NewCo Shift Forum Dialogs, in Partnership with Work Market
The Chief Product Officer of Comcast Is Very, Very Focused on Business Experience
While a major pillar of the first annual Shift Forum was policy and it’s interplay with business and society, we also spent a lot of time wrapping our heads around the experience that a business creates for its customers, its employees, and the communities it impacts.*
This experience is shifting dramatically, thanks of course to digital technologies and the Internet. We’ve all had to create a new kind of mediated experience that reflects who we are as businesses. The first wave of this technology-driven change focused on customers. But companies now must ask more lateral questions: “What’s the experience I have (and create) with my partners, my vendors, the government and the communities that I’m engaged in?” Business experience is not just the UX that you create in a digital framework for your online customers. It’s also the experience you create for all your stakeholders — even your detractors.
When you think of a business experiences, particularly as a customer, perhaps none has had a worse legacy than your local cable company. But that’s changing, rapidly, as companies like Comcast race to compete with a host of customer-friendly brands like NetFlix, Google, and Amazon. It’s not easy to change a company’s DNA when you roll 60,000 trucks every day, and the core of your infrastructure was built decades ago. Changing that experience for Comcast’s customers (and by extension, employees and partners) is the job of chief product officer and executive vice president of Comcast, Chris Satchell, who joined us for a conversation on the first day of Shift Forum. Below is the video, and a transcript edited for clarity.
*Full credit to Adobe for helping me come up with this idea. They’ve been true programming partners.
John Battelle: Chris, you joined a year and three quarters ago or so. Prior to that, you had an interesting title at Nike. You were the Consumer Technology Officer for Nike. Prior to that, you were the Chief Technology Officer for the Gaming Division at Microsoft. You created gaming experiences, and then you created…
Shoes and apparel.
…shoes and apparel. Now, you’re responsible for re‑imagining the experience of people who interact with the brand. I call your brand “a plumbing brand.”
That’s kinder than some people call us.
But people only talk about their cable when it goes out, or when the cable guy doesn’t show up, or when they get their bill and they’re like, “How did I get $50 worth of charges that I didn’t know about?” It’s a complaint kind of a brand.
Comcast found itself in competition with awesome new experiences that were being delivered by the likes of Netflix. It seemed like night and day between the old cable box. Did the folks at Comcast said, “Hey, come on. You really want to move to Philadelphia where it’s warm and never snows. You want to help us move this brand from being a plumbing brand to a brand that people pull towards them.”
Even I said, “Nike, you must be fed up of people loving your brand.”
Going from one of the most beloved brands to a brand that, I wouldn’t say it was in crisis, but challenged, even though the new X1 service is really good. Comcast had purchased NBC, one of the most successful media businesses around, but it did have a customer experience problem. What drew you to that?
I think one of things that I find is I like making things. My whole career. It’s how to use technology, media and entertainment to build something for the customer. Nike was a phenomenal company but I realized truly, I wasn’t ever going to make shoes and apparel.
I like making the core thing, so the opportunity at Comcast is as you said, how’d you take a brand that’s known for infrastructure of known for plumbing, known for what people might think is a basic service, and how’d you elevate?
The company was already on that track. I think they were looking for people that wanted to keep pushing experience. Because if you all offer a differentiated experience and you can move from, “We need that, we need that to work,” to, “I actually love that and I look forward to using the products.”
That’s really the transition we’ve made from integrator and aggregator to technology company, to technology and product company. That’s how we push and if you deliver customer experience, that’s fantastic, all the way through the journey. You said that in your own terms, it’s great.
You have to do every touchpoint then you start moving into that world of people that actually love to get your products.
What changed when you came to Comcast? Because as I understand it, essentially, the infrastructure didn’t support the kind of product you wanted to make, right? It’s not just you can make a whizzy UX. You had to rethink the entire plant.
Absolutely. The product that started to turn it around for us was X1, which is our video product. It’s very different than the cable experience you have seen before.
But we had to, as you’ve said, rebuild the infrastructure because one of the things we really are is as a metadata company. Underneath our experiences is a huge amount of metadata to ingest because that allows you to reason about what the customer wants and provide them with that.
When you say metadata, what does that mean?
