Why does everyone hate calling customer service and who is to blame for it being so bad?
There’s a long answer and a short answer to that question. The long answer is my book.
The somewhat shorter answer is that in the past 30 years or so, as customer service has become a mostly
telephone-based industry, companies have tried to find the cheapest, most efficient ways of doing it. Part of
the result is the long hold times we all hate, as well as being passed around from person to person or
country to country within a company, and automated agents that make it hard for you even to talk to a real
human being. Still, while companies have achieved their corporate goals of saving money, they have not
paid much attention to the long-term effects of all that dehumanizing, time-wasting treatment on the
psyches of the people who make the calls (customers), and the people who handle the calls for companies
(agents). But the long-term is now, and the corporate world is just beginning to acknowledge the price of
their customer service missteps so far.
As for who is to blame, after all my research, interviews, travels and writing, I firmly believe that most of
the blame lies at the very top of the corporate ladder. I met many people who work in customer service who
would like to do it differently. They know they aren’t giving their customers the best care possible. But they
aren’t respected for their role in their companies, and therefore aren’t given the support and resources they
need to do it right. The way that companies treat the customer service function and customer service
workers is the way they treat their customers. So until the customer service function in the company is
valued and not handled as an afterthought, and until the customer service workers have more status within
their companies, the problems will continue.
Which companies have you found have the best and worst customer service?
That is a common question I get. No one company is 100 percent perfect at it. But there are some
companies that are touted for getting it more right than wrong. Zappos, Apple, FedEx and UPS, Amazon,
and Starbucks are among those who get more praise than complaints. But they get their share of naysayers
Generally, internet retailers and overnight shipping have some of the highest scores in annual customer
satisfaction surveys. Cable and satellite TV and cell phone companies generally receive the lowest scores,
along with the airlines. One company I talk a lot about in the book is Comcast. They are actually working
hard to improve their dismal reputation for customer service. And while they are not there yet, their story is
an interesting illustration of how to change things in a big company like that. Social networking has played
a role in that, since they had some early very notorious PR disasters that became famous on YouTube and
other parts of the web.
What steps can companies take to ensure better customer service?
Most companies need to pay a lot more attention to the entire experience their customers have.
Customer service departments evolved from the role of the receptionist. As toll-free phone numbers
became the norm among companies in the 1980s, and as desktop computers became business staples
around that same time, companies suddenly were forced to provide their customers with a place to call and
people to answer the phones. More often than not, that meant that customer service workers were just seen
as glorified receptionists. They had very little authority to change things in companies, even though they
were often the first to hear of problems. And they were not thought of as marketers, even though they were
often the only people inside companies that customers ever encountered.
Thankfully, there is now a trend among most forward-looking companies to pay attention to the entire
interaction a customer has with a company. In business jargon, that is called the customer experience — a
very important new concept for making our lives better as customers. Paying attention to the customer
experience means that companies are beginning to see the trajectory of and connections among all the ways
we as customers come into contact with them, from advertising and marketing, to product development and
sales, to customer service. And companies are beginning to look at it all from the customer’s perspective
first, instead of from their own perspective first. So they see customer service as a thread that runs through
all they do, that drives all their decisions, instead of as a necessary evil that is tacked on to the end of their
business after they’ve made a sale. Time and again, the companies that have embraced that kind of thinking
about their customers, seeing their relationships with customers as long-term and acting accordingly, are
the companies that have endured and weathered all storms in the marketplace, including the recent
How has the internet, particularly social