Yes, customer service really is circling the drain – here’s what to do about it

Customer service isn’t what it used to be.

You’ve probably heard your parents or grandparents say it — heck, maybe you’ve said it — but other than vague memories of the way things were, you had no proof.

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Well, now you do.

A new survey by Arizona State University reviews historical data on the customer experience going back to a 1976 White House study. It found the amount of people reporting customer problems climbed from 32 percent in the 1976 study to 45 percent in 2011, and then 50 percent in 2013.

“People are frustrated that there are too many automated response menus, there aren’t enough customer-care agents, they waste a lot of time dealing with problems, and they have to contact a company an average of four times to get resolution,” says Scott Broetzmann, who works for Customer Care Measurement and Consulting, which worked with the Arizona State on the data.

Let’s not mince words. They didn’t call it the “Customer-Rage Study” for nothing. We’re really mad, and it’s getting worse.

Unfortunately, the study was originally released to coincide with the holiday shopping season, and didn’t get the attention it deserved. Sure, a few bloggers wrote about the findings and pegged them to the high holy days of consumerism, but it’s difficult to argue that we’re unhappy even as we mindlessly buy stuff we don’t need.

A deeper dive into the findings, now that the dust has settled on the holiday craziness, shows why we’re angry. But it also points to a few solutions:

You’re 11 times more likely to complain by phone than online.

The temptation to pick up the phone is simply too much for customers to resist. They want satisfaction — and they want it now. Not a day seems to go by that I don’t tell someone to stay off the phone when there’s a service problem. You can’t prove what a representative promised you and can’t forward a “paper trail” to a supervisor, like you can with an email. Get. Off. The. Phone.

Of those who complained about a product or service, 56 percent say they got absolutely nothing as a result, up 9 percentage points since 2011.

That may have something to do with the bean counters who are controlling the customer-service operations. Then again, it might have a little to do with our substandard complaining skills. Those can include WRITING A COMPLAINT LETTER IN UPPERCASE, which is considered yelling, by the way; making unrealistic demands (“I want a free first-class ticket anywhere your airline flies”); and promising to never do business with the company again. Until we understand how to complain, we’ll continue to strike out.

Satisfied customers talk to an average of 10 to 16 people about the problem before a successful resolution; dissatisfied customers talk to an average of about 28 people before they abandon their efforts.

To me, that suggests the people who experience “bad” may be petitioning the wrong employees. They’re looking for the first available person instead of working their way up the corporate food chain, preferably in writing, until the problem is resolved. I list the right names, email addresses and phone numbers on my site’s customer service wiki. Remember, the janitor can’t help you with a refund, so don’t bother asking.

By measuring our discontent, the Arizona State researchers have also shown us a way out. Choosing the right way to complain, developing your customer IQ and talking to the right people may bring down those dissatisfaction numbers for you.

For the rest of us, I can only hope they don’t get any worse.

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58 thoughts on “Yes, customer service really is circling the drain – here’s what to do about it

  1. Everything is getting worse in the USA. If you can think of a service that is really getting better, then you are either very lucky or dreaming. Just flew back ICN to JFK on Korean Air. They still clean the bathrooms regularly and even fold the ends to the toilet paper. Kudos to this airline.

  2. I agree that the focus should be on how you make the complaint and not just what you are complaining about. I am careful about complaint letters. In each one I am specific as to the problem and any attempts made to solve the problem. I do not exaggerate (or give a laundry list of my personal issues) and always look for something to mention that the company did correctly. I move up the chain if I need to. And most of the time my problem is solved–sometimes to my satisfaction and other times not.
    But I do admit to telling a major air US carrier that I would never fly them again after a complete fiasco of a 2 1/2 hour flight. (I actually said I saw no way in the foreseeable future that I would board one of their planes again.) The problems were numerous, starting with a cancelled flight and ending when we had to abort take-off because we had to go back for bags the pilot would not let them load on the plane as he wanted to leave. I did not ask for anything at all. I received vouchers for 2 tickets anywhere they flew in the 48 contiguous states–which I framed and hung on the wall in my office. Over 10 years later I have yet to set foot on that carrier again.

