The hot new thing on the Internet seems to be recording an awful customer service experience and posting it online. Unlike most Internet fads, this one may actually be useful -- by helping you get better customer service.
There have been several high- profile recordings of comically bad Comcast customer service experiences shared online over the last few weeks. All elicited public apologies from Comcast, and, of course, generated bad press for a company already among the most-hated in the country.
But the recordings also raise the question: Should everyone record calls for customer service?
Here's the good news: Having your own recording of a call with a customer service representative can be a great way to hold the company accountable if, like in the recent Comcast incidents, they overcharge you, leave you on hold for more than three hours or, simply, will not allow you to quit.
Recording conversations can be kind of a pain, and won't likely reform cable companies like Comcast -- which are often the only choice you have. But one recent recorded call did at least force Comcast to retract a bogus charge to a customer's bill.
"Recording calls is a great idea," said Janet Wagner, an associate professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business. "It provides incontrovertible evidence of poor customer service."
Wagner said that in order for a company to change, its leaders need to be aware of bad customer experiences.
Now is the time to tell you that laws around recording phone calls vary by state, so be sure to check the rules where you live. Because you may not know where the customer service agent you're speaking with is located, it's probably best to get their consent before recording.
"It's always best to stay within the confines of the law and always play it safe," said Dave Maass, a spokesman and investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It really doesn't take much to say. 'I'm recording this call.' And who knows? You may get better customer service if they know that you're recording the call."
Spokespeople from Comcast, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable and AT&T told HuffPost that they don't have -- or, in some cases, aren't aware of -- a policy that prohibits their customers from recording their exchanges with customer service agents. Comcast and Time Warner Cable agents were fine with us recording calls. But an employee in Verizon's billing department said she'd hang up if we kept recording, and then proceeded to hang up. Verizon did not return a request for comment about the company's policy.
Just as companies have begun in recent years to monitor social media like Facebook and Twitter for feedback, the recent spate of high-profile recorded customer-service calls may push some companies to improve their customer service, according to Priya Raghubir, a professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.
"Just the mere fact that consumers could be doing this will get companies to start being a little more cognizant of trying to reduce the extent they try to hold customers hostage," Raghubir told HuffPost.
But recording phone calls won't solve the underlying, structural problem of cable and Internet service provider monopolies, noted Mark Hurst, who runs a New York-based consulting firm focused on customer experience.
Hurst called it "absurd" to think that Comcast or some other dominant cable company might change the way it operates just because of recordings posted online. After all, many of their customers have few, if any, real alternatives, giving these companies little reason to care about creating a good customer experience.
"The only thing that changes the culture is when the business model requires that the company serve customers better or they'll feel it" in their profit, said Hurst, who recently co-authored a book on customer experience called Customers Included. "Comcast is not in a competitive market, so there is no financial pressure for them to fix this problem."
And repeated public shaming of Comcast brings diminishing returns, Hurst noted. Yes, the three recent recordings have gotten loads of media attention and garnered responses from Comcast. But as dozens more of these are posted, they simply won't get the same reaction.
So what's the answer? Hurst suggested the only hope would be to press government representatives to make the market more competitive, or to regulate telecom companies like they're utilities.
"The beauty of competition is it forces companies to do better by the customer," Hurst said.
The government has shown little appetite for such regulation. Maybe a few more nightmarish customer-service calls will do the trick?
Harry Bradford contributed reporting.