How Comcast mobilized its tech troops during the onslaught of Covid-19

Comcast pivots to new tools and applications, including self installs, to better serve its customers during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Comcast)

Comcast's field technicians, along with its network engineers and call center agents, are the unsung heroes of the cable operator's Covid-19 response.

Certainly Comcast's network investments over the years, which have included more virtualization, software and artificial intelligence, played a key role in terms of turning up more capacity for millions of remote workers, but Comcast also had to change its process and policies to both protect and empower its employees.

"A lot of work has gone on here with the investment and continued enhancements of our technologies to make sure that capacity is there for our customers to consume when they need it, but it really is all about the people," said Comcast's Ed Marchetti, senor vice president for national field operations. "We've done millions of jobs during the Covid period from late March until now. We've done a really good job, in my opinion, supporting those that have the responsibility of the front line and are in front of the customer.

"We've done a really good job in supporting those with the mission of threading the needle and keeping our front line safe and healthy while at the same time delivering the powerful and awesome suite of products and services that we deliver each and every day for both residential and Comcast Business customers. The theme here is really about the people."

In March, Comcast transitioned 95% of its customer service employees, including call center agents, to work-from-home (WFH). More than 1,000 Comcast employees a day, including network engineers, were making the move to WFH in mid-March.

Comcast also sent some of its field technicians home, but they helped out by transitioning into doing virtual troubleshooting with customers, according to Marchetti. At the same time, some of Comcast's technical teams and service technicians stayed out in the field to dig new trenches for fiber or help customers with new services.

RELATED: Due to COVID-19, Charter cranks up self-installs in Q1

Similar to Charter Communications' efforts, Comcast came up its "home drop-off" self installation kits in the late March to early April timeframe. Marchetti said home drop-off allows the field techs to test the signal strength outside of homes or businesses prior to dropping off the equipment needed for installs. Home drop-off allows the techs to stay outside of customers' locations during installs.

"With home drop-off, we leave the equipment for the customer to install themselves," Marchetti said. "We have the opportunity to Facetime with customers with a platform that we have put in place. While the tech may be in the truck, the customer could be in the home and they can interact to make sure the activation of that equipment is successful.

"The goal here is to limit the exposure between customers and the techs. This goes back to my comment about threading the needle of keeping our techs safe and healthy while at the same time making sure that we stay committed to delivering a quality suite of products and services."

It took Comcast employees a total of 30 days to design, prototype and pilot its new virtual technician platform, which Marchetti said also included pulling Comcast employees off of other important projects in order to get it done sooner.

Comcast saw a 445% increase in the use of its Xfinity Assistant, which allows customers to get help from any connected device from the comfort of their homes. Marchetti said Comcast had been developing Xfinity Assistant over the previous 18 months prior to Covid-19, but that work ramped up once the pandemic hit.

"Xfinity Assistant is really an automated platform in which customers can interact with us and with the intelligence that we have as to the health of their equipment, or their billing, or different questions that they may have," Marchetti said. "The Xfinity Assistant will be our engine for interacting with customers and resolving a lot of their questions and issues.

"We've done such a great job embracing the Xfinity Assistant system, but I think we're in the early innings of what the power of Xfinity Assistant will ultimately do for us. We're really excited about what we've implemented so far, and how it's helping our customers digitally interact with us on their terms and on their time."

While Marchetti said it was too early to say, Xfinity Assistant looks like it would reduce truck rolls to subscribers' houses, or cut down the number of calls to customer service reps.

Comcast's aiQ platform, which was developed internally, allows customer to communicate on Xfinity Assistant by using Xfinity apps, secure messaging, social networks (such as Facebook), the X1 Voice Remote, and the traditional telephone service center.

Marchetti said the goal with aiQ was to build a platform to provide intelligence on the performance in the home and the network by looking at data points all the way down into set-top boxes and gateways.

"We're using aiQ and Xfinity Assistant to be able to continue down our journey of having customers be able to interact and resolve their issues," Marchetti said. "It allows them to interact with us digitally versus the way that we've historically done it, which is pick up the phone and talk to an agent."

Comcast has also put its Tech 360 platform into the hands of its fulfillment technicians. Marchetti said Tech 360 was an aggregation of tools and applications in order to provide its technicians with a single user interface.

RELATED: During COVID-19, Comcast ups its virtualization game from core to cable modems with AI and ML

During Covid-19, Comcast pooled its app developers together to enhance the different screens, alerts and other features of Tech 360 to support the work orders and the provisioning of work orders.

"It was just amazing to see the level of coordination and commitment by everyone necessary across the company to put those enhancements into Tech 360," Marchetti said. "It really was an example of just the overall kind of student body left of leaving the important initiatives that they were working on to really rally around those that are in front of the customers. It was absolutely amazing, and we're just so proud of the speed to market of those enhancements on that one tool."

Comcast weathered the Covid-19 storm by using its own technicians, which, in addition to the new tools and enhancements, were provided with personal protective equipment.

"If you look at things like NPS (net performance score) and you look at different stats that we use, the reaction of customers has never been higher," Marchetti said. "There's just an acute appreciation for those technicians that are out in the field every day, and for the technicians that are monitoring our network every day, and those that are building and enhancing our network every day.

"This ecosystem and this engine have never been healthier. I'm just so proud of what we've been able to do, and what we've been able to learn going into this when it was all hands on deck. I'm just so proud of the commitment by the company from the top down all the way to the technicians and the customer care agents."

Marchetti will be moderating a panel at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo on Oct. 12 on the lessons learned by cable operators during the Covid-19 pandemic.