    1. Agreed on how you complain does help a lot. I view my first contact as a question, not yet a complaint. It starts with a nice greeting, explaining (concisely) my question, and thanking them for looking into it for me stataing clearly that I apprecaite their help. I typically get quick and helpful responses.

  3. I’ll add one more… Customer service will continue to decrease as long as we don’t factor it into our buying decision. As long as we continue to only shop on price and not shop on value, there’s no motivation to provide better service if not providing it can save a $0.01.

    1. You don’t have to pay the most to receive the best, but paying the least generally yields the worst. Metering purchases between cost, value, and support is a tight rope. We all want value, but not at behest of a company refusing to stand behind their merchandise.

  4. I don’t normally chime in but I have a customer service story from yesterday. I’ve been shopping around for a speedometer for my custom trike. I contacted three different dealers requesting information on a non-mechanical solution such as Hall-Effect or GPS. Of the three dealers, two sent back part numbers with no additional information such as harness or sender type, the third sent back a two paragraph note with suggested sender, mount, and gauge cup. Even though the third dealer is $20 more than the other two, I’m going with them.

    If a customer gives you the chance to sell them more than the minimum, why wouldn’t you take them up on the opportunity. Long and short of it, some companies have cut so far back that they are hurting their bottom line.

    1. Second perspective is the company taking more time to reply will generally offer more support. They’ve taken the time to read the email, know your preferences, and have suggested enhancements. Good marketing and customer service.

  5. Not to sound Xenophobic, but offshoring is the culprit of Poor Customer Service. When I have to repeat myself to a script reader who barely grasps English, the nightmare begins. You can try to deceive me by calling yourself “James or Mary”, but I’m well aware your true identity is neither.

    When I ask a support question and I hear you stumble to understand what I’m saying, my sighs and gasps are dread. I dread the conversation, because I know what can be accomplished in five minutes with a Native English Speaker will now take double or triple the time. Assuming, we’re able to overcome the impasses of communicating.

    Whenever possible, I try to ask for American call centers. When the person answering isn’t able to help, I escalate to a supervisor. Generally, success is met, when the gripe is legitimate. Remember, complain when appropriate, Don’t sweat the small stuff.

    1. Folks from other countries, especially Asian ones including India, often use Anglicized names when interacting with Americans. It’s not deception is just practical. The odds are that unless the American is from very specific areas of the country, they’re not routinely accustomed to names like Srinivash and Pu-Sei. A friend of mine from India has been going by Bob for decades. His entire family calls him Bob. It wasn’t until I saw some official paperwork that I learned that wasn’t his legal name. Its a nod to reality.

      1. I don’t think anyone would care what name was used if the person could clearly speak the language associated with the name. But calling me “Remi” doesn’t make me fluent in French and I could understand a French speaker getting frustrated when I couldn’t communicate with them despite claiming to have an obviously French name. That just adds fuel to the fire.

          1. Both issues are intertwined. And it’s naive to think the only reason they have reps going by Americanized names is because callers might find pronouncing the real names to be difficult. There’s a very clear business strategy in place with many companies to hide the fact call centers are overseas. If it was only about the names, there’d be no need to pretend the rep was in Kansas City, like in Jeanne’s example below.

      2. There’s practicality, and then there’s deception. I remember calling Sears about a lawn tractor repair issue and wound up speaking to “Betty” located in “Kansas City”. Betty had a deep baritone voice. I asked “Betty” how he liked his home team, the Cardinals. He said he liked them very much. I then asked to be transferred to an American call center. He asked why, since he was in Kansas City. I said that first, Betty is a woman’s name in Missouri. He interrupted me to say he wasn’t in Missouri, but in Kansas City. I hung up, called again, and got transferred to an American call center this time.

        (For those of you not conversant with American baseball teams, the Cardinals are St. Louis and the Royals are Kansas City.)

        1. Wow, that’s just too funny. Reminds me of the old war movies where the undercover spies would get tripped up by not knowing who’d won the World Series.

        2. One time I met a guy who handled the Indian call center for a well known computer manufacturer. He told me that one time he messed with one of the employees; he asked for suggestions for his “American” name, so this guy told him the most popular American name for boys was Juan. I still laugh when I think about this poor Indian man saying “Hello, my name is Juan.”

