Why do loyal customers struggle when they want a better deal on their cable subscription?
Have you ever called to lower your Comcast bill, but felt like you were pushing a boulder the size of a Mack truck up a mountain?
That’s because customer service agents for big cable companies like Comcast, Charter Communications, Direct TV and Dish Network have a culture of “upselling” customers into more expensive cable packages, according to an extensive investigation led by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
The investigation, which reviewed 93,000 documents and included dozens of interviews with people inside the cable industry, found that agents were trained to upsell customers even if someone is calling about a problem they are having with their service. And if you wanted to switch providers? Direct TV agents were trained to “create fear, uncertainty and doubt about switching.” Likewise, Comcast agents were trained to ask questions that “plant a seed of doubt in the customer’s mind,” according to McCaskill’s findings. (See report excerpts below.)
Understanding the cable and satellite TV culture
There is a way to deal with such tactics. Consumers actually have the upper hand when it comes to how much they pay for television or broadband subscriptions. But first you have to understand how cable companies operate behind the scenes, and how they view their customers.
If you’re thinking of getting rid of cable and becoming a cord cutter, or you’re just looking to get the best deal possible for your day-to-day television consumption, keep reading.
We’ve outlined some of the findings from a 13-month investigation into the cable and satellite TV industry by the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. If you can understand how customer service agents are trained to respond to your calls, and if you’ve read our post about the secret rates that cable companies have, but don’t ever advertise, then you’ll see why having a little knowledge can go a long way to saving you hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars a year.
The McCaskill Report: Inside the Box
McCaskill (D-Mo.) found in her 61-page report Inside the Box Customer Service and Billing Practices in the Cable and Satellite Industry that customer service agents received financial incentives to sell you more services and maintaining control over you when you call.
When customers called their cable or satellite provider with a problem or question, the providers treated most of these calls as an opportunity to increase profits and sell more services. In industry terms, this is known as “upselling” customers. Customer service representatives were trained to attempt to sell more services to customers, regardless of what issue the customer was calling about.
Customer service representatives were evaluated and compensated, in part, based on their ability to make sales. At Dish, upselling was usually part of an agent’s performance evaluation. In addition to monetary incentives, the company offered promotions to its agents. If agents met sales goals, they could receive entries into sweepstakes, restaurant gift cards or an office party. And if agents were top performers, they could be recognized in company newsletters. Comcast’s billing agent evaluation instructions indicated that an employee was performing “below expectations” if he or she did not solicit customers to purchase additional services, and scorecards for billing representatives included metrics like “Upgrade Transitional Sales Close Rate.” DirecTV agents, even those who handled billing or technical support calls, had sales or “upgrade” goals. Time Warner Cable customer care representatives could receive sales commissions in addition to their base pay.
Don’t assume it’s a normal conversation
So, if you think you can just call up your cable company and get a better deal by talking to someone, you’re dead wrong.
The best leverage you have is by calling and setting a cancellation date for all of your service right off the bat. Don’t say you’re thinking about cancelling. Don’t threaten to do it. Don’t beat around the bush. The first words out of your mouth should be along the lines of, “Hi, I’m calling to set a date to cancel all of my service with you…” You should say this even if you want to keep your Internet service. You need to control of the call because the person on the other end of the phone has been highly trained to maintain control of you. We have more tips on this below. McCaskill’s report tells you how customer service agents will try to control the call:
Customer Service Agents Are Trained To Manage Calls and Make Sales
Cable and satellite companies trained their agents to control the conversation with subscribers. Customers were “probed” with questions to determine what additional services they might buy, “opened” with offers of more expensive services, and “closed” in order to complete the sale. Customers who became angry or upset regarding their service were viewed as an occupational hazard for call center representatives.
Controlling the Call to Make the Sale
While customers may believe that, having called a provider, they are driving the conversation, cable and satellite companies seek to ensure that their agents are in control. As one Dish training block described, “[Y]ou should be able to establish control on a call, maintain control of a call, [and] regain control of a call after it has been lost. Time Warner Cable told its agents to “set the agenda” when the customer called, “assert the agenda” throughout the call, and “reset the agenda” to sell its customers additional services (as will be discussed below). Comcast told its agents to avoid using “trap words” that might reinforce something negative the customer stated, even though many of these words seemed to have plain and suitable meanings (examples include “rate increases” and “disconnect”).
Even in situations where upselling seemed unlikely, Charter and Time Warner Cable instructed agents to attempt it. Charter’s first step in its retention offer strategy was to “attempt to maintain or increase revenue.”
Trained to create ‘fear’ in customers when they want to switch service
Sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? Imagine that a cable company would try to instill fear or insecurity in you if you talk about cancelling service. If you get to the point where you actually set cancellation date for your cable service, and you get a follow-up call with a retention specialist, then you are getting closer to getting a lower cable bill. But keep in mind, whatever deal you get will only be temporary. For those considering a cord cutting option, we’ll outline below how to proceed with a retention specialist so that you can get the best possible deal for Internet.
