Taking a hammer to Comcast

Mona Shaw had heard and seen enough from Comcast, her local cable television provider.

After repeated attempts to change her phone service from Verizon to Comcast’s Triple Play during a week in August, the 75-year-old Bristow resident with a heart condition took out her frustrations at the Manassas payment center on Center Street.

Shaw was arrested for disorderly conduct after she took a hammer to several items in the office – all the while saying, “Have I got your attention now?”

While Shaw’s actions Aug. 20 were extreme, the inability of the cable company to finish the job they started at her house is a story told many times over by Manassas customers.

The city is negotiating an updated franchise agreement with Comcast, as well as a new cable agreement with Verizon.

Customer service is one of the main issues the city examined in its recent review of Comcast’s old agreement. In June, the council held a public hearing and residents had virtually nothing good to say about Comcast. According to Councilman Jonathan Way, it hasn’t gotten any better since then.

Way said the gist of resident calls he has received recently is still negative.

“They [Comcast] keep passing the buck off to other departments, and the other departments don’t come back in a timely fashion,” Way said. “It’s a shameful and unmanaged operating business over there.”

Both Way and Prince William County spokesperson Liz Bahrns said that when local government leaders raise individual issues or concerns from their residents to Comcast, the cable company responds very promptly. But Way feels like it’s only when these issues are taken up with upper management or with their elected officials that the cable company responds quickly to residents’ concerns.

“The quality problem is with the routine customer service, where customers expect to be managed effectively but are not,” Way said.

During the public hearing, Comcast said it has been upgrading its system in the city and that has resulted in periodic cable blackouts late this summer.

According to statistical data from 2006 provided by Comcast to the city, the cable company resolved two-thirds of the 570 calls referred to the maintenance department in five days or less, a number that jumped to 75 percent during non-winter months.

Comcast resolved 90 percent of all other service calls in five days or less during that 12-month period. But counting the winter months, that still left more than 500 people out of 4,270 waiting for a resolution after five days.

A Comcast representative was not able to speak about the incident in Manassas, but the company issued a lengthy statement, saying, in part, “We recognize that there is room for improvement and that even one bad customer experience is one too many. It is our goal to continue bringing customers in Northern Virginia the most advanced products and services we offer … and to

ensure that they have a great experience at every touchpoint.”

Shaw’s problems began when she and her husband, Don, waited all day Aug. 13 for a Comcast worker to come to their house to install its much-publicized Triple Play service, which includes digital cable, digital voice and high-speed Internet service. The Shaws were Comcast customers already but wanted to upgrade.

No one came Aug. 13 but two days later, a representative arrived.

According to Shaw, the Comcast worker didn’t finish the job, told her that he needed a third party to finish it and left his equipment there.

Before leaving, the cable guy gave her the option of changing her phone number, but Shaw said she didn’t want to change a number that she has had for 34 years.

The next day the Shaws couldn’t receive calls but were eventually able to make calls.

That Friday, Shaw spent the morning on the phone with Comcast and made a frustrating trip to its Manassas office that resulted in no assistance from a company manager, she said.

When the Shaws returned home, they discovered they had no phone service at all.

A cell phone call to Comcast resulted in their receiving a new number and a promise that someone from the company would call on Monday. In the meantime, the Shaws figured out on their own how to plug their phone directly into the equipment the worker left.

That weekend, Shaw called the State Corporation Commission, the regulatory agency with authority over Virginia businesses. She says she spoke with the SCC’s Larry Kubrock and was promised that someone from his agency would contact Comcast.

The Shaws waited Monday for a call. Finally, around 4:30 p.m., Mona Shaw put a hammer in her purse and returned to the Manassas Comcast office.

“I smashed a keyboard, knocked over a monitor … and I went to hit the telephone,” Mona said. “I figured, ‘Hey my telephone is screwed up, so is yours.’ “

Shaw said she was panic-stricken the previous Friday when they came home to no service because of her need in the past for emergency medical help. Their house on Bristow Road isn’t close to a neighboring house.

“It’s totally not like me to do stuff like this,” she said. “But it is so irresponsible and so disrespectful [what they did]. I can’t think of any company reacting that way. It’s like they got you in their clutches and they’ll do what they damn well please.”

The day after her arrest, Comcast called her husband and said they could switch her to the Triple Play service but the couple would have to wait a week. He demanded that the company come out the next day and remove their equipment and told the company they were returning to Verizon for phone service.

Comcast did as her husband requested, but several weeks later the Shaws received a letter from the company thanking them for subscribing.

That was typical Comcast, Shaw said.

“They are so confused, they don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing. You begin to wonder how well they are trained,” she said.

In a public statement, Comcast said it holds all its employees, whether they are in-house or contracted, to the same standards and expects them to provide quality service.

Mona Shaw’s disorderly conduct case will be heard in Prince William District Court in December.