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Comcast: Or, how not to run a network

Posted in best practices, botch, business by commorancy on June 30, 2013

Comcast is a home cable provider. They provide internet, video cable and home phone service (over the Internet). Yet, they really don’t know the first thing about how to run a network. Let’s explore.

What is World Class Networking?

To provide high quality, high performance networking, it starts with a datacenter, network gear, network interconnections, 24 x 7 staff and monitoring.  It also requires hiring qualified networking staff that actually know what they are doing and a way for front line support to contact that staff in the event of an suspected outage. It’s quite clear that Comcast doesn’t have this in place. What do they have instead?

They have some sort of networking team, although I’ve yet to determine where they exist. The customer facing piece is the front line (i.e., telephone) support who’s sole job is to roll trucks to the cable user’s home. For customer access, that’s it. It’s always the problem of the home user’s equipment. It’s never ever considered to be a problem with Comcast’s network gear, internal network, DNS servers, interconnections, etc. The front line support’s sole job is to blame the home networking setup of the user for ‘the problem’.

In fact, I have clearly shown them on multiple occasions that it is, indeed, their network gear that’s at fault. Yet, the front line support has no way to contact their networking team to have them check or work on the network.

Monitoring

It’s quite clear that they also have little, if any, network monitoring in place. If they did, they would see these problems and fix them timely. Yet, over a weekend and specifically late into the evening, a problem can persist for literally hours until someone wakes up at 8-9AM, logs in and corrects the issue.  Networking isn’t a 9 to 5 problem. It’s a 24 x 7 problem and staff needs to be ready to act at any time of the day or night.  Treating your network as a 9 to 5 activity clearly says you have no concept of what it takes to run a World Class Network.

Maintenance  and Notifications

As a customer of any other business class network, part of the contract states that they will provide you with network maintenance plans and times and duration of the disruption in addition to a service level agreement.  That is, the minimum amount of service you will get during your billing period. If it goes below that amount, they have to credit your account. Why is it that home users do not get this same level of service? We all know system updates are required. Equipment periodically needs to be rebooted. Configurations need to be changed. Most of these activities require equipment restarts. When this happens, it causes a service disruption. Buying a network connection to XO or Global Crossing, they will notify you regarding their maintenance plans, what their plans entail and how long the duration of the outage.

How does Comcast notify their customers regarding maintenance plans?  They don’t.  There is never ever any notification of planned maintenance. Yet, at least once or twice a week at around 2AM my cable modem gets rebooted or my internet connection just stops working.  It’s never during the day. It’s always around 2-3AM which says ‘system maintenance’. Yet, there has never once been an email sent to my account notifying me of any system maintenance plans.  Again, this does not say World Class Network.

Operating a Network is not a Toy

Comcast treats their customers and their network as if it were some type of playground. As if the customer won’t be bothered by them taking down gear (and the network) randomly without any notice.  Why would anyone in their right mind think that it’s okay to run a network this way?  Yet, here we are. This is the way Comcast has operated its network for years.  In fact, this is exactly how AT&T Comcast ran their network before spinning it back off into Comcast again.  But, that doesn’t make it right. It just makes it amateur.

Worse, they keep their front line support staff completely in the dark regarding these maintenance plans. Literally, you can call up and talk to a rep who will adamantly claim nothing is going on with the network. In fact, they don’t know that the network team is busy reconfiguring and rebooting routers across the entire network taking down neighborhood by neighborhood. It’s only after about 15 or 20 minutes do they finally know something is going on. This is a ridiculous and laughable scenario. Any other network provider would simply laugh at Comcast’s method of operating.

