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Why do companies like Comcast trade $80 for a customer for life?

How do you treat people who are not paying you?

That’s the question that many companies spend little time considering – even though it has a huge impact on their future. The experience consumers have when your company can not serve them is just as important as when they are enjoying your service. Yet everywhere, companies continue to treat un-customers and past-customers with utter disdain.

Consider our most recent customer dislike experience, with Comcast Business Class Internet. We’re moving our office. We’re closing our existing space while we finalize a new location. We’re canceling services we’ll no longer be able to use, including our internet connection. When we contacted Comcast to disconnect the service, we were told there would be two additional months of charges before the disconnection is complete. After explaining that we would not physically be able to use their service in any manner for two months – we’ll be out of the building – we were simply told “it was in the contract” and “it’s our policy.” Mind you, we had completed our service agreement of two years; but it was in the “fine print” that we had to give them two months notice before terminating in the future.

Everyone knows what’s going on: It’s a financial barrier to customers’ switching providers. Some bean-counter thought it would be a great way to keep customers from switching providers when their contract was up by making the move as unpalatable as possible.

Comparatively, the electric and gas company don’t need to do this: They simply ask for the last date, press a few buttons on their computers to turn it off. Can anyone possibly believe it takes two months for Comcast to disconnect their signal? Funny how it didn’t take two months to turn on. We suspect it wouldn’t have taken two months to turn us off if we hadn’t paid our bill.

No, clearly, this is “two-month” fee is simply a customer stick up.

To put it in perspective, consider:

  • In 2008, Macedonia planted 6 million trees in one day, replenishing their national forests after a series of fires.
  • On March 4, 1776, George Washington and his men built a fort on Dorchester Heights, including 60 cannons, overnight.
  • During World War II, Ford built one B-24 bomber every hour, even though it consisted of 100,000 parts.
  • In India, an entrepreneur built at 10-story building in 48 hours last December.

These were things being built. Comcast, a company with $55 billion in revenues and 126,000 employees, only had to turn off an electronic signal to one modem. 

All of the usual explanations come to mind for such a profound degree of disservice. There’s a long, drawn out “paperwork” process for big companies to turn off business clients. There are multiple departments involved. Even, “we’re the only game in town, for high speed internet in that building.”

More likely, it’s our policy is the reason. That’s most unfortunate: A company whose policy is to operate an organization that charges someone for nothing. To embrace an ethics that says, enforce the policy not do what’s right. To build a culture where it doesn’t matter, there’s another customer undermines every marketing dollar.

Why else would a company trade $80 for a customer for life? What kind of marketing plan supports turning customers who were otherwise satisfied into frustrated past customers who will most surely tell others. Who builds an organization where it’s okay to treat clients we cannot serve with such disdain?

Not every company operates that way, of course. Readers may remember the amazingly honest and refreshing experience we had with the Cadillac salesperson who knew she couldn’t help us, but took steps to make the parting gentle and pleasant. Similarly, our praise of Southwest’s super-smart approach of taking everything other airlines do to upset customers and doing the exact opposite.

In perhaps the ultimate irony of the situation, we received a call from Comcast Business Services. After tweeting @ComcastCares for help, we hoped someone might look into our situation and make a judgement call. Alas, the offered solution was merely: We must stick to our policy, but we can lower the amount we’ll charge you during the disconnect period.

Our choice: pay a lot for nothing, or pay a little for nothing.

There’s a lesson here for everyone. Customers come and go; change happens. They’ll work with you for a while, leave, and there’s a possibility they might come back. But you’ll destroy that possibility with just a few bad policies upon their parting. Think of the phone company you’ll never work with again; or the retail store you’ll never visit again. More importantly, we live in a time where “word of mouth” marketing goes global in a social media minute. How you treat one local customer matters to your markets everywhere. Practicing policies that dislike them isn’t a winning strategy. Whatever the problem is – your paperwork, departments, hours of operation, old technology – fix it. Make sure that parting is such sweet sorrow, not good riddance. 

In the modern economy, it’s not just how well you do when people are paying you: It’s how well you do when they aren’t that will determine your fate.