Not That Kind of Cable Guy

Jason E. Kaplan

Comcast’s regional head works to overhaul the company’s reputation for bad customer service.

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Nearly three decades ago, Rodrigo Lopez was a new California State University, Fullerton, student lured by on-campus credit card company reps promoting their plastics. “I signed up for all of them, and I spent on all of them,” says Lopez, reflecting on his younger naive self. Soon he was struggling under a mountain of debt. His credit destroyed, he set to remedying his situation.

“It took four — no — five years to pay off my debts,” he says in a recent interview from a corner office lit up by early spring sunlight. (Frugality is a key takeaway from his college experience; Lopez still gets his hair trimmed at Great Clips.)

His spacious office in Comcast’s building in Beaverton is replete with professional awards, a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard filled with hand-written notes and a big-screen TV streaming music indicative of his eclectic taste. Today Lopez, 51 and father of two young adults, is Comcast’s regional senior vice president, overseeing 1,600 employees and a subscriber base of 600,000 throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Twenty-six years ago, with an empty wallet and maxed-out credit cards, Lopez answered a classified ad for Comcast, which needed a Santa Ana, Calif.-based, part-time call-center employee. Though he admits he knew nothing about cable, “I thought that phone work with customers would be a good skill to learn,” he says.

“In the beginning, it really was a part-time job, to get extra money,” says Lopez, explaining that during his first week, a mentor worked by his side to ensure constant and accurate on-the-job training. Relatively quickly, Lopez’s part-time job morphed into a lifelong career.

Lopez has hit nearly every rung on the professional ladder to earn his current position, and as a public face of Comcast, he sometimes takes it on the proverbial chin for his company. Comcast’s reputation has been dragged through the gutter because of poor customer service. And as the company goes through a strategic transition, responding to advances in technology that are driving changes in consumer desires and viewing habits, Lopez faces the challenge of sustaining the company’s reputation as entertainment and technology intersect in new and creative ways.

Lopez is one of three sons born to Chilean parents in the country’s capital, Santiago. In the 1970s, the boys’ father held an executive-level job with a mining company, and the patriarch’s professional obligations required that the family move roughly every three years from Santiago to New York City and back. “At the time, I wasn’t a happy child having to move a lot,” Lopez says. But he came to recognize the gift of living in and gaining an intimate understanding of two different countries and languages.

He laughs recalling how much he missed McDonald’s and Burger King when he went back to Santiago. His native city held gastronomic appeal, too: “There is fresh bread on every corner in Santiago.” In retrospect, he’s grateful for his dual experiences that required he be “open-minded to trying new things in life.”

That mentality came into play as he ultimately held 11 distinct positions within Comcast so he could learn the company backward, forward and sideways. Lopez ticks off his prior jobs. They included customer service, collections, marketing, finance, warehouse work and tech operations.

Like his father, he also moved his family at the behest of his company. Lopez has maintained positions with Comcast in New Castle, Del.; Salt Lake City; Seattle; and, for the past seven years, Beaverton.

Lopez acknowledges that his 26-year-and-counting Comcast career is “an anomaly amongst my friends. But I’m not an anomaly within Comcast,” he says of the company, which has 184,000 U.S.-based employees, a number of whom also have worked their way up from the ground level and spent decades with the enterprise.

Why such a company loyalist? “This is a place I recognized early on, no matter where you start in the company, you can build a robust career,” he says. And besides, happy employees and their customers make a robust company.  

“I have one cultural goal,” he says. “Maybe it’s corny, but we want to be a loved brand — for our community, our employees and our customers — and we’re not going to rest until people say that about us.”

Lopez is clear-headed about negative attitudes toward the company. “Painfully so,” he says.

He is aware of headlines like news site Motherboard’s “America Hates Comcast More Than Ever,” and entertainment news site The Cheat Sheet’s “Why No One Likes Comcast, but Everyone Has It.”

Behind the vitriol is customer confusion and frustration as Comcast acquired companies and capabilities in its effort to grow well beyond the cable company of its roots.

