelve-year old divorce decree, plus his signature on a form. We don’t have that form, but we’ll fax it to you.”

Days later. “Who told you we could fax that to you? We can only mail it.”

More days. “We need to confirm your social security number.” She gives it to them. “Sorry, we can’t match it; we don’t have records of your social security number.” “Then what were you going to match it to?!" Judy asks.  We have entered Kafka-land some time ago.

At last, Judy leaves with the desired outcome. It turns out to be wrong.

On returning yet again, it’s, “well, who in the hell gave you that? It’s obviously wrong. Hey lady stop screaming—no need to take out your personal problems on us!”

OK, that was—drumroll—the Cable Company!  Comcast of West Orange, Essex County, New Jersey.

And that means—yes, people, believe it or not—the raging success story is the New Jersey DMV. Lately renamed the  Motor Vehicle Commission

I visited the Morristown office recently to register a new (actually used) car and change my address. I walk in at noon. The parking lot is full. I dread what is about to happen to my afternoon. 

But no; the lines are short—very short—and moving. I’m aggressively approached by someone who looks me in the eye. “Waddya here for, how can we help yez?”

“I want to register a car, and do a change of address,” I say. No hesitation. “Great, come on over here, let’s kill ‘em both off at once,” she says.

And she proceeds to do just that. She gave me practical advice: “If you don’t mind camping on a phone to Trenton for 10 minutes, it’ll save you a whole lot of time later—I’ll get you a chair. Meanwhile, I can download this part and fill it in for you.”

An elderly woman came in with an oxygen tube and a walker. An employee briskly walked her to the ladies room, then on her return, firmly asked someone else to move down to the next chair to make room.

A man with an accent said he was foreign born but naturalized years ago, and was worried sick about getting some documentation. An employee talked to him intently for 5 minutes; he ended up saying, “Oh, thank you so much, I am so relieved to find someone to help me with this, thank you.”

A woman next to me said, “I can’t believe how much better this place is than the department store I was just in.”

I sought out the office head before leaving to congratulate him on how different this office felt than others, and how much better than it used to be. “Yeah, we’ve got a pretty good team here,” he said, waving at his staff of eight or so.

Now, here’s the punch line. Which office do you think has bulletproof glass in front of the service windows?

Answer: the one who needs it.

21 replies
  1. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Credit where credit is due.

    This post went live at 6AM.  At 9AM, I got a phone call from a senior customer service exec at Comcast saying he cringed at reading it and would have called me at 6:15 were it a more polite hour.

    He said he felt deeply embarrassed; he couldn’t have been more contrite, didn’t spend any time defending or blaming, wanted to hear Judy’s story in greater detail, and shared some thoughts about customer service programs going forward.  Kudos to him.

    Changing a large company’s customer service is not easy.  It involves changing not just procedures and training, but culture and habits.  I’m satisfied this gentleman understands that.  I wish them luck in their endeavor; everyone benefits when a company undergoes a change in service.

    And hey, if the DMV can do it, it can be done.

  2. Kelly
    Kelly says:


    Contrite or not, I have had both of those experiences here in Delaware, with Comcast and the DMV (& BTW when I lived in NJ about 15 years ago the DMV was anightmare so that’s super that they’ve made such changes). I am always amazed that the DMVs can’t get their reputations to change, when a lot of them have become the opposite of what you’d expect.

    Comcast is atrocious to work with (length of time, [lack of] comfort while there, hoops to jump through, open hostility, one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, etc.), and you are blessed to have a very loud megaphone, because if this post were on my much smaller Maximum Customer Experience Blog there’d be not a peep. Sorry, Mr. Exec, that’s how it is, and that "news" is all over the blogosphere. A trick I’ve learned for helping clients judge customer animosity: Try typing "Comcast S***s" into your browser of choice.



  3. Don J
    Don J says:

    Would agree with your DMV comments (here

    in Illinois it’s Secretary of State, and they’re

    great and helpful.  Our Insight cable was just

    purchased by Comcast. In the announcement,

    they said no rate hikes in the forseeable future.