Operating Transparency

It’s definitely time for Comcast to step up into the big leagues and treat both their network and their customers with respect and care. In that goal, this wall between the phone support team and the networking team needs to come down. They need to add transparency between the phone team and the network team so that when there are issues, the phone team knows immediately.  There is absolutely no excuse for the phone team not knowing what’s going on at the moment that it’s happening. Worse, rolling a truck is expensive, especially when the problem has nothing to do with the home user’s gear. Rolling a truck is a whole lot more expensive than picking up the phone and contacting their network team to investigate. Or, better, give the phone team access to the monitoring system so they can actually see the live outages.  No phone call necessary. You would think that escalating to the network team would always be the first step before rolling a truck. You would think that, to save on costs, they would want to ensure that the problem is not internal before suggesting the expense of rolling a truck. I have no idea how Comcast’s management hasn’t been called out on this silly and stupid waste of money.

But no, they don’t care about that. Worse, even if you do schedule a truck, by the time it shows up days later, the problem is already corrected showing that it was, in fact, an internal network problem that someone finally fixed. This is definitely not the way to run a network.

The Time Has Come

It’s finally time for Comcast to offer full operational transparency between all of its teams and the customer. It needs to notify customers of each maintenance plan affecting their network and its expected outage duration. With email the way it is today and the fact that every Comcast customer gets a comcast.net email address, Comcast has no excuse not to slip these notifications into the inbox, just as they do for their monthly invoices.  Comcast literally has no excuse for running their network in this slipshod way for so long. It’s just plain and pure laziness that states unequivocally that Comcast can’t provide and isn’t providing a World Class Network to its subscribers. If you’re a Comcast user and you read this article, you should tweet to any Comcast employee and demand that Comcast provide the same level of service you’d get from any other network provider.

Note: I’m actually having to use my Verizon LTE MiFi card to write this article because Comcast took down the network gear or the DNS servers (can’t tell which) without any notification. I also know that it’s completely fruitless to call into the support team because they’ll simply want to roll a truck, which is absolutely ludicrous considering my cable modem is still fully connected to the network. Trying to explain that to them is useless. They would also run a bunch of useless tests and then only find out later that some random network tech was actually rebooting gear for some unannounced reason.

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Online ordering: Some companies just don’t get it

Posted in shopping, technologies by commorancy on December 12, 2010

In the past week, I’ve run into two different companies that obviously haven’t the first clue about running their online presence.  I’ll bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg, but there it is.

Online ordering with store pickup

Fry Electronics doesn’t get it. The point to online ordering with store pickup is to save time.  Unfortunately, using Fry’s store pickup by ordering online saves you no time.  In fact, it takes more time than just buying directly in the store and leaves more questions than answers.

I found an item on Frys.com web site that I wanted to buy and noticed they now offered store pickup.  I thought, “Great”.  So, I proceeded to place the order online.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a profile with Frys.com, so I had to create one along with entering shipping and billing info, credit card number and various other information they required.  So, this usually takes about 5 minutes to complete.  Granted, it doesn’t take that long to enter this information, but you’ll soon see that this time was completely wasted.

So, I enter the information they require, choose my store for pickup and click ‘Place Order’ like you normally do on any e-commerce site.  So, the order is all placed, I have my receipt in hand and on the receipt it says to to remember to bring the card you used to the store.  I think, “No problem”.   I ordered after hours.  So, I knew that I would have to pick up the order the next day.

The next day I take my printed receipt with the order number to the store, like they request.  I walk into the store and ask where to pick up online orders.

First mistake

The door greeter tells me to get in line and pick up the online ordered item at any cashier in the front.  I thought, “Uh oh, this is not starting off well”.  No dedicated desk means the cashiers will be completely inexperienced in this process and, to my lack of surprise, they were inexperienced.  Anyway, I step up to the cashier and hand her the online receipt.  She proceeds to type something into the register, looks confused about something and then tells me to hold on while she goes and locates the order.

Second mistake

Twenty minutes later, after wandering around and disappearing, she finally comes back with the item in hand.  I could have wandered the store, found the item, visited a cashier and exited Fry’s in the time it took her to locate the item.

