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A Customer-First Approach to Learning

Jessica Lam

The path to results can sometimes be bumpy. In 2012, Comcast Cable launched an ambitious effort to redesign its talent management activities around customer service. That mission reflected a simple philosophy embraced by Senior Vice President and Chief Talent Development Officer Martha Soehren.

“A consistent learner experience drives a consistent customer experience, and that’s what the cable TV business is all about,” says Soehren, Comcast University’s top executive, who oversees the training and development of Comcast Cable’s 91,000 employees. Although tireless efforts within CU to improve training related to customer service had already yielded many positive results, Comcast needed to reinforce its customer-first philosophy among its thousands of employees with leadership responsibilities.

The first indication that more changes were needed came in 2014 when the company ranked low on the American Consumer Satisfaction Index—an annual cross-industry customer evaluation survey. The next year, the company’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable was blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice, dealing it another blow.

It was a moment of reckoning for Comcast Cable’s learning executives, especially its vice president of talent and technology development, Larry Clark, whose job was to help improve the customer experience. “We have always felt as a company that we deliver great products. But as the survey revealed, the way we engaged with customers did not live up to our expectations,” Clark says. In that way, the government’s decision actually strengthened their resolve to do more.

A Seismic Shift Needed

Indeed, at that moment, the Philadelphia-based provider of cable TV and other broadband services needed to be on point more than ever regarding the way it treated customers. Its parent company, Comcast Corp., had acquired media and entertainment giant NBC Universal in 2011, continuing a growth path that also included the acquisition of AT&T Broadband (which was AT&T’s cable operations) in 2002. With the growth, the learning executives at the company keenly understood that customer satisfaction played a key role in the scrutiny of big deals by regulators.

“We decided it was time to take a new outside-in perspective around customer service,” explains Clark. “Rather than just being efficient at achieving internal metrics, we [needed to] let the customer define success.”

In short, a seismic shift was required within the organization; one that would be vigorously endorsed by top executives. Orchestrating that mindset with teammates was the perfect assignment for Clark, who left Microsoft in 2012 to lead Comcast Cable’s leadership development activities.

His team would build on the groundwork already laid within CU. In 2011 the company created five separate colleges within the university (recently expanded to six), each aligned around separate business functions: Sales, Customer Care, Technical Operations, Comcast Business, College for Technologists, and Talent and Professional Development. Clark heads the College for Technologists and the College of Talent and Professional Development, which encompasses all areas of leadership training.

Clark was asked as one of his first assignments to examine an existing developmental initiative called One Comcast Leader (OCL). Launched in 2010, OCL was a well-received first effort to achieve consistency in the development of leadership skills among supervisors, managers, and directors across the organization.

But as demands increased on the company to become more customer oriented and respond more nimbly to new competitors outside the cable TV business, it became apparent to all that a second phase of the OCL initiative was warranted.

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