Everything. Imagine everything from macro metadata of like, this is what a show is, this is a synopsis, this is the actors, this is the director. We do lots of stuff in deep data. Like this season, if you record the NFL, after, we will tag the timeline of your recording with all the interesting events of that game and you can just skip backwards and forwards to them.
We do that by using a combination of multiple metadata sources and doing actual intelligence on the individual…
Is it that there’s tens of thousands of people stopping and rewinding to see the play again, and that becomes a signal that allows you to know that this is a play worth paying attention to?
Actually, no. We also do it on a forward inference process. We have automatic algorithms that scan the frames that are being generated and take in metadata feeds, and recognize where the game clock is and tied up… It’s some pretty good stuff the team works on.
I switched to X1. It is a completely new experience, and I would say not very Comcast experience if you’ve had a Comcast experience prior. But the most extraordinary thing about it is that Netflix is now on it. I thought you guys didn’t like each other?!
We might have given that impression. Certainly, this has been my focus as well and the focus of the team is, if customers want something, in the end, you can only fight your customers for so long. The best thing to do, and this is for any company, is embrace where they’re coming from.
There have been discussions between the two companies for a long time and we finally got to a point where we both moved on in our business enough to ever say, “Hey, why don’t we just do what the customer wants?”
From our perspective, they’re going to change channel and watch Netflix anyway. You have a great service. Your customers are our customers as well. Why don’t we make that easy? Why don’t we make it simple for you to get to the shows and just put the customer first and follow that as a North Star versus what we might think are our business aims.
Once we got past that, working with the Netflix team was phenomenal. You have this picture of another company and then you realize, “Oh, they’re just a bunch of tech geeks like us that love customer experience.” That relationship went well.
I have a feeling that the technology was easier than getting that business deal done?
I have knowledge that the technology might have been easier than getting the business deal done. Not that it was easy, but it was easier.
Are we going to see similar over the top deals? Is Netflix the first chink in the wall? Is this the strategy that you’re going to have everything available?
I certainly hope so. Every time, probably, subject to those deals, but I think that that’s the best thing for customers. Our vision is we just wasn’t to make it simple for you to find what you want to watch and watch it. That means integrating content from everywhere, both long‑form content, short‑form content.
Then the difficulty is creating the experience that can bring all of that together in a way that’s relevant for you.
Part of that experience has nothing to do with a screen or a cable box or the infrastructure. It has to do with 60,000 trucks that roll around the streets in the United States and the human beings in those trucks. Often, that’s where it breaks down, or in the past, it’s where it broke down.
Comcast made a friend of me when it answered a tweet seven or eight years ago, back when Twitter was new and I just was venting and I just went at Comcast. Some expletives may have been involved. All of a sudden, someone answered and DMed me and then we got on the phone. I was like, “No way!” How has customer service and those 60,000 trucks factored into product decisions that you’ve made?
It’s a phenomenal area to explore because what you realize in any company is we can get so wrapped up in technology. You can forget that person‑to‑person interaction, that really matters. What we realize is that front line, that is ability to drive a great front or drive a poor experience.
What means from a product perspective is, one is to arm them with products that are easy to install, easy to get what the customer wants and take the noise out of the system. For me, that always means, they shouldn’t go wrong. Our products, if they do, they fix themselves. If they can’t fix themselves, you can easily fix them.
If you do have to roll a truck, it’s for something that’s worthwhile. You hate it when somebody turns out to your house, you’ve waited in for them, and they look at it and they unplug from wall, plug it back in, and you’re like “We’re done.” You don’t want any of that. It’s taking the noise out the system and giving them great tools, which allows them to be heroes for the customer.
Don’t you have to change the company culture at the truck level? I would imagine the incentives and the values, the reason that people are either excited or just like, “I have to go to work again and deal about this whiny people who should just be rebooting their cable boxes by themselves. The idiots.”
Absolutely. What we did is we adopted the system a lot of people have which is NPS, not just as a net promoter score, but as a methodology. That’s everything.
Our field (offices) actually were the first place to do it, to point where, if you’re going to any office in the field, any meeting room — remember we have a hundred thousand plus people in the field — you’ll see a seat there with a cover over that says “the customer,” and they literally will leave that seat if we’re in a meeting.