    2. As soon as I get the script reader, I ask if they can please put the script away. I say I need someone who can think independently and if that’s not you, please transfer me to someone who can. My ISP and cable company then started routing me to a North American call center on my first call for tech support when I called from the phone associated with the account.

      Most recently, after the pricing department was unable to answer pricing questions about their service properly, I shamed them on Twitter. I was asked to send details on my problem to a specific email address and then received a call from someone in their executive offices who sorted out the issues to my satisfaction.

      It’s possible to get good service, but more and more you need to fight for it.

  6. When I’m required to call a company, I don’t wait 5 minutes to jump through hoops pressing numbers. I just mash 0 or yell “Operator” until I get to a person. Ever notice how companies ask you to type in your account number/ID/phone number…. something to help sort the issue and when you get to a person, you have to repeat it all? Where does that info go I just typed in? Shouldn’t the rep get my info as they answer my call? Also, not a fan of overseas call centers. Keep it in America.

    1. 0 works to get a representative in most occasions. Doesn’t solve the language barrier. Ask for an American Call center whenever possible. Learned my lesson enough times now.

      1. Many call centers changed the ‘0’ and now have that option tell you isn’t valid. Sometimes if you don’t choose any option you will default to an operator though.

    2. The needless repetition is one of my biggest pet peeves. You’ll enter a ton of info and then have to repeat most of it at every step. Reminds me of all the paperwork you have to fill out at the doctor’s office only to have them totally ignore it.

    3. USAA is great for handling that. They’ve frequently put me on hold when transferring me and when the new rep came on the line the first one was there and introduced us and had already explained the back story. They are tremendous at what they do and how they do it.

      1. That’s great. I worked in customer service for a company that would not allow “blind transfers”. We would ask permission to place the customer on hold and explain that it may take longer than what he may be used to with other companies as I would be remaining on the line until I found the proper person to assist. Once I did, I would explain the back story to the new agent, and then bring the customer in to the call. I would then introduce the customer to the new agent, apologize for making him wait, regardless of the length of time it took, and confirm that he needed nothing else from me before dropping out of the conversation. Since I had verified identity and accessed his account, the new agent had all that info when they took the call.

      2. USAA is pretty much the best customer service I have ever encountered. Other companies can learn a lot from them.

      3. I work at USAA; appreciate the kudos! I’ve never worked on the phones, but I’m in an administrative position. We’re supposed to be careful about what we say on social media, but I think I’m safe in saying that we take customer service and member satisfaction very seriously.

        1. USAA’s customer service is the best and is the primary reason I have all my financial service business with you. When I have a question or problem I actually look forward to calling you because I know I will be treated with respect and that my issue will be resolved in one call. You guys rock!

  7. This is one of the reasons I shop locally whenever possible. Small businesses live or die on customer service. I want to go to a place that knows the products, knows me, and has a vested interest in keeping me happy. I also show my happiness by both making more purchases and by bringing in friends to shop there as well.

    1. I believe in that, but you do find exceptions. I needed a baby product. I looked around locally and at one store I left a message that was never returned. I couldn’t find the product, so I bought it online. One day I was in the area where the store that I had left the message was located. I dropped in and there by the door was the item I had been looking for. The owner, who was being the counter asked it she could help me. I asked about her returning my call. She said, ‘Oh we don’t return calls. We only use our answering machine to give directions to our store’. I told her she lost a sale, She is now out of business.

    2. I don’t find that shopping local is fundamentally different than anyplace else. Every shop is local to someone 🙂

      I find that customer service depends on the store. I buy all of my suits from Bangkok. Excellent custom tailor at a fraction of the price for off-the-rack suits. There was one error and he promptly fixed it at his expense. Needless to say, I recommended his store to everyone that I meet who needs/wants custom clothing.

  8. I’ve been a part of implementing some of those online business sites myself. Typically, the client company had been operating with a telephone staff that handled orders and customer service at the same time. If you, their customer, encountered a problem, you could talk live to the same crew that took the order to begin with.

    I get called in after the company does a survey and finds that a large majority of its calls are for routine operations that could now be handled by that there new Web thing. So I’m set to work devising a site that allows the customer to do routine operations, like checking an account balance or booking a hotel weekend, online. We put the phone bank number in the Contact Us section of the site, for those with more complex business to conduct.

