Why You Hate Comcast Is the Reason You Love Netflix

Sticking to a script is a tempting solution to our uncertain world. However, new research into the science of high performing cultures shows that, to be innovative, organizations should prioritize flexibility when things become less predictable. The lesson is no more evident than in customer service, which has gained a nightmarish reputation because of continued attempts to automate everything, including the humans.

In the age of automated menus and voice recognition, customer service experiences have become a punch line. Navigating the maze of numbered options is only half the battle—if you’re lucky enough to reach a human being, they won’t sound much different than the robot.

While representatives bear the brunt of customer frustration, it’s not always their fault. Their cyborgian style is often due to employee guidelines laden with mandatory responses for every possible customer scenario—even seemingly off-script sign-offs like “Enjoy Game of Thrones tonight” are provided in advance. Pressure to retain customers at any cost and earn sales commission is often a defining aspect of the service rep experience. Why do businesses so often resort to this frustrating model for customer service? Because they create cultures that are too dependent on tactical performance.

Tactical performance is about how well you execute a plan and color within the lines. It’s appealing because it’s predictable and offers convenient metrics for productivity: numbers of calls per hour, average handle time, cross-sells per call and so on. In reality, the fear of uncertainty leads companies to promote a style of work that leaves no room for flexibility, stifling their employees’ ability to think creatively and solve unique customer problems—and personalities.

Unfortunately for both parties, this strategy can easily backfire. Comcast customer Ryan Block became a trending topic when his recording of a painful attempt to cancel his subscription went viral. The eight minutes of him being relentlessly berated by a noncompliant rep are frustrating to listen to, but they are tragically in step with Comcast’s retention techniques, albeit more aggressive than usual.

Tactical performance does have its merits; having a plan gives people direction, keeps everyone on the same page, and offers plug-and-play solutions for rote aspects of a job. But to enjoy those merits without having to provide all their workers (and customers) blood pressure medication, organizations must balance the tactical with the adaptive.

Adaptive performance is about how well you diverge from a plan: think about what your strongest people have in common—creativity, persistence, analytical thinking, problem solving and citizenship. Together these traits enable employees to adjust to unforeseen circumstances or create opportunities where there were previously none—in effect to be adaptive.

Balancing the two can yield refreshing and highly profitable results. Take Mike Mears, the Netflix employee whose Star Trek-themed chat with a customer also went viral. Mears helped a subscriber solve a streaming issue, all the while maintaining character as “Captain Mike” and providing “Lt. Norm” with “the best customer service experience” he’d ever had. No one instructed Mike to adopt that persona nor was his compensation at risk for not following a script; Mike and his colleagues at Netflix are actively encouraged to find their own voice.

It’s no coincidence that Netflix also has one of the top American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) ratings in the industry. Managing the two types of performance to improve customer service experiences isn’t just about everyone feeling fuzzy inside; quality customer service can have a serious financial impact: Netflix’s ever-rising rating has coincided with a quadrupling of its stock price since 2012. Meanwhile, Comcast pledged to spend $300 million to remedy its customer service.

The key to unleashing the Captain Mike within your team is this: Why people work determines how well they work. In our book, Primed to Perform, we found employees that who exhibit the most adaptive behaviors and perform at the highest levels are the ones who are working for the right reasons. That may sound impossible to ascertain, but it’s not—in fact, it’s a quantifiable and achievable outcome called “total motivation.”

Adaptability being contingent on one’s motives isn’t unique to the cable industry; results from our total motivation survey reveal similar outcomes across industries and organizations, from fast food to investment and Fortune 500s to school districts.

Finding harmony between tactical and adaptive allows your people work efficiently, while maintaining the freedom to devise innovative solutions, brainstorm brand new opportunities and catch curveballs. Our total motivation survey will allow you to measure your people’s motives. Armed with these insights, you can redesign your culture to maximize adaptive performance in your organization; your employees will perform better, your customers will be happier and your company will see improved results. Best of all, nobody will end up publicly humiliated on the Internet.

From first impression to follow-up, give your customers a reason to come back (or they won’t). Check out the 5 very best ways to thrill your customers.


Neel Doshi is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, published in October 2015 by Harper Business. Previously, Neel was a partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he's an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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