The Comcast Technician Problem

The Story

As is a rite of passage in these parts, I waited for the Comcast1 technician to arrive during their scheduled appointment window. In preparation I had scheduled a day of working from home.

As the appointment window unceremoniously came to a close vacillated over when it would be a reasonable time to call Comcast again to see what’s going on. That’s when I noticed the technician’s truck pull up beside our house. They rolled down the window and surveyed the scene for a brief moment, looked at something inside their truck, rolled up the window and promptly drove off.

“That’s it,” I thought. That was the right time to call Comcast. That’s what I did. After a long wait2 the friendly service person on the other end of the line told me that the according to the technician nobody answered the door. It took some convincing on my part to establish that:

  1. I was there the whole time. Nobody rang the doorbell.
  2. The doorbell works.
  3. The technician — assuming that the person who drove by was the scheduled technician — did drive by, but they didn’t get out of the vehicle to ring any doorbell.
  4. My phone didn’t ring, nor does it indicate any missed calls.
  5. My phone works and has a signal.

They were kind enough to ask the technician to return, but noted that the appointment window would now be unpredictable due to prior appointments. Sure.

Much later that evening, the same technician who drove by earlier showed up. After they were done, I thanked them for showing up and mentioned what happened to the original appointment slot. I didn’t mention anything about seeing the same technician before. After all I was just happy that I was done with this and didn’t want to cause any trouble.

He said that technicians sometimes skip slots when they are running behind schedule.

  1. The Verge. The worst company in America. (Accessed July 13, 2020)↩︎

  2. Urban Dictionary. Long Wait (Accessed July 13, 2020)↩︎

The Problem

Looking at what happened from the perspective of the technician, the logic behind all this becomes a little clearer.

You see, had the technician had tried to honor the original appointment — one which they were already late for — they would’ve been even more late for the next one. This would continue down the line until by the end of the day pretty much all of his appointments that afternoon would’ve registered as late.

Had they skipped one – my appointment as the case turned out – then they’d potentially be on time for the rest of their appointments. The one they skipped could later be justified as one where the customer was not at home or any other reasonable excuses. Even if they were truthful and were penalized for missing an appointment, it’s likely that they’d still be better off than being late for so many more appointments. Either way, the outcome is both better for the technician, and more importantly, for their supervisor.

In the books, the two situations look like this:

Technician’s ChoiceSuccessful appointmentsLate appointments“No-show”s 3
Honor all slotsgln
Skip when lateg + l - s0n + s

The outcomes depending on the technician’s decision on what to do with late appointments. {#table:outcomes}

g are the good slots where the technician is able to show up during the appointment window. l are those where the technician was not available during the appointment window. In either case some number of households are not going to be home or not ready for service. Those are n.

When the technician decides to skip late appointments some number – s in the table above – will turn into additional no-shows. However, skipping these will mean that the technician can make it to l-s appointments on time.

Assuming l-s > 0, then the outcome of the skip when late strategy is strictly better for the technician’s supervisor. I can’t imagine there being any incentive for the supervisor to penalize this strategy. So the technician also gets off scott free.

  1. “No-shows” are just going to be rescheduled. It’s not the end of the world.↩︎

Why This Is Relevant

It’s easy to harp on Comcast4 and some random lowly technician. But this incentive pattern is everywhere. Even at Google and s.

Every time you measure someone’s success on how well they handled a number of issues or cases without taking into account the cost they incurred to get there, you are creating a Comcast Technician problem for your subordinates.

  1. The Verge. The worst company in America. (Accessed July 13, 2020)↩︎

But Is It Bad?

Dropping tasks instead of unbounded accretion of delay is sometimes a better strategy.

One might even argue that this is the cost of doing business and it would actually makes sense. One customer’s (or user’s or client’s or patient’s) convenience doesn’t outweigh the convenience of many others.

There could be additional complicating factors involved:

In either case, be forgiving when you inevitably find yourself as the one who got the short end of the stick.

It just might be that all parties involved are rational actors, and there’s really not a great alternative. Sometimes it’s just life.