    After implementation we get another request: now that fewer telephone staff are needed they are spending more time on CSR than in complex orders. And, guess what: we surveyed again, and we found that a large percentage of the service requests could by taken care of with a FAQ page on the site. So we implement one, content to know that now the most experienced and competent phone staff are free to work on complex orders and intricate service requests.

    But what the client company bean counters really do after we have accomplished all of this work is to fire the whole phone staff and change the contact number to point to an offshore call center. Customers with orders that still need to be handled by staff now just go somewhere friendlier, while customers with problems can now vainly rant at script-reading “Br-r-r-r-randon” halfway around the world.

    And this, folks, is what happened to your customer service.

  9. I’m a bit conflicted on this. I also believe that customer service has declined in recent years, but there’s always the perception that the “good old days” were way better than they actually were. Pre-internet customer service consisted of long distance calls (sometimes that you had to pay for yourself to non-800 numbers) and writing letters that frequently produced no results or took huge periods of time even if they did ultimately work out. For all intensive purposes, if you couldn’t resolve the issue right at the point-of-contact it was going to be a drawn-out process that frequently would end in frustration. Nowadays, we expect much quicker resolutions and that contributes to the frustration.

    1. You beat me to the punch. If the only measure is the number of complaints then that does not necessarily mean the customer service has gotten worse; it may have even gotten better. It only means that people complain more. It could be that when call centers are relatively new and rare, when there were no chat, email or user forums, when customer service often meant talking to someone on the phone or in person during bankers hours often at their own expense, that people were more resigned to not getting satisfaction.

  10. I won’t even talk to outsourced, vendored call centers – they infuriate me. Politically correct or not, I refuse to talk to somebody in India or some third world country who just doesn’t get the lingo, parlance or whatever you want to call it. I’m sick of saying “excuse me” (because I can’t understand them) and listening to the repetitive, phoney apologies before the problem is even talked about. When we finally get to the problem, they again repeat the apologies and seem to block out the issue entirely. I don’t need you to thank me for being a customer with no acknowledgement of how to FIX the problem. Stop talking about the wrong things and L-I-S-T-E-N to what I need ! I usually end up hanging up at this point.

    1. Many of the airline’s moved their travel agency desks overseas. It was a disaster. These desks use to be the best of best that the airlines had in their reservations department. I could call, get something handled and be done to move on to the next client. Then I would get ‘Susie’ in Mumbai who would get incensed when I would ask her to repeat what she was saying and then had to question what she was telling me and me correcting her before I would just hang up with nothing resolved, it caused a mess. United has now moved their agency back to the US and AA was moving theirs, but I haven’t had the need to call to find out. I actually got tears in my eyes when I got a US based agent at the UA agency desk. What a difference!

      1. Unfortunately the poor unsuspecting passengers who have no agency contact or are not “elite” mileage members are still stuck with overseas calling centers. Personally, I refuse to give any passenger that needs to phone my airline a general 800 phone number. I give them the phone numbers that only “elite” membership have. I’ve waited while they call and rarely, if ever, does the US based phone agent refuse to handle the call. If the airlines see fit to take care of only their most “important” customers (of which the definition should be EVERY customer), than I will use that definition for passengers that need my help…….every passenger is “important” enough if they paid for a ticket and there is a problem that needs to be resolved. I absolutely will not fob it off on someone else unless it is totally out of my area altogether.

        1. An agent friend who does only corporate has given me special elite line numbers for carriers that I don’t sell very often. I always identify myself as an agent and have received excellent service from those numbers even though I am not working on an elite’s ticket.

  11. I’m firmly convinced a large part of the problem (even in-house) is the “quality of life” being hired or even those doing the hiring. When I was “interviewed” for a changeover from another department into customer service, the person doing the interviewing could hardly speak English – and that was 15 years ago; I shutter at what’s out there now doing the interviewing.

    And it’s not just new-hires or younger people – I’m seeing more and more coworkers of all ages and from all walks of life who lack simple manners, any urgency to solve problems and general apathy towards their job requirements; they just come in to do the bare minimum, get paid and take advantage of those free flight benefits. I’m appalled at the treatment I’ve seen given to passengers, the inability to speak properly (grammar, clarity or with any sense of empathy, no eye contact, etc. – it’s like nails on a blackboard to me).

