The idea of losing your job after complaining about your home cable service seems a touch absurd.
One Comcast customer, however, says that's exactly what happened after he complained to Comcast about its customer service.
No, he didn't work for Comcast. Instead, the customer, a California resident named Conal O'Rourke, worked for an accounting firm that performed consultancy duties for the cable provider.
Tensions that have been building for months finally escalated to the point where Comcast today issued "A Public Apology to Conal O'Rourke" on its corporate website. O'Rourke's lawyer, meanwhile, says an apology isn't enough.
So how could a customer complaint have led to this dramatic situation?
In initially telling his story to the Consumerist two days ago, O'Rourke says he had the sort of issues with Comcast that seem all too familiar in many service industries. There were allegedly billing issues, with O'Rourke claiming that Comcast misspelled his last name, so he didn't receive bills.
First, O'Rourke told the Consumerist, he wanted to cancel his service. But Comcast persuaded him it would do better. O'Rourke said the service didn't improve. He said he was sent equipment he hadn't ordered. And, being an accountant, he claims to have prepared a spreadsheet of all the alleged errors, which date back to February 2013.
(As an aside, O'Rourke's LinkedIn profile says: "In 2012 I achieved my long desire of living in California, using my Finance, Human Resources and enthusiastic people skills to work for PwC's Learning & Development as the Senior Associate, learning consultant for the San Jose and Rockies (Denver and Salt Lake City) markets.")
He was so frustrated, he said, that he contacted the office of the company's controller, which Comcast has confirmed. He admits that he suggested Comcast's billing practices should be subject to a Public Company Accounting Oversight Board investigation.
After that, he said, two service calls were arranged, but no service engineer actually arrived.
He said, they said
Then things really got out of hand. O'Rourke alleges that someone at Comcast contacted a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. That led, O'Rourke says, to an ethics investigation at PWC on February 7, 2014, after which O'Rourke says he was fired.
Comcast claimed that O'Rourke "did identify himself as affiliated with PWC," according to a letter dated August 18, 2014, to his lawyer, Maureen Ryan of Dhillon Law Group, and signed by Thomas Nathan, senior deputy general counsel for the cable giant. O'Rourke denies it. Instead, he told Ars Technica he believes that someone at Comcast went through his records, put two and two together, and deduced his place of work.
The cable company does acknowledge contacting PWC, saying in its letter to Ryan, which I have seen, that "Comcast communicated to PWC that a person claiming to be a PWC employee had called our chief accounting executive's office with complaints about his cable services and bills, and yelled at our employees who tried to assist him."
Ryan told CNET that O'Rourke never name-dropped his employer in talking to Comcast:
Comcast has not released the tapes of the call, or the email in which they accused Dhillon Law Group's client of trying to use his employment with PWC as leverage with Comcast. Because of this, the only proof we have is our client's word, and I believe him completely. The person he allegedly said this to has not gone on the record with his or her version of events, so he is the only person who has publically made a statement.
It would make no sense for Conal to say that he worked for PWC as leverage in his negotiations with Comcast, because PWC doesn't audit Comcast's books, instead, they provide consulting services. Comcast has all of the leverage in this client relationship with PWC, and they used it to get a good employee with a spotless record fired.
However, what of the role of O'Rourke's employers? He claims, as the Consumerist recounts, that he had only received good reviews before this incident.
"Mr. O'Rourke was employed in one of our internal firm services offices," a spokeswoman for PWC told me today. "The firm terminated his employment after an internal investigation concluded that Mr. O'Rourke violated PwC's ethical standards and practices, applicable to all of our people. The firm has explicit policies regarding employee conduct, we train our people in those policies, and we enforce them. Mr. O'Rourke's violation of these policies was the sole reason for his termination."
It's easy to speculate that the information that has so far emerged from O'Rourke's side is in part a legal push for financial settlement by a plaintiff's attorney. Indeed, according to the letter from Comcast to lawyer Ryan, recounting O'Rourke's demands, he is seeking "a retraction, an apology, $100,312.50 in damages and reinstatement to his former employment."
Which brings us back to that public apology by Comcast. Here it is in full, and attributed to Charlie Herrin, senior vice president for customer experience at Comcast Cable:
What happened to Mr. O'Rourke's service is completely unacceptable. Despite our attempts to address Mr. O'Rourke's issues, we simply dropped the ball and did not make things right. Mr. O'Rourke deserves another apology from us and we're making this one publicly. We also want to clarify that nobody at Comcast asked for him to be fired.
We're also determined to get to the bottom of exactly what happened with his service, figure out what went wrong at every point along the way, and fix any underlying issues. I'm a few weeks into a new role at Comcast which is entirely focused on what we can do to make the customer experience better. We need to make sure that every interaction is excellent ... from the moment a customer orders a new service, to the installation, to the way we communicate with them, to how we respond to any issues.
We're holding ourselves accountable and we are working hard to make real improvements across the board. While it will take us some time, we can and will do better than this.
That's not enough to satisfy O'Rourke's lawyer, who shared this with me today:
An apology isn't good enough at this point. If they contend that Comcast didn't ask for him to be fired, let them prove it. They should release the tapes and their communications with PWC.
Furthermore, the statement that they did not ask for him to be fired sounds to me like the type of careful phrasing that lawyers and public relations personnel use to get around damaging facts. Even if they did not ask for him to be fired in so many words, we contend that they knew, as accounting professionals, that a false accusation of an ethics violation would cause PWC to terminate Mr. O'Rourke. So even if they didn't specifically ask that he be fired, they knew it would happen as a result of their false and defamatory statements about our client.
The tale is bizarre. That a complaint could escalate to a customer losing his job borders on the macabre. The idea that private conversations between a customer and service provider could be elevated, behind a customer's back to his employer, is disturbing.
Comcast seems to feel it is somehow at fault -- otherwise, why would it issue a public mea culpa? But do note that it's apologizing only for problems with O'Rourke's service.
The company's customer service reputation hasn't been garlanded with hosannas lately. Comcast was one the worst-rated companies in customer service, according to a May 2014 survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. So the fact that Comcast is the company involved here adds an especially troubling tinge.