It’s no secret that the goal of retention agents is to overcome the desire of a customer wanting to cancel their service. Around page 52 of McCaskill’s report, you will learn:
Cable and satellite providers specifically trained their retention agents to undermine customers’ reasons for disconnecting their service. If a customer expressed interest in switching to a competing provider’s service, DirecTV agents were trained to “create fear, uncertainty and doubt about switching.” Similarly, Comcast trained agents to ask questions that “plant a seed of doubt in the customer’s mind.” If customers indicated the price is the reason they were disconnecting their service, retention agents are encouraged to uncover the “real” or underlying reason for why the customer wanted to cancel their service. Some providers placed an emphasis on shifting the conversation away from price, with some instructing agents to avoid “trap” words, such as “basic,” “deal,” “discount,” “cheaper,” “lower,” “rate increase,” or a specific price. Instead, retention agents encouraged customers to think of “value,” or the presented benefits of the provider’s service. In some cases, this focus on the value of the service could lead to retention agents proposing that the customer add services, rather than drop them, so that customers may feel that a higher price is justified because of the additional services they were receiving.
A business model based on promotions, anger and fallout
For those of you willing to subject yourself to hours of droning on by members of Congress via C-SPAN, there’s an occasional nugget that’s worth your while. There is quite a bit in the McCaskill report about how cable companies fully expect their customers to eventually get angry about how much they’re paying once their promotional rates expire, but I have found in life that sometimes people tell you a lot more when they say nothing at all. Note the silence of cable executives in this gem of a video:
Should you stay or should you go?
It’s really a personal decision, based on what you want for entertainment and how much you’re willing to pay for it. Just keep in mind that whatever great deal you get on your cable package, it will be temporary. The business model of cable companies is to lure in customers with promotional rates then “roll” them off as quickly as possible while keep a customer’s anger to a minimum – even if it means instilling a little fear or doubt when they call to switch service or complain. If you’re willing to do battle with a customer service agent or retention specialist every year or so, good for you. You’re way ahead of the majority of Americans paying for cable.
If you go the cord cutting route
As I cord cutter, I’ve learned how to save hundreds of dollars a year just by using inexpensive hardware that I actually own instead of renting it from a cable or satellite TV provider. For as little as $40, an Amazon Fire Stick, or a Roku Streaming Stick for $50, you can shed the ongoing costs and upselling of cable.
You can sign up live streaming TV service like PlayStation Vue or Sling TV, and shed the hidden fees and contracts. Or you can subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime and tap into all the free HD television you want with an antenna that you can either build or buy inexpensively. You can check out how I set up my own place, or look around on sites like Amazon for cable modems, or various media streaming devices.
Getting a better deal on broadband anywhere in the U.S.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First you need to get a better deal on broadband. Make sure that before you call, you check the introductory rates that your currently provider is offering for new customers. Have your notes in front of you and keep yourself in check during the call. Don’t get angry. Just call and calmly explain you ending your service.
The customer service agent will already be well armed with the prices of competitors and will try to talk smack about them. Keep in mind that companies have secret rates that they don’t advertise, and that there is wiggle room even when a retention specialist claims there is none. Remember that you have nothing to lose by trying to get a better price – either from your current provider or from someone else. The cable and satellite TV providers, on the other hand, have quite a bit to lose – namely, the monthly teat known as your money – possibly forever.
After setting a cancellation date
After you set a date to cancel all your service, one of two things will likely happen: the customer service representative will be willing to try to cut a deal. Or, you may actually end the call, and a retention specialist will call a day or two later. In either scenario, you’re on the winning path.
Here’s what to consider saying next: If you say that you only want to go with Internet service for now, and add that you may consider adding a cable package again at a later date, that is usually music to a retention specialists ears. Why? Because they get to tell their bosses that they kept the customer (their number one goal), and got the promise from you that you might consider adding cable services later. Make sure you study the introductory rate, and be willing to end the call if you’re told that you can’t get it. (They’re not called secret rates for nothing.)
Using this method, I was able to get a 50Mbps Internet connection for $35 a month (an introductory rate after being a faithful cable subscriber of three years.) I live in a metropolitan city with little competition and very high prices. I expect my bill to go up by $10 per year in 2017 and 2018, but I will still be way paying hundreds less a year than I was when I had a cable package.
Will it ever get better?
Cable executives have pledged to improve customer relations. John Keib, a former executive vice president with Time Warner Cable, told The Wall Street Journal in a June 23 article that his company fields more than 100 million customer calls in an average year. “Regardless of the reason for the call, our goal is to keep our customers, and we accomplish that goal by keeping them happy,” he told the paper.
If you have some tips or tricks with how to negotiate for inexpensive Internet or cable, please share your story below in our comments section, and best of luck.
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Jim Kimble is a seasoned industry expert with over two decades of journalism experience. He has been at the forefront of the cord-cutting movement since 2016, testing and writing about TV-related products and services. He founded The Cord Cutting Report in 2016.
Major publications, including MarketWatch, Forbes, and South Florida Sun Sentinel, have interviewed Kimble for his years of expertise. He gives advice on the complexities consumers are navigating with streaming options, and over-the-air TV. Kimble has been a staff writer or correspondent for several award-winning, daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. You can follow Jim on LinkedIn, YouTube and at X at @james_kimble