Why does customer service still suck?

We can probably all agree that there are few things more frustrating than sitting on hold with customer service — except maybe navigating the customer service phone system in the first place. Between automated menus, voice-activated options that never work, and seemingly unnecessary transfers from agent to agent, I’m usually discouraged from even calling in the first place.

Technology and innovation have changed many aspects of our lives over the last few decades, and the pace is accelerating with each passing year. So why does customer service still — for lack of a better word — suck?

True, some companies are adding live-chat customer service features. I prefer live chat for several reasons, including but not limited to the fact that you can multitask better when you’re dealing with a small chat window as opposed to a live person on the phone, you receive an automatic written record of your conversation, and the “hold time” before you reach a representative is usually nonexistent.

That said, many of the same customer service pitfalls remain — scripted responses, transfers between agents, and a general lack of helpfulness.

I’ve found that banks are often the best and most efficient at customer service — be it traditional or via online chat — while retailers, travel vendors and cable companies are among the worst. While many companies offer online FAQs to address the most common problems, most of the time you just need to talk to a live person to explain your unique situation!

Is there any hope for technology to change that?

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Imagine this: You come home from work to find that your cable isn’t working. You try all of the usual procedures to fix the problem, to no avail.

Instead of making the dreaded call to the cable company, you log on to its website and select from a list of keywords that relate to your problem. If you don’t see keywords that describe your problem, you can add your own. Once you’ve chosen the appropriate tags in the text field, you describe the specific problem and any steps you’ve taken. You hit “submit,” then relax with a book and a nice cup of tea.

While you’re relaxing, an algorithm, with the help of the tags you’ve assigned to your issue, sends your note to the appropriate customer service department. A live person reviews your issue and ensures that it gets in front of someone who can actually help. (You know, someone who specializes in cable rather than Internet, and is paid well enough by the company to care. Pipedream?)

Thirty minutes later, you receive a call from the cable company. You’re prepared to explain the problem again from the beginning, verify that, yes, you have tried to unplug and replug the cable box, wait on hold while you’re transferred to Tier 2 customer service where you’ll have to explain the problem again — and so on, and so on.

Instead, you’re quite refreshed to hear that the person on the other line is calling in regard to your specific problem and is ready to try alternate solutions while on the phone with you. Total time spent on the phone: 10 to 15 minutes. If it comes down to needing to send a technician, you’ll only have invested a few minutes, rather than hours. (Don’t tell me you haven’t spent upwards of 45 minutes on the line before getting to the “testing solutions” phase; we’ve all been there.)

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Or, let’s say you need to rebook your flight. You sign on to the airline’s website and enter your flight confirmation number and other identifying information. If possible (and some airlines do this already), you can simply choose your new flight and rebook online. If it’s more complicated than that, a live chat window appears and a customer service representative provides you with all of the information you need in writing. If one of you needs to reference a specific policy, you can provide a link, rather than blindly take their word for it or struggle to remember what you read.

That’s the dream.

If companies can implement advertising that follows you around the Internet based on one search, if they can spend money on celebrities in their marketing campaigns, and if they can remotely log in to computers from the other side of the country — even the world — there has to be a better way. There just has to.

What’s been your worst customer service experience? The best? Has technology improved or hindered your experiences? What changes do you think we’ll see in the future? Is there any hope for the customer service process?

I’ll just be over here avoiding making a customer service phone call, angrily tweeting @TSA.

Today's customer service is:

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Heather Dratler

Lover of all things travel and hospitality, both from a personal and professional standpoint. A PR pro by day, I've represented a wide variety of clients in the travel industry since 2008. Sharing my passion for and knowledge of travel makes me happy. Cornell University graduate. Follow me on Twitter @HeatherLori7.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Customer service “sucks” because….
    CSRs are being farmed out to the lowest bidder, and have been trained to specifically follow scripts and “canned” answers. They do not have the ability to perform meaningful “service.”
    CSRs are promoted and paid based on “metrics” which have no correlation to how helpful or useful they perform. A CSR who actually takes the time to listen and understand a consumer issue can be penalized because their metrics will “suck” as they can’t process as many calls.
    CSRs do not have the power to do anything except apologize.
    The whole notion of CSR now is to “apologize” and encourage customers to “rate” the call as “excellent” whether or not anything positive was done. Heck, its a “feel good” society. Its OK, as long as everyone says we’re excellent

    … but customers are not without blame either
    Customers are quick to go to the court of social media, and we as customers often take these stories hook, line and sinker. Customers fail to try and work things out, and want immediate and instant results. Customers also seem to have increasingly unrealistic demands.

  • Chris_In_NC

    BTW Heather, glad to see your article this week. Was slightly worried when you didn’t post last week. I’m sure you need time off, but this is meant as a complement to how much I look forward to your articles!

  • Heather Lori Dratler

    Thank you! That makes my morning. Not to worry — I’m not going anywhere.

  • Rebecca

    This morning I went to Kroger. I bought 2 boxes of granola bars over the weekend and discovered they had expired in October after I got home. The idiot at the “customer service” desk refused to return them, because “we don’t accept expired food for returns”. Never mind they expired 3 months before I bought them.

