Comcast center boosts customer service with fine-tuned cable boxes

Company officials hope Salem, N.H., plant will help cut complaints on equipment

At a Comcast warehouse in Salem, N.H., equipment was being tested, cleaned, and inspected before being distributed to customers. At a Comcast warehouse in Salem, N.H., equipment was being tested, cleaned, and inspected before being distributed to customers. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2011

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SALEM, N.H. - If you ever wondered where your old cable box goes when you turn it in, the answer is here: a big new facility built by Comcast Corp. to process returned consumer equipment and, the cable giant hopes, reduce customer complaints.

The 135,000-square-foot plant processes set-top boxes, modems, and voice equipment. The mission is to make sure the equipment works the way it’s supposed to when it is sent to a new customer’s home. The facility opened earlier this year but became fully operational only in recent weeks - just in time for the fall rush of college students.

All of the equipment turned in by the company’s approximately 2 million customers in New England will end up here, where 140 employees visually inspect the devices, subject them to a battery of tests, and clean them up.

The company built the plant and improved the process with the hope it leaves more customers happy and reduces the number of angry calls from people who are inadvertently given faulty equipment.

The equipment is inspected for obvious damage, sorted by type, and stacked on pallets. The devices are then loaded onto metal racks and wheeled into a room where hard drives are wiped of any recorded memory - say goodbye to those old episodes of “The Twilight Zone’’ - and restored to factory settings.

Once the latest firmware has been installed - including, for instance, the most recent show guide for set-top cable boxes - the equipment is hooked up to machines that assess a wide range of functions. It takes about 20 minutes to conduct more than 70 diagnostic tests on a dozen set-top boxes.

Comcast’s regional senior director of supply chain, Bob Allen, who oversees the facility, said the company did not previously have the technology to test components efficiently, meaning a customer might accidentally receive a box that could record only one channel at a time instead of two, for example. Similarly, the company, which offers Internet and telephone service as well as cable TV, did not previously test both phone lines on its voice equipment. Now it does.

“In the past, we would be doing at best five or six [tests], and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as high tech as this,’’ Allen said. “We are weeding any [defective devices] out and getting them off to repair.’’

Ben Popken, managing editor of the website, said he has heard complaints from customers of Comcast and other cable companies who have received faulty equipment.

“They break, they go out of service,’’ he said. ‘They don’t do the job they’re supposed to do. I’m glad to hear they’re trying to improve that. I would take a wait-and-see approach.’’

Competition from satellite dish companies has led cable companies to put more emphasis on customer service, said Steve Effros, a Virginia cable industry analyst.

“The competition is hot and heavy,’’ he said, “and at the moment at least, all of the programming is in essence equivalent. Customer service is one of the ways to differentiate yourself.’’

Steve Hackley, the company’s senior vice president for Greater Boston, called the Salem operation a “wonderful bricks-and-mortar manifestation’’ of Comcast’s efforts to enhance its customer service. “You go back in time 10 years, service was not what people expected from cable companies,’’ he said, “and we have gone to great lengths to change that perception and change that reality.’’

Yet Hackley acknowledged building customer trust takes time. “Unflattering memories seem to last longer than the great examples of dazzling customer service,’’ he said.

Bruce Leichtman, an industry analyst in Durham, N.H., said satisfaction has increased in the past several years. In 2004, only 53 percent of customers gave their cable provider high marks, he said, but that number has climbed to 60 percent this year.

In Salem, Comcast employees not only make sure the equipment works, but remove signs of its history. If a device is beyond repair, it’s sent to the manufacturer or to a recycling facility. Equipment that passes inspection moves on to cleaning stations, where workers scrape off stickers and tape and scrub the devices with Windex-soaked brushes. Only when the equipment is shiny and shrink-wrapped is it ready to return to the field.

“We consider this a very important step,’’ Allen said. “If we don’t deliver a piece of clean equipment to somebody, they’re not going to have the confidence that we’ve done all this work.’’