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Comcast's "asshole" problem

A Comcast truck is seen parked at one of their centers on February 13, 2014 in Pompano Beach, Florida.
A Comcast truck is seen parked at one of their centers on February 13, 2014 in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After Ricardo Brown called Comcast to cancel his TV service, a Comcast employee updated Brown's account so that his next bill was addressed to "Asshole Brown."

The story has, predictably, spread quickly across the internet. People are, predictably, outraged. Comcast is, predictably, very very sorry.

On the one hand, it would be unfair to read too much into this single incident. Comcast is a big company with many employees. Sometimes an employee does something dumb. That doesn't mean that management approved of — or even knew about — the employee's actions.

On the other hand, I think the incident does say something about the culture Comcast management has fostered. Comcast prices its products in a way that puts its representatives in an adversarial relationship with customers. That makes this kind of bitterness more likely.

Think about returning something at a retail store like Target or Best Buy. It's a pretty painless process. These stores will usually accept returns with no questions asked, in some cases without even providing a receipt. They don't try to talk customers out of returning the product or make them jump through a lot of hoops to get their money.

Comcast takes roughly the opposite approach. They offer a relatively low introductory price at sign-up time, but then they periodically raise rates. Customers are forced to call up, pretend they want to cancel, and then haggle for a good deal. Honesty isn't allowed; if you tell the Comcast guy you just want a discount, he won't give it to you. You have to lie to get a price cut. Customer service representatives are effectively evaluated on how unhelpful they are. They'll get better performance reviews if they're able to talk customers out of canceling without having to give big discounts.

If you set up a company that deliberately pits your customers against your representatives, it's not surprising that everyone involved will get frustrated. And if you have a bunch of frustrated Comcast employees, it's only a matter of time before one of them does something stupid like changing a customer's name to "asshole."

Most businesses take the attitude that "the customer is always right" because they know customers have a lot of options. Developing a reputation for being hard to deal with is bad for business. But in the telecom business, customers don't have a lot of options. They're lucky if they have more than one alternative to Comcast, and in many areas the alternatives are a lot slower. In a market with limited competition, treating customers like your adversary isn't such a bad business strategy.

Disclosure: Comcast Ventures is an investor in Vox Media, the parent company of Vox.com.