    I literally had to argue with her for almost 5 minutes to make her get a manager. Who, to his credit, apologised profusely, explained the actual policy right in front of me, and at least tries to fix it. But people getting so stuck in policies that they can’t even stop to think for 2 seconds sure is frustrating!

  • Rebecca

    You are so correct. My favorite script: “Have I provided you with excellent service today?” I know they have to say it or they literally get in trouble, so I never take it out in them, but that one makes me crazy!

  • taxed2themax

    In some cases I think there is a time and place for scripted dialogue.. in that I think in some cases details matter and I think on the whole it is better for there to be one uniform script read so that everyone who calls about X is given the same information. Now, I don’t think that all cases fit this, but I do think that at times a script can be useful and serve a valuable purpose.

  • How timely! Last night LAN Airlines canceled my flight from Medellin, Colombia to Bogota, which created chaos with the continuation flights to Cuenca, Ecuador. I called LAN in Colombia as told to do in the cancellation email only to get a recording the office was closed. I called the US number via Skype and had a new itinerary in an hour.

    BUT, I had to have my travel agent reassign the ticket as well. I started calling CheapOair at 8:30 pm last night and gave up at 2:00 am this morning. Between disconnects and agents who did not know their head from a hole in the ground, it was a waste of time.

    I am on hold again. So far, it has been 55 minutes for this to be resolved. My flight is tomorrow. I hope I am off the phone by then.

  • JenniferFinger

    Part of the problem is that customer service is outsourced to people who don’t know how to do it or don’t have the authority to take meaningful action to help customers. And that’s because of cost-cutting. Unfortunately, the labor market makes it cheaper to hire outsiders to do it rather than people who really have the knowledge and ability to help customers.

  • Barthel

    Customer service people are afraid to or unable to “think outside the box”. If your situation doesn’t conveniently fit in the proper slot, they don’t know what to do and just say they can’t do anything. That’s when you need to get a supervisor involved. It’s also very frustrating when dealing on the phone with someone who really does not speak English.

  • Tom McShane

    Good article, but neglected the burning question of whether their menu options have REALLY changed. Because I memorize the menu options of all the companies I call, so in my view they ought to be truthful on this issue or else all that memorizing effort is for nought.

  • Alan Gore

    Customer service always sucks the most in lines of business where is the least competition. Your bank treats you well because there are so many alternatives, wherever you happen to live. If your cable company is the only one serving the area, it doesn’t care.

    But yes, always use the online chat option if available.

  • Alan Gore

    The old Catch-22 problem! I ran into this just last week with Centurylink, the phone company that serves my 94-year-old mother’s retirement home. After having been a long-term subscriber to landline and Internet, she called them last fall to cancel the Internet, because she now gets WiFi as a perk from the home. Several weeks went by, and she was still getting bills for Internet service, so she had me call to cancel again.

    My call elicited action: two days later, her entire phone service was disconnected. So she had me call again (their chat option is only for Internet technical problems, not provisioning and billing). I got a person who seemed to be taking care of the problem, and then put me on hold “while I update your account”. After quite a long hold, I found myself newly connected to someone who had never heard of Mother’s problem, and I had to start my saga from the beginning. Then I get, “Sorry, but your mother has to talk to me personally about handling this!” This was not possible because (a) she was at her home, not mine, and (b) she can’t talk over any other phone but her special amplified handset, now dead, which is why she couldn’t just go to the front office and call Centurylink from there in the first place.

    Fortunately I was able to break out of the Catch-22 by creative truth management. I reported her problem as an “outage” to the repair number, and got a Repair person out in less than a week. They have many customers at the retirement complex, and the Repair staff knows that their lifeline can be critical.

  • John Baker

    Customer Service continues to suck because, in general, consumers are looking for the cheapest price and ignore the things wrapped up in the price

  • Rebecca

    I think, or at least hope, that people are waking up to this problem. There are certain things I don’t ever buy based on price. Strangely, the first 2 examples I thought of were diapers and toilet paper. And I’ll always pay a bit more to not buy something at Wal-Mart, although here in Atlanta they aren’t usually the cheapest anyways. I worked there briefly in college and it’s the only job I ever walked out of. Those stories you hear about people not getting breaks and working overtime without being paid were completely true 15 years ago. I don’t know if it’s improved, but I still won’t go there. I used to go once in a while to buy my husband’s cereal, since they were the only store that carried it; I’d buy 10 boxes or so and be out the door. Then Kelloggs discontinued S’Mores, and I haven’t been back since.

  • Rebecca

    I agree there are very limited circumstances. For example, when setting up a future payment. When I worked in a call center and there were scripts like these, I always trained the reps to TELL the customer they had to read a script, and joke about it. This worked wonders in terms of people getting frustrated. If you tell a customer that you have to read a script, for some legal reason, before you read it, it’s much less likely to annoy them.

  • When my husband was out of town (he is our computer expert) he gave me a number to call if I needed help. I told the man my computer was not working. He said “Go to the modem.” I said “What is a modem.” HE HUNG UP ON ME. So muich for service.

  • AJPeabody

    But telling them it is a script is not in the script.

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