    Complain to supervisors ?…..I’ve been met with disdain and arguments “why are you so concerned about it, just concentrate on your own work” (this after the person I’m complaining about dumped a major problem on me because they couldn’t handle it). Needless to say, I never complained again; if Management doesn’t see the problem far be it from me to point it out. I just watch everything run off the rails and concentrate on helping the customers that end up on my line. (lucky for them). Unfortunately I have to sit through endless briefings about how our customer service complaints are high (they seem never to address the troublemakers but lump us altogether). Though recently supervisors are “walking the floor” to observe things, the same apathetic, lazy employees are still with us. I know it’s not going to be a perfect world or workplace but honestly, if those in authority and management CARED, things might improve.

    1. you & i must work at the same place!
      the inability to speak properly is what riles me up: “Where you be going?” “You ain’t got no bags?” “You ID?” These are all things i hear daily from my coworkers. it makes my ears bleed.
      i’ve received the same responses from Management, as well. and then i’ve shot back, “As long as i’m doing their work AND mine, i WILL be concerned about it.”

      i feel that passengers that get in my line are lucky, too. but then i get the horrible customer who doesn’t like the answer i give, or how quickly i process them with minimal small talk and dilly-dallying, or who is just a bad person, and they are so mean and rude and condescending that i wonder why i even bother. maybe i’ll just be an idiot like the guy next to me.

      1. Right – on all points…….I could truly write a book. It is really distressing to work “with”, next to people who have very poor customer contact skills. One cannot tune it out altogether but in order to keep my job and not look/sound like a complainer or a non-team player, I have to suffer in silence (though in certain employee circles we commiserate with one another). I truly don’t know how they were interviewed and/or hired but then again, I work for an airline that does nothing but hit us over the head repeatedly about how diverse and tolerant they are – all well and good but please, hire people who meet the criteria, not just anything that breathes to meet a quota.

  12. My very first thought is the person answering the phone usually doesn’t have it within their power to actually help you(?). Empowering these employees will go a long way making their customers happy. “How may I help you?” “I’m terribly sorry Ms. MB, I will take care of this right away!.” Then DO it! I know, I know..I’m an idealist…

    1. I used to work at a call center for a major cell phone provider, and I can tell you first hand that the agents probably don’t have the ability to help you. The reason for this, it turns out, is that most of the time, if you call and say, “I need this fixed, and I want compensation,” the instinct of the Customer Service Rep is to fix your issue and compensate you, and that gets expensive. It is also unfortunately true that when you go out of your way to help a customer who needs it, other customers who just want a freebie get wind of it and start trying to trick the company.
      Example: “My phone doesn’t work. You’ve sent me 3 replacement phones, and they don’t work either. Can I have an upgrade?” This is reasonable. It also means that customers who just want a new phone will start calling and saying the same thing to get a free upgrade. So the companies in question solve the problem by removing the agents’ ability to give out upgrades. Now the people who have a legitimate problem are frustrated, and customer service scores drop.

  13. Right now I am at war with my health insurance company, Blue Shield of California. They are too busy to answer the phone and tell you to use their online site. I have sent 5 messages that were to be answered within 48 hours. I have heard back on one and it said, we took care of your issue. Really, which one? I have to call them today regarding a procedure I have to have. I HAVE to have an answer and waiting 5 weeks, which is where I am on my 4 other email message due to me within 48 hours, I can’t use their online service. Customer service? I think not!

  14. as long as consumers treat Customer Service agents like moronic, uneducated, 2nd class citizens, there will be a decline in service levels. i get called “stupid” at least once a week (for a few years post-9/11, there was usually a lovely b—- word added to the end of it.). one thing i’m NOT is stupid. just because i wear a uniform and a nametag, it does not mean i lack intelligence.

    i have my BA, as do many of my coworkers. the majority of the time, i have a higher education than my bosses. so what? i also find it miserable to be stuck in an office setting, behind a desk, doing endless paperwork, answering phones, etc…So i chose a job that gave me flexibility and benefits (both of which have been drastically reduced), but not much respect. that does not give Customers the right to treat me with disrespect, however.

    in addition, seeing how Customers behave towards us now doesn’t exactly attract the best-and-brightest, as who would want to be snapped at and talked down to every day, for less pay than Starbucks or Jamba Juice? so our hiring pools get smaller, with less-qualified, less-desirable applicants, and we don’t have much to choose from.
    until people realize that we are deserving of courtesy, and until they vote with their wallets, they can expect service levels to indeed go downhill. sad, but true.