In early 2010, Comcast introduced Xfinity, intended to be the brand under which the company provides its suite of residential services. But consumers remained uncertain where Comcast ended and Xfinity (i.e., the cable guy) began. Next came Comcast’s 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal to provide unique content, and the 2018 purchase of U.K.-based Sky to strengthen its global footprint.

“I have one cultural goal. Maybe it’s corny, but we want to be a loved brand — for our community, our employees and our customers — and we’re not going to rest until people say that about us.” — Rodrigo Lopez

Comcast launched its first broadband product in 1996, and with consumer demand driving more connected devices in the home, along with the evolution of video to streaming, the company now has 1-gigabit speeds available to every household it serves nationwide.

Comcast’s seemingly ubiquitous services translated last year to an overall 11% revenue growth and 5% operating growth, according to the company’s 2018 annual report. Recently, its stock price has been valued at around $40, and its annual revenue is nearly $95 billion.

With Comcast’s vast reach, customers aren’t always aware of the services they’re receiving nor what they’re paying for each month. The result was very poor customer-satisfaction ratings; Motherboard minced no words in an unflattering May 2018 article, calling Comcast customer service for roughly the past 20 years a “dumpster fire.”

David Watson, Comcast Cable’s president and chief executive officer, put it more diplomatically in a March exchange at a Deutsche Bank-hosted conference with Bryan Kraft, a senior analyst with the bank’s research division. “[W]e have wonderful call centers, but I don’t think people wake up and say, ‘I’d like to call my cable provider.’”

Still, Watson notes the importance Comcast places on customer-service satisfaction, which means consumers’ happiness with Comcast’s retail stores and the company’s on-the-go and in-home internet and entertainment options. It means, too, that when issues arise, customers are pleased with the efficiency and kindness with which they’re remedied.

Research analysts with Parks Associates indicate customers of streaming, internet, pay TV and the like notoriously report displeasure with their providers. “Virtually every pay TV provider in the U.S. has a negative net promoter score [a measure of customer satisfaction], indicating that subscribers of pay TV on average would not recommend their current service to others,” Billy Nayden, research analyst at the Addison, Texas-based firm, wrote in an email.

Rodrigo LopezRodgrigo Lopez enumerates his many former positions at Comcast. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Five years ago, Lopez piloted the net promoter score feedback index in his Oregon and Southwest Washington region before Comcast implemented it nationwide. “We’re on a great journey,” he says of working toward 100% customer satisfaction. “It’s not something you do overnight and it’s perfect the next day.”

Some metrics over time do tell a compelling story. Comcast employees in Oregon and Southwest Washington fielded 2 million fewer calls from dissatisfied customers than just six years ago, Lopez says. And the number of times a tech goes to a customer’s home to repair a product “is so low, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease,” he says. Company policy bars the disclosure of specific stats.

“We don’t take for granted that customers can go to other companies” like Verizon and CenturyLink, he says. Employees across multiple departments call customers to seek their input, and Lopez is among them. He places eight calls every month.

“Among pay TV providers,” says Nayden, the analyst, “Comcast is one of the more innovative companies.” He cites its early adoption of technology like voice control. Comcast has provided “convenience and competitive pricing for consumers through bundling with broadband, mobile services, home security services and other markets beyond pay TV.”

Nayden is bullish on Comcast, especially of late; Parks Associates’ survey data show Comcast’s customer-satisfaction score is up in 2018 compared with 2017. “While there are certainly a number of factors that could affect this, undoubtedly Comcast’s renewed focus on customer service contributed to improving that score,” he says.

Lopez thanks many people who’ve supported him, from his ground-floor first job to his executive position. His wife is among them: She knows what it takes to get all his jobs done, including his hours in the local office and in the field, and the days he spends traveling for business. His wife is in a unique position to really get it; the couple met at the Santa Ana, Calif., call center those many moons ago.

“You’ve got to do what’s right and realize that your perspective is not the only one on any one issue,” says Lopez, reflecting on his managerial values. “I hope that all comes through in the way I interact with my peers, employees and partners.”

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