"Please continue to hold. We value your call." Recognize that omnipresent mantra of bad customer service? I'm sorry I didn't understand your answer. Please hold for the next available representative. Are you still there?
When American customer satisfaction survey findings made headlines in May few of us were surprised to see slumping numbers. Ironically, Time Warner Cable company and Comcast, 2 mega corporations applying to the Senate Judiciary for merger rights, led their industry in bad customer service ratings. That's remarkable because their industries, subscription TV and internet, are among ten that rate the very worst for customer service. If you've been on the phone with either company you already knew that. If you've ever tried to resolve an issue with your phone, television, internet, utility service , airline, insurance, or financial service you've probably written a blog like this yourself---in your mind or on paper. Really. What ever happened to customer service!
Bad customer service isn't just a growing consumer issue that we encounter in stores or on the phone. We confront it on so many platforms in our lives. We experience it so many different ways that we're almost conditioned to expect it. TV ads that interrupt our news and programs clog up 15 minutes and 30 seconds per hour now. In many markets customers pay upwards of 70$ a month for cable only to encounter longer and longer delays in viewing. That's not good service. Increasingly higher Internet bills do nothing to stop the proliferation of pop up ads, cookies, and all the other unwanted delays and privacy invasions that stand between us and the ease of enjoyment we’re paying for. We’re encountering bad service in the skies and on the roads as well. Airline fees are climbing higher than the Kepler spacecraft while America’s airline service ratings sink lower than almost any other country. Most roads are funded with taxes but drivers who pay tolls or special fees for hot lanes with hopes of buying their way out of congestion too often find ongoing dissatisfaction. In Texas last year drivers spent 41 hours in traffic jams, in Honolulu they waited 60. Bad customer service is more than a source of disgruntlement costing us time and convenience today it costs us our privacy, impacts mobility and colors our worldview.
Why is American customer service so often bad? Media debated that question with sincerity in the first decade of this century. While US NEWS came out urging customers to fight back against bad service others blamed a slowing economy or a general breakdown in social civility for the problems. Ironically The New Yorker magazine pointed a finger at the poor customer service of other companies in 2010 when they wrote, "service is on the decline because consumers have been conditioned to demand low prices, and low prices usually mean small payrolls and cheap wages" yet the magazine was panned as the purveyor of its own terrible customer service by Forbes blogger, Tom Post three years later. Since 2010, there's been more media emphasis on whose customer service is the worst than there's been outrage about its general erosion.
Maybe we've changed as a culture through exposure to pervasive bad customer service. In this video from 2010 the frustrations were still fresh. The TV news segment shows a middle aged woman pushed to her breaking point by Comcast's slow impersonal service as she marches into their offices with a hammer. Watch this video now though and you might be pushed to your own breaking point waiting through the ad before the content streams and finding yourself forced to allow CBS to put storage and tracking cookies on your computer. Service frustration isn’t newsworthy anymore. We can all relate.
Even in this modern atmosphere of fundamentally dis-satisfactory service experts tell us that customer service expectations are at all time highs. We know that the customer is always right and we’re losing our patience with not being heard. What ever happened to customer service? Its basic principals are alive and well and so is the customer. Though we may react to bad service today less with a hammer and more with sarcasm or irony (the Air Canada mishandled luggage video that 3 million+ people saw in April of this year is an example) social media is allowing us to effectively change the dynamic. Communications professional Adam Selig writes great guidelines for customers pursuing what they want from a resistant company through social media. Are you one of the 85% of customers who now take individual action when your customer needs aren't met?
Companies that neglected customer service are beginning to realize that social media is enabling their customer to put their brand at great risk by sharing bad experiences with far more people. In this nitty gritty explanation of the new dynamic American Express explains to reluctant businesses that happy customers in today's market will go on to become business advocates. They won't just tell close friends that they're happy they'll tell the Internet world. In fact, two in three Americans (66%), they say, will increase their spending by 13% if given the experience of positive and supportive customer interactions. Will social media bring back customer service? It's certainly grabbing the attention of business analysts who lay out a strong compelling financial case. Profit is forever the business bottom line and if happy customers really do drag that line higher then the return of great service is on our horizon!
Update September 2014--new customer service trends show that 66% of us switched brands but 82% said it didn't need to happen. This website offers a peek at the customer service discussion going on behind the brand and the recommendations brands are getting to improve their service in 2015.
Update April 2015---Comcast didn't bargain for bad customer service experiences being used to boost opposition to their request for merger with Time Warner. Do you have something to say about the proposed merger? Comments are still being accepted and public opinion makes a difference at the FCC as exemplified by the February ruling on Internet regulations. And they didn't think that financial lobbying power was the underdog in a battle with public opinion. The people win!
Update April 2015---Airlines can't get it right according to new 2015 study.
Update Sept 2015---Forbes takes aim at faux attempts to improve customer service. From the opinion piece criticizing United Airlines' target for improved service: "there’s a big difference between executives talking about what they’re going to do to improve customer service and actually improving customer service."
Update May 2017---In this article the Atlantic explains why airlines can provide bad service. Somehow explanations just don't make it any better.