It’s bit of a gimmick, but it’s so that everybody in the meeting can just point (at that seat) and go: “But, it’s not what they would want.” NPS is both how you treat your customers and how you treat your employees. We measure employee NPS every week in the field, and engagement keeps going up and as their engagement goes up, the customers have a better experience. You have this engaged people. They’re incredible. I’ve been on truck rolls with them and they will literally do anything to try and solve the customer problem.
Comcast is eager to make sure you have both Internet and cable, I’ve noticed. Frankly, it’s easier and it works great, but the two of them combined, and if you toss in telephony, it can get complicated. Then there’s a lot of third party stuff, people are using nonstandard modems, or router boxes and I’ve found, generally, that companies will say, “Hey, this isn’t our stuff so I can’t help you. Call Apple.” How do you deal with that hairball of technology and solving the problem for the customer when in fact, much if the infrastructure is third party?
The first to recognize is the customer is going to hold you responsible as an ISP for everything behind the piece of glass in their hand. To them, that is the Internet and what we see is about almost two‑thirds of problems have nothing to do with the Internet service to the wall, it’s your WiFi inside your home, it’s the device connected to it.
We’re tackling that head on. We are launching a new product this year that focuses squarely on, how do we give you the best connection in your home? How do we make it personal? How do we make it simple? How do we make it about your family and how you want to change their experience, which could mean things like turning off their Internet access for your kids at night? (That’s) very popular with parents. Less popular with children of parents. But even simple things like that — make it about people. My goal is this: I don’t want anybody to use a third‑party router. It’s fine if you want.(But) I want you to want our gateway. It should be so damn good.
I actually showed someone this gateway. They said, “Damn. Now you’ve actually made me want to pay you a lease fee.” I’m not saying that that’s going to happen everywhere en masse, but I would love you to feel like, “I want your system and I actually feel good about getting your system.”
It may be unfair for me to ask this question, but I just feel like we’ve been talking about policy for so long and so many of us do use Comcast as our piece of glass to the Internet. I don’t know whether this is going to become a customer experience problem or not, but if we get into a policy arrangement where some bits are favored over other bits because of business decisions, and that becomes the law of the land, does that force you as a product person to have to rethink things?
I’m hoping we stay in a policy stance of an open, fair, and unbiased Internet. I find it interesting people think that as probably the biggest provider of IP in the world that we would want something different. We actually don’t. We want the same thing.
That doesn’t always mean like the format of a regulation. But generally, we want the same things. I’m hoping that I don’t have to make those choices as a product person because the best thing is to have unbiased traffic flowing. Keep it open.
We should focus on providing ever increasing bandwidth to our customers, ever more reliable service, and then making it work all the way to all the devices in your home. That’s what I want to focus on in product, not some strange prioritization of traffic, or anything else.
I did mention earlier my surprise and delight with the fact that Comcast answered me on Twitter. That was early, but you now have a lot of people now who basically do nothing but wait for someone to bitch on Twitter or Facebook, and then respond.
We love digital channels in general. I talk about the first three things you should do as a product forth is, if it goes wrong, I’d like for you to communicate with me, digitally. The reason is generally, if you do that digital communication, and you liked it, you find that you get a positive insight event from it. Your net satisfaction with your service goes up.
If we roll the truck and we solve your problem, our net satisfaction goes up. If you have to call us, it seems that no matter what we do, people are never happy. As much as possible, we’d like to answer you on social channels.
What we’re really doing is embedding that digital communication to all our applications whether it’s X1 that runs on television, whether it’s voice, whether it’s all mobile apps or web applications, so that it’s easy as possible for you to interact. You don’t feel like you always have to pick up the phone to get your cable company to listen.
Why is it so hard for huge companies to know who we are?
It’s generally because you have these legacy systems on the backend that have been threaded together. What we’re trying to do now is just completely change that paradigm and say, “You’re interacting digitally on a product, and if you can’t solve it yourself would you like us to call you?” What we’ve done is sync up completely to the backend, so that as that rep sees you, they see the same view you do, so they know exactly.
You don’t get that, “Could you reboot it? Could you turn it off?” The stuff you’re like, “I just did that.” I really don’t want to spend 30 minutes doing it again to get to the same point. Now with this technology, we feed that all into a system we call timeline. We can see every event that’s happening.
Will you share that with AT&T, is that possible? [laughs]
For enough money, nearly anything is possible.