    1. I always said that everyone should have a job in retail or a restaurant at least once in their life.
      I just quit a crummy part-time job – I also have a BA and am retired military but people would talk to me like I had “stupid” written on my head. This was normally when they submitted paperwork that was improperly filled out and was late. So you are going to yell at me because you don’t know what to put in the block that asks “country of citizenship” and you are going to fill the form out in pencil when it clearly states to fill it out in ink?
      Yes, go ahead at yell at me for the $14.30 per hour I make and don’t forget I haven’t had a raise in 5 years.

  15. everyone seems to complain about poor customer service, but very few are willing to pay for good service. Why do businesses use foreign call centers, because it would add to the price of an item to pay Americans to do the work. With consumers changing brand loyalty for a few cents can you really blame the companies? I have this argument every time my wife wants to shop for groceries at WalMart

  16. My favorite customer service issue was a roadside assistance plan I had a number of years ago. I had a flat on the interstate in the middle of nowhere and called the 800 number for assistance. I was connected to a very nice representative in India who told me that he could not send anyone if I could not give him the zip code of my location. I asked about using my mobile phone to locate me and he told me no assistance without a zip code. As I was somewhere south of Montgomery Alabama and north of Mobile I had no clue as to the zip. So no help for me as I could not make the man understand I had no way to get the zip code. An Alabama State Trooper stopped and changed the tire for me. (I was recuperating from major surgery at the time and did not have the strength to change it myself.) And I cancelled that assistance plan.

    1. That’s reprehensible! As a woman frequently traveling alone that would have scared me and I’m not easily scared. I have roadside assistance so I DON”T have to feel scared, someone will be on the way.

      1. I have relatives in rural North Carolina. Many roads do not have street lights. Back before cell phones, my Uncle trained his daughters in firearm usage and safety so that if they had a automobile breakdown, they wouldn’t be in exactly that situation.

        1. I learned that value of that training when I worked in a bayou town in Louisiana. But I never travel across state lines with a firearm because the laws vary so wildly from state to state.

      2. I now have service through my insurance company who will only use a US based call center and locates me by my cell phone. Had to use it twice in 5 years and it has worked like a charm–and quite quickly too!

  17. It’s evident from many comments that once again, the customer is left doing all the work – repetitive explaining of their problem,having to hang up and repeatedly call again and again, escalating to someone who understands English (if they’re lucky). We pay for services yet people who get paid to answer the phones or be visible or helpful are useless. Geez, what am I supposed to do, get educated on every aspect of life ??? – DMV, airlines, health insurance companies, utilities, you name it. Where do I begin ?

    1. There’s a scam going on. The current customer service paradigm of overseas call centers don’t work in any reasonable way. Customers call multiple times ultimately driving up costs for the company undermining any savings and the customers are unhappy to boot. So what’s the point?

      The point is that some executive or manager got a promotion for the outsourcing project. Their boss probably had stock in the outsourcing company. After the project is launched, they move onto other things with the accomplishment in their resume and money in their pockets.. The successor and customers are left holding the bag. The successor tells the CEO that the system isn’t working and the CEO responds: “I’m not spending any more money! We’re losing money on customer service as it is!” They maybe try a different outsourcing service and then move on. Repeat. As long as the CEO and company stock is ok, they don’t fix it.

      The whole country is in a mess like this.

  18. it is sometimes very hard to complain online – no way to find customer service contacts via email, but there are usually phone numbers someplace.
    i just had to take advantage of that this evening… someone used my email address to subscribe to netflix. no way to contact them via email, or even unsubscribe, so i had to call. thankfully, netflix will now block that email address in their system, and “this call may be recorded for quality assurance” is the way i operate!

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