Third mistake

With item in hand, she proceeds to tell me that I need to finish paying for the order at her station.  I’m thinking, “What?”  I had thought I already paid on the Frys.com web site as I was given fully completed receipt for the order with a valid order number.  So, I attempt to validate this information and ask, “I have to pay again?  I thought I already paid on the web site”.  She proceeds to explain that it’s not actually an order but a ‘reservation’ for an item.  I asked, then why do I have to give fully detailed information (billing, shipping, credit card, CVV, etc) for a reservation?  Of course, she’s a non-native English speaker and plays dumb like she didn’t understand what I said.  So, I try to verify this again and she says that I won’t be double-charged (which is, of course, my first thought considering I had to provide my CC card info full and complete).

So, not only did they waste my time online asking for information they didn’t need to create a ‘reservation’, the cashier wasted 20 minutes trying to locate the item in the store which wasn’t picked and stored properly from my order.  Worse, after walking out of the store, I still have no idea if my card is to be charged twice.

I head home and call Frys.com to clarify what the hell went on.  I explained that what they are doing is less than clear and the whole process is time wasteful.  Every other online order with store pickup system I’ve used at other stores charges for the order online and then only requires identification to pickup at the store.  They might or might not even print a receipt.  But, you definitely don’t pay for the item in the store like Fry’s requires.

Fry’s made major mistakes in this process.  Wasting my time by making me enter all of that information, not properly picking the the item requiring the cashier to wander the store in search of the item, and then  requiring the consumer to pay at the register for an item that already appears to have been paid.  The additional mistake that Fry’s made was not having a dedicated pickup desk to handle online pickups.   There is no reason to require the consumer to stand in line for a cashier.  Online ordering with store pickup is supposed to save time.  In fact, I probably doubled the amount of time that was needed to get the item.  I would have been better off just heading to the store, finding the item and heading up to the cashiers to pay.  What a waste.

Out of stock ordering

Virgin Mobile doesn’t get it. This issue isn’t limited to Virgin mobile, it just happens to be the most recent example of this problem.  So, I decide want to buy one of Virgin Mobile’s MiFi 2200 devices.  I visit the site and try to place the item in my cart. Instead, I see a red error message that says ‘Sorry, that item is currently unavailable’.  It doesn’t say anything about being out of stock.  Just that it is unavailable (whatever that means).  Ok, here’s the issue.  If the item is ‘Out of Stock’, that’s fine.  Just tell us this.  No cryptic messages.

First Mistake

Even if the item is out of stock, but you know you’ll have more back in stock tomorrow, then take the order against the future stock.  The mistake here is that Virgin has lost a sale.  I may not come back tomorrow and purchase.  I want to purchase today.  I made the decision to purchase today.  Tomorrow I may change my mind and go with something else.  In fact, I may go with something else simply from the stupid fact that Virgin mobile wouldn’t sell it even when it’s ‘Out of Stock’.

Second Mistake

I called the sales line and the ‘sales rep’ proceeded to transfer me to the ‘Broadband help desk’.  Where they transferred my call is not an order line.  It’s a help desk / customer service portal.  No where on the line does it say ‘Press 1 for sales’.  In fact, it doesn’t mention sales anywhere on the line.  So, I press on and get through to an operator.  The first time I call, the representative on the ‘help desk’ tells me that there is web site trouble and I should order tomorrow (see Virgin Mobile first mistake above).  I call back and the second person says the item is ‘Out of Stock’ and they should have them in ‘tomorrow’.

So, I’m at a loss.  If you’re in a company selling online, an item is out of stock but you know it will be back in stock tomorrow, why would you want to prevent taking orders against that future stock?  I mean, seriously, this is stupid. Just tell the consumer when they should be back in stock.  The consumer can make the decision to wait or not.  If you prevent ordering altogether, you’re losing sales.

You would think companies the size of Fry’s and Virgin Mobile would have their act together, but they don’t.  Companies wonder why their sales suck, yet they don’t look at these convoluted processes that don’t work and that throw roadblocks in front of the buyer.  So, instead of the buyer buying, we walk away and don’t buy.

Retailers, wake up.  Just because you think a process is working for you, you need to reevaluate just how it impacts the consumer.

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