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

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Christopher Elliott

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.

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.

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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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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Tokyo.

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