A few weeks ago, I was having problems with Xbox Live video chat and my internet connection. I couldn’t sustain a video chat session for more than a few minutes before I got an error message saying that I didn’t have enough bandwidth to support video chat. It was really frustrating, as I rely on Xbox chat as a free way to communicate in living color with friends and loved ones around the world, including one particular loved one who lives in Germany for the time being. Skype video chat has always been problematic for me, but when it’s working, I’ve found Xbox chat a reliable way to make a long distance relationship livable. When it isn’t, it makes communication difficult and puts me in the extremely stressful role of tech support guy, which is no fun.
I’m a Comcast customer, so when it wasn’t working right, I looked to my Comcast connection first. Since researching online conversations is one of my professional specialties and something I’ve done as a user for years and years, I did a whole mess of searches to try to solve the problem. I hit the Apple support forums(I use an Airport Extreme base station), the Xbox Live forums, Broadbandreports.com, blogs, Twitter, you name it.
There are a few potential issues I found, like making sure the proper ports were open and forwarding correctly, and checking my Xbox settings, but since Xbox Live was able to connect without problem, and the issue was limited to video chat sessions, my assumption after ruling out those causes, was that the bandwidth throttling Comcast is apparently doing to stop things like BitTorrent traffic must be playing a role.
I also called Comcast customer support, and they were convinced it could only be a bandwidth problem. Despite the fact that my connection tested at plenty strong enough to sustain a connection, I believed them, and paid to upgrade my connection to a higher rate. But that didn’t help.
So then I sent a direct, private Twitter message to @ComcastCares:
Note the timestamp — October 18th, 10:08pm, on a Saturday night.
Frank at ComcastCares wrote right back to me in a direct message:
“That would not be throttling. Gaming also does not use much bandwidth. The problem is probably a setting. I will do a search and respond”
We traded about a dozen direct tweets, and Frank thoroughly searched and offered several links pointing to what he thought the issue was, even though he was pretty sure it wasn’t Comcast-related. At this point, he was just trying to help me solve my problem, whether it directly stemmed from the pipe they provide me or not.
The last link he sent was a potential fix to an issue with Airport Extreme routers and Xbox Live, but the symptoms didn’t sound like mine so I was skeptical. I let him know that I wasn’t confident this would address my issue but that I would try it anyway and report back. The next day I tried it, and it worked. Everything worked fine. Just to be sure, I waited about a week and tried it again. Still worked like a charm.
Needless to say, ComcastCares turned that initial message of suspicion into this, which I communicated out semi-publicly to everyone in my network:
“thanks for helping me troubleshoot the xboxlive issue! confident now that it’s all working.and it wasn’t even a comcast issue.”
The way Comcast is approaching engagement with users through ComcastCares is a good illustration of a principle Kathy Sierra, former author of a well-loved blog, recommends in looking at the relationship between users and the company who makes the stuff they use. She says that people don’t care about your product or service, or your company in most cases; they care about what it can help them to do. I don’t care about my ISP — I care that it helps me keep in touch with loved ones through the use of their service underneath other services, for video chat. I’m not a bandwidth or ISP enthusiast in the abstract, I just have communication needs. If they had simply said “your Comcast connection is working fine, we suggest you go talk to all of the other companies that play a role in this issue,” which is the kind of answer you do get from many companies in similar situations, and what I likely would have gotten from traditional phone support, that would have left me feeling frustrated, disappointed, and looking for another ISP.
Instead, via Frank and ComcastCares they invested the time to help me with what matters to me about their service, and weren’t so concerned about where the explicit line is between the role they play in that and the other roles that rely on other companies and moving parts. They recognized that I only care about their service insofar as what it helps me accomplish. In the process I met and had the positive experience of working with Frank, and now I know that if I have problems in the future getting done what I use an ISP for, I can reach out to him and he’ll take my issue on as his own, even at 10pm on a Saturday night.
Does this magically fix other customer service or product issues I may have with Comcast? No. Is it scalable to be a service for their entire user base? I’d have to ask Frank and his team, but perhaps by hosting it on an enthusiast’s medium, Twitter, it tends to self-select those customers who already have a decent idea what’s going on and aren’t likely to cry wolf every time there’s a minor outage or run-of-the-mill glitch that regular customer service can handle. And for me, it creates a pretty significant benefit of the doubt, so that when things go wrong, there’s someone I can ask about it who is a real person and will give me a real answer rather than reading from a tech support bulletin.