Telecom Timeout

Nov 30 2010   9:11AM GMT

Comcast’s big Internet outage and the tweet-alanche that followed

Jessica Scarpati Jessica Scarpati Profile: Jessica Scarpati

Comcast customers throughout the Eastern seaboard (full disclosure: this writer included) collectively wailed in agony Sunday night as their fantasy football scoreboards stopped refreshing and Justin Bieber’s YouTube video streams ground to a halt (full disclosure: I was doing neither… no, really) when the cable operator’s home Internet service went kablooey.

Like everyone else from Boston to Baltimore affected Sunday night, our digital voice and cable TV services were working fine. I’ve sat on hold with customer service enough times to know that I should try resetting the router and modem before I assail some poor call center agent for their lousy service. Sure enough, all that unplugging and plugging got us nowhere. My first call to 1-800-COMCAST was disconnected, and subsequent calls over the next hour or so kept giving me a busy signal. Guess their call center software had a hernia too.

I hate being a cliche consumer of social media, but lacking any way to reach customer service, I got my answers by doing a search for any mention of Comcast on Twitter via my smartphone. In addition to the reports of major outages in Boston and Baltimore, hundreds of tweets flooded the page from equally aggrieved customers in New Hampshire, Vermont, Virginia and D.C. experiencing the same issues.

According to Comcast, the outage was related to a problem with its DNS servers. Interestingly, it wasn’t @comcastcares (the parent account for their team of Twittering contact center agents) tweeting this prominently on Sunday night — it was scores of customers, posting and retweeting dozens of tweets every few seconds to explain the situation and help each other restore service by switching to Google DNS or OpenDNS.

Of course, there were also a lot of choice words for Comcast and many vows to switch to competitors’ service.  One user wondered about ad revenue that Comcast may have lost (presumably from its “Domain Helper” service) as customers migrated over to other DNS providers that night.

Although individual agents have their own accounts and followers, I think it’s fair to say that most customers would look to @comcastcares first. The account posted five tweets on Sunday, which essentially amounted to: There’s an issue; we’re working on it; OK, it’s resolved.

As operators execute their social media strategies, is there any way to get in front of the avalanches of tweets that follow a big outage like this? Sporadic service issues in one metropolitan area — sure. But contact center agents are surely going to be outnumbered by angry customers when service goes down across multiple states.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Comcast could have gotten more control over the outage by keeping up with the Twitter stream and being the primary source for information about the outage and its expected resolution time. Instead, customers were ticked off, threatened to churn to competitors and turned to those pesky over-the-top (OTT) players for the most basic of services.

Would it cost a lot of money to hire and train contact center agents for social media? Oh yes. Would customers have reacted the same way even if Comcast had gotten in front of the outage on Twitter? Absolutely. That said, is social media a fight worth fighting for telcos? If widespread outages continue to be handled like this one, we’ll find out one way or the other when those quarterly churn numbers come out.

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