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

Philip Michaels | March 28, 2014
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.

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.

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."


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