    Within two week, a jump in rates. This does

    not seem encouraging.

  4. totalpardo
    totalpardo says:

    Thats all fine and well, but what happens if Comcast is your only option?  Or at least the least expensive option?

    Just like the DMV, you deal with it, because you have to.

    And Comcast knows it.

  5. Evan Raffel
    Evan Raffel says:

    It is true that the new Jersey DMV used to be a disaster. That was probably the biggest thing that former Gov. McGreevy did before his untimely resignation/scandal.  He completely turned it around and deserves most of the credit for how wonderful the MVC is today.

  6. mythago
    mythago says:

    Charles, please pass along to Mr. Comcast that your friend is far from the only disgruntled customer out there.

    I was not told (nor was it in any of the paperwork) until *after* we purchased Comcast internet–and it didn’t work properly–that they would not guarantee their product if you set it up on a home network, such as plugging your cable modem into a router, that they only expected their internet service to be used on a single computer, but hey! you could certainly pay extra for Comcast home networking services.

    Needless to say, they have permanently lost several customers.

  7. Peter Guinta
    Peter Guinta says:

    Comcast also recently took over our crummy Time-Warner cable company in St. Augustine, also promising good service, low rates and a better signal. The signal was indeed better, but they took away a bunch of channels on basic, especially the old movie station, a favorite around here. The service stunk from Day One. They moved customer service from their office to a portable building in the Kmart parking without telling anyone. Waits were lengthy for home service — if they showed up at all. I am a newspaper reporter and wrote stories on the switch to Comcast. I fielded hundreds of calls from unhappy and angry customers after I quoted a Comcast spokesman saying that service will be improved. It wasn’t. My wife just signed up for a satellite dish. Fine with me. I miss Time-Warner now.

  8. tbone
    tbone says:

    Unless you have ever dealt with Comcast, you simply cannot imagine how horrible they are.  If someone else were describing my own experiences with them, I would have thought the person was exaggerating, or half-crazy (I’m not).

    I don’t have the time to recount all the gory details here, but believe me, as a consumer, Comcast is the single worst entity I have ever dealt with in my entire lifetime.  By a very wide margin.  I would happily get 10 drivers licenses at the DMV before I would willingly walk into a Comcast office.  Shame on them and their management. 

  9. Jim
    Jim says:

    Actually, here in Illinois, they aren’t so great.  The dmv office near me shut down their weekend hours, and the next nearest one is quite a hike.  That one closes early too, and is extremely crowded on Saturday.  I wouldn’t expect them to be open Sunday, but since they are closed on Monday, I would like them to stay open longer than noon on Saturday.   They did have a sign up recently saying they were open extra early saturday, at 7am.  Yeah, thanks. That helps a lot.
    Last December I went there to get new stickers for the car.  They had holiday hours posted. Since a holiday was coming up in 3 weeks, they were closed early on the weekends.  The last weekend they were closed entirely.  Fucktards.
    The year before I was ticketed for not having stickers. Turned out they hadn’t sent me the form for 2 years and I’d never noticed.   Seems the zip code changed mucked up their mailing so it didn’t get to me, and I didn’t notice.  Who notices not getting an annual bill?.  Odd that no bloody other bill had trouble.  Even more disgusting since the zip code change had happened 7 years ago and I’d gotten other stuff from them.

    Btw, what retard designed your system to requier activex controls?  Are you people morons?  Get rid of the damned activex controls.

  10. Param
    Param says:

    After reading your blog and the followup response from Comcast I thought it would be good to write about my own experience not so much to bitch about Comcast, but to give that good soul at Comcast there who is trying to fight the battle of improving customer service some ammo.

    To start with, I have been a customer of Comcast for about 3 years now. I have had to move every year as part of my job. Every move is a nightmare. Originally one of the reasons I stuck with Comcast inspite of the fact that they were more expensive than ATT was because of their customer support. I think their billing software is a "peice of work", it always bills you wrong to start with. You have to always call customer support to get them to bill the right plan and the correct rates. Though I wished I did not have to do that, I was OK with making the call and doing it – 1) because their CS was 24/7 2) the CS guys were "empowered", you told them they were wrong and they fixed it then and there and things go on well until the next move.

    But my last move was a nightmare. I took a new connection on a low priced Internet offer. As usual the bill came out to the full price. I call customer service and they tell me they no longer have access to that "option" to change the plan and transfered me to another departement. This transfer and "we dont deal with that someone else does" went on for hours until – the irony of it all the first department made the change like it was the simplest thing to do. Perplexed, but I thought alls well that ends well. But, I was wrong. The nightmare came back when my bill showed up. The price was lowered but it was still not the same as the original deal that I signed up for.

    I called up CS again and this time the real nightmare started. By this time the price that I signed up for was no longer available but an even better price was avaliable for a better bundled service. The CS rep told me that he was not able to see the price I was asking for. They refused to belive that the price I was asking for was ever available. I tried to convince the guy and his supervisior that if  my intent was to "con" Comcast for $5 wouldnt I be asking for the newer better deal available now than cook up a random number. They tried their best to covince me that I was lying, they were a company of integrity and honesty. I hang up.

    The worst part was when I got the "Elaine at the doctor’s office treatement". I call back up later to talk to another rep. I have had this method work for me many times before when dealing with CS folks. This time the lady who spoke to me starts off on me before I would finish my story of how I got to this point – Quote " Sir, we have told you many times, we dont have that price. We never had that price. We have offered you the best price we could and you dont want it" END Quote.

    I was shocked. Now I cant get any service from them. My record as a customer is forever tainted. Anyway finally I settled for the price they offered, but to be fair to them they increased the offer length.

    Here is the point I am trying to get thru to comcast if anyone is reading. I dont blame the individual reps. I wish they were a little more understanding of the fact that when the   mistake is on your part and you have no way of fixing it you have to learn to empathise with the customer. That goes a long way in solving the problem. When the customer claims something he cant prove dont assume straight away that he must be lying. AND FOR HEAVENS SAKE DONT GANG UP ON A CUSTOMER.

    To the "Comcast suit" that "manages" this "process". Empower your CS folks. The operative word is EMPOWER, ensure that they have access to the right buttons in their software that lets them take care of customers, instead of making them go to supervisors and other deaprtments. And I can assure you that even of they side with customers more times than with the controls you have in place, the goodwill that it will generate will far outweigh the loss in revenue.

    PS: the guy from comcast who called up this poster to talk about this problem – kudos to you. It is people like you that will save your company from being displaced by a more customer friendly competitor. Tell the suits above you to take some money of the crappy ads they are running on TV and invest in your CS folks. If the suits dont listen, quit now, there are a hundred companies out there that would love to have on their rolls. Life is too short to be working in a place where you dont have a fighting chance. GOOD LUCK TO YOU.

  11. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    I wasn’t going to comment again, since I think this can of worms has turned out to be bigger than expected, but Param’s comment got me.

    That exact experience (months of billing errors/promises/things never fixed) happened to me, including being called a liar at the end of it all. Thank goodness having just moved things were in too big a state of chaos for anything to actually get thrown out yet, because I dug in the correct pile, found the original ad with the price, and marched right down to the local office. I live in a very metro area, yet the closest march was still a half an hour from me. Fine, by then I was upset enough.

    Having been on the other side of the low-paid exchange at one time in my life, I went in with the “I know you didn’t do this but…” attitude. After standing (yes, standing) for over 45 minutes, my patience was a bit thin, but you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, so up I go with a smile.

    I got nothing but harassment from before I even explained myself, which was near impossible with all the interruptions. I was handed around to three different people for why they couldn’t care less, and finally got someone who just wanted to keep the ad and would see about it.

    She got the copy I brought with me, and said she would have the billing fixed. In all I was there over two hours, three wasted if you include the drive.

    For this, I was billed correctly exactly once. Nothing was adjusted properly from the past, and when I tried to explain the recurrence of the problem to CS, it became clear that it was another losing battle.

