TV’s odd couple: Set-top partnership could bruise Apple or crisp up Comcast

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Last summer, I called Comcast to cancel a $10-a-month sports package that I no longer wanted to receive. By the time I hung up the phone, I had been signed up for a phone service I didn’t need, and my cable bill, rather than going down by $10, had been raised by around $40.

I won’t pretend that I was entirely blameless in this transaction: I had only been half-heartedly listening to the phone rep’s rapidly mumbled sales pitch when I was asked if I wanted to save money on my monthly bill. Well, sure, I said, since that was the whole point of the call. The phone service was added, but the promised monthly savings didn’t materialize. In a subsequent call to Comcast, I could never find a representative who could adequately explain the opaque billing process.

Let’s make a long story short: We eventually sorted everything out, after my wife determined that I lacked the adequate mental reserves to do battle with Comcast. The phone service was canceled, and the monthly bill was returned to a mutually agreeable level, but only after three days' worth of phone calls and online chat sessions between my wife and a series of increasingly overmatched Comcast customer service reps, culminating in a threat to spend the rest of our lives staring at cave paintings if it meant never having to pay Comcast another dime.

I don’t share this story because it’s particularly remarkable; in fact, I’d be surprised if I ran into a long-time Comcast subscriber who didn’t have a customer service nightmare scenario to relate. But with reports circulating that Apple is about to tie its fortunes in the set-top box business to the hulking millstone that is Comcast, I worry that my frustrating experiences with a cable company I can barely tolerate are about to creep into my interactions with a company that’s treated me well over the years.

Anecdotal evidence is only as strong as the person telling the anecdote, of course, but my track record as an Apple customer has been pretty solid, especially when things have gone pear-shaped. A few months back, Apple double-billed me for an iOS app I downloaded. We resolved the matter over email in about a day. On the rare occasions that I’ve needed hands-on assistance, I’ve found the staff at Apple’s Genius Bar to be courteous, knowledgeable, and generally able to fix things that weren’t beyond all hope of human intervention.

Contrast that with my last Comcast service call, prompted by our cable signal's new habit of dropping out intermittently. The Comcast technician came out to our house, took a look at the box, and told us that that the dropped signal was the result of “improvements” to Comcast's X1 platform. He said if the problem occurred frequently, we should just turn our cable box on and off. Comcast charged us $50 for that visit. Our signal still cuts out from time to time. (On the bright side, that sure is a lot of “improvement” going on!)

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Comcast's crummy customer service has nothing on Apple's Genius Bar. 

People who keep tabs on customer service for a living tell me that I’m not an outlier when it comes to my contrasting perceptions of Apple and Comcast. The Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that publishes its ratings based on feedback from 10,000 consumers in the US., says Apple has been the leader in customer experience for four years. “Comcast, however, provides customer experience that can be described as the worst of the worst,” Bruce Temkin told me via email. “Its internet and TV service businesses are ranked 261st out of 268 companies in the 2014 Temkin Experience Ratings.” In fact, Comcast finds itself at the bottom of Temkin’s TV Services group, which itself is the lowest-scoring group in the 19 industries Temkin tracks.

The story’s the same with rankings from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), where Comcast finds itself at or near the bottom in rankings of its cable, Internet, and phone service. Apple, in contrast, is at the top of ACSI’s index for the computer/tablet and cell phone categories.

Of course, before we start fretting about Comcast's dragging Apple down to its level—assuming that this set-top box the two companies are working on is made out of something other than unicorn dust and a tech analyst’s prayers—we should remember that Apple’s done this sort of thing before. Back in 2007, when Apple was getting the iPhone off the ground, it turned to AT&T as the exclusive wireless provider for the new smartphone. And it’s not as if the annual meetings of the AT&T Fan Club ever had to worry about overflow crowds.

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If Apple's early alliance with the much-reviled AT&T dampened sales, no one noticed as the phone flew off the shelves.

I furrowed my brow about the Apple-AT&T team-up, too, back in the day. “While Apple has a very specific idea of presenting a unified experience and message to its customers,” I wrote back then, “AT&T may not have that same notion. And that can lead to a confusing experience to the end user.” Of course, when you’ve reportedly sold 500 million iPhones over the years, one might argue that a dropped call here and there or the better-late-than-never addition of tethering support did little to make people feel less kindly toward Apple.

Still, I look at that occasional, flickering signal on my TV screen, think back to those fruitless calls to Comcast, and wonder if Apple really knows what it’s getting itself into with this rumored partnership. It’s a potentially tricky relationship, Temkin agrees: “The negative customer experience halo around Comcast—and most of its competitors as well—might drag down Apple’s brand if things go wrong. Hopefully Apple is taking the lead on designing the product and service interfaces.”

In fact, Temkin says, rather than sully Apple’s reputation with its customers, an Apple-Comcast project could improve Comcast’s standings in the eyes of customers—if things go well. That’s a sentiment echoed by David VanAmburg, managing director for ACSI. “While there is always some risk to Apple in a scenario like the one proposed with Comcast,” VanAmburg said via email, “considering that both are highly visible household consumer brands it is likely that such a partnership would help Comcast more than it would harm Apple.” He points to acquisitions like Wells Fargo’s purchase of Wachovia and United Airlines' takeover of Continental as instances where companies benefited from absorbing higher-regarded firms.

A world where Comcast enjoys Apple-like acclaim? That would be a far more miraculous achievement than any next-generation set-top box Apple could whip up.

This article was updated on March 28 to correct the affiliation of Bruce Temkin in the pullquote.

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