Can the "Worst Company in America" Fix Itself?

Can a company regularly reviled as one of the "worst in America" work its way up to "best"? The folks over at Comcast think so.

In a dramatic bid to improve service, Comcast announced it plans to shorten its cable repair and installation windows in all markets from as much as four hours to two hours or less by 2012.

Comcast routinely ranks dead last in customer satisfaction surveys. It tied Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable for last place among cable TV operators with a 59 out of a possible 100 in the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). Readers of the Consumers Union-owned website Consumerist.com also named Comcast the worst company in America last year.

Comcast wants to boost service as it rebrands its cable service Xfinity, according to its CEO, Brian Roberts.

But when you're that far gone, is fixing service even possible?

Comcast raises that question in the wake of yesterday's ACSI scores for airlines and hotels, which ranged from bad to barely acceptable. Dreadful customer service is now such a part of the travel industry's DNA â€" an industry that, ironically, built its reputation on customer service â€" that it almost seems as if it's not worth trying. But that's the wrong attitude.

How US Airways Inched Up

US Airways was the airline with the lowest ACSI score in the last 16 years â€" a 54 out of 100, which it earned in 2008. The only airline to fare worse is now-defunct Northwest Airlines, which scored a dismal 53 in 1999.

Customer service at US Airways was circling the drain until management launched a program that incentivized employees for every on-time arrival, fewer complaints filed with the government, and better overall performance, which often translated into a better customer experience.

US Airways still has a long way to go before it reaches the baseline score of 72 it earned in 1994. (And if you think about it, 74 still isn't that great.) It earned a 61 out of 100 yesterday, tied for second-to-last place with United Airlines.

But still, it's trying. And that's worth something to its passengers.

What's needed to claw back to the top?

Listening to customers, especially your best customers. In US Airways' case, a group of loyal frequent fliers called FFOCUS banded together to improve the airline's service. They met with managers and discussed ways to improve the airline's operations.

Collaborating with employees. No company has improved service by edict alone. You need properly incentivized, motivated employees to make it work. For example, Comcast can't make its response-time windows shorter unless its technicians see the value of responding quickly.

Being prodded by the press. "Worst-of" lists may be fascinating reading, but they also serve a purpose. The companies singled out as the "worst" companies in America really do feel the heat â€" from customers, employees and investors. They need to feel it if they are to make positive changes.

Rewarded by higher earnings. If a business pulls itself up by its bootstraps, then profits should rise as a result. That's the type of positive reinforcement that keeps customer service levels high. If it doesn't, earnings, morale and service invariably go into a slow decline.

So why are cable companies and airlines so service challenged, despite their best efforts? Because there's an exception to the last rule. When you're operating a de-facto monopoly, as airlines and cable TV companies often do, then customers will keep coming back even if service is unacceptable. Because they have no choice.

That certainly complicates things, and it puts even more pressure on the watchdogs and a company's own employees to turn the ship around.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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