    I gave up fighting it. I had several similar incidents over the two years I stayed with them. Three months ago I gave up. No tv, no internet at home. Oh, well. I’m waiting for Verizon FIOS to get to my neighborhood (supposedly within a couple of months). It might not be much better, but it can’t possibly be any worse.

    Cringing? BS. They’re not unaware at any level of these problems. Top-down, the company is permitting their CS to insult, harass, inconvenience, and bilk THE PEOPLE WHO PAY THEIR SALARIES. They can ignore it because they are often a monopoly at the local level, and because the pain threshhold for this experience is very, very high.

    If bad Customer Experience were the same as bad mortgage loans, they’d go the way of Bear Stearns. I help businesses with CE all day long but honestly, Charlie, the initiatives they’d have to undertake to renew trust are too huge to imagine.

    That’s way more than 2¢, but I couldn’t let Param’s comment about being called a liar and more go. It’s hard to believe this is happening all over, but it is!

  12. bizurk
    bizurk says:

    Everyone knows that comcast is garbage…. But I must inject praise where it’s due. Last time I went to the DMV in south Jersey, I had to renew my license, transfer a title, and complete registration of my ride. I brought a book, a snack, an iPod and prepared to wait about 3 hours.

    After 15 minutes and a few cheery conversations, everything was complete. I was teery-eyed with joy by the end of it. Deptford DMV rocks, great job people!

  13. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Sometimes I wish people would just say what they mean instead of pussy-footing around.

    Jim, re the ActiveX controls: I talked to the Head Moron and Chief Retard here at TrustMatters, and this is what they told me:

    We’ve looked at this page on all windows computers that we have and  can not find an activeX message anywhere, which makes sense because  there is nothing on this page that should have anything to do with  activeX.  Sometimes if we have a flash block that is not inserted via  javascript it can trigger an activeX message in IE6 on windows SP2,  but we have none of these conditions. I would email himdirectly to  ask / respond but he has not put in a valid email address, so I  suggest we leave it at that.


  14. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    LOL, Charlie. You’ve only got the shy retiring types commenting on this one, eh?

    Do you know in advance when it’s a hot one or do they catch you by surprise?

    I’ve got a couple of posts at my blog that shock me with how much traffic they get, then when I’m sure I’ve written one that’ll be hot, it sometimes isn’t. Hmm.



  15. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Kelly, i’m as baffled as you. I didn’t see this one taking off, for example. Only one was predictable, 6 months ago with tags “social networking” and “Web 2.0.” But to write with that in mind is inevitably to pander, I think. You and me both will live with a certain degree of randomness, I suspect, and enjoy it.

  16. Drew458
    Drew458 says:

    I love dealing with the MVC here in Flemington, out in Hunterdon County NJ. The people in this small office are really nice, and I can get in and out pretty quickly. They have none of the "DMV attitutde". Furthermore, the state inspection station is just across the street, where you can drive in and get your car inspected for free (ok, its taxpayer paid). They generally have 2 lines running but will open a 3rd when it gets busy. No appointment needed.

    OTOH, Comcast just bought up my cable provider. I’m scared.

  17. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, I’m curious whether the person who contacted you from Comcast was Frank Eliason, who is described the the Philadelphia Enquirer as "a Comcast Corp. manager in Center City with the daunting assignment of monitoring the nation’s blogosphere for venomous posts aimed at the company, answered right away."

    I really hope that behind this new wave of seeming helpful that Comcast is also being helpful, and recognizing that they have a lot of work to do to win back customer confidence and trust.  If they’re prepared to do the work, I really wish them luck.

    I mean, if the DMV can clean up it’s act…there must be hope for even Comcast.

  18. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Oops! I was so excited to share the link with you that I didn’t read down…to see that not only was it indeed Frank Eliason who spoke to you, but that you were mentioned in the article. 

    And I was very pleased to read in the article that Judy’s problem has been taken care of.

    (Note to self: no commenting on blogs before I drink my tea.)


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