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The Break-Up Heard Round the World: Is There A Legal Recourse Against Comcast?

July 23, 2014
by Glen Martin

It went so immediately and intensely viral that it probably gave the Internet a case of breakbone fever. We’re speaking, of course, of the recording of a Comcast “retention” representative pleading with, browbeating and haranguing customer Ryan Block to stay with the cable service giant.

The eight-minute audio clip engendered a sense of rueful recognition (perhaps even psychic pain) in the legions of subscribers who have encountered the customer service departments of their media “providers.” It’s bad enough that we have to negotiate endlessly ramifying phone trees to reach a rep. It’s worse if we’re subjected to Manchurian Candidate-style bullying and interrogation when we broach, however meekly, the subject of—gulp—cancellation.

The propagation of the clip followed, perhaps not so coincidentally, Comcast’s “winning” of the 2014 Worst Company in America competition. Comcast beat out such formidable contenders as genetically-modified seed purveyor Monsanto, the Orca-detaining theme park company SeaWorld, Koch Industries (owned by ardent fossil fuel devotees Charles and David Koch), and everybody’s favorite union-averse retail behemoth, Walmart, for the not-so-coveted “Golden Poo” award.

The latest twist in the saga of the infamous call: Consumerist has reprinted a letter Comcast COO Dave Watson posted to the Team Comcast employees’ site, in which he writes that “we are embarrassed by the tone of the call and the lack of sensitivity to the customer’s desire to discontinue service” and insists “the experience that this customer had is not representative of the good work that our employees are doing.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledges, “The agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him—and thousands of other Retention agents—to do. He tried to save a customer, and that’s important, but the act of saving a customer must always be handled with the utmost respect.”

The clip, which in the past several days has generated millions of hits, has generated more than the usual spleen-venting among consumers. Without doubt, it delivered a savage body blow to the company’s already pummeled PR corpus. Moreover, surely what the bumptious rep did was illegal, right?

Uh, no.

“I certainly think it was an internet-worthy exchange,” says Ted Mermin, the co-founder and executive director of the Public Good Law Center and an adjunct professor of consumer law at Berkeley’s law school. “The rep was deeply annoying, but I didn’t hear deception on his part. Ultimately, he didn’t refuse to disconnect. So from a legal standpoint, it’s probably not going to go anywhere.”

Mermin thinks some of the fees used by phone companies can provide more compelling examples of true corporate deception.

“For example, I signed up with a company that offered a free tablet, $10 monthly service, and a promise that I could return the device within 14 days,” Mermin says. “It was for my daughter, but she really didn’t need the tablet, so I returned it. I was charged a $70 ‘restocking fee’ that wasn’t mentioned when I subscribed—even when I asked. That kind of practice gives me greater concern than what we heard on the Comcast call.”

But what about Comcast’s monopolism in its areas of service? Not only do customers suffer what feels, as in Block’s case, rather like abuse, but there remains the grim fact that we have no place else to go; we are seemingly forced to continue cohabiting with our abuser.

At least, that’s what it feels like. But as far as the law goes, says Mermin, semblance and reality don’t really jibe in this case.

“The cable industry really detests the word ‘monopoly,’” says Mermin, “and they go to great effort to distance themselves from it. Their claims ring somewhat hollow, of course. But legally, they do not have a de facto monopoly. There are providers that use phone lines, and there are satellite services, and cable companies can and do cite these as examples of ‘competition.’”

Perhaps the most irritating thing about Block’s recorded call is that it points to a company policy that really jumps the shark when it comes to customer retention. Despite Comcast’s initial claims that senior executives were shocked, just shocked, at the rep’s gall, it’s clear that the call didn’t deviate far from standard operating procedure. Shortly after the call went public, Lauren Bruce, an erstwhile Comcast account executive, stated such “retention “techniques” were deeply imbedded in the firm’s culture.

“If someone is saying, ‘screw my service, I hate you,’ you would say, ‘Hey, do you want phone too?’” Bruce told Businessweek.

So what’s the takeaway? Beat them at their own game, advises Mermin.

Block “had the patience of Job, and he ultimately got what he wanted,” Mermin says, “so it obviously pays to be as savvy as this guy. In general, if you are not absolutely determined to cancel service, bypass the regular customer service representative and ask to be connected to a retention rep. The customer service reps usually don’t have the power to negotiate, but the retention reps do. It’s possible to get some very good deals if you’re willing to stay.”

And if you absolutely want to pull the plug? Tell the rep you’re moving out of the country—someplace beyond the reaches of the company. That’s considered an “unavoidable disconnect” and should require your provider to grant you the cable equivalent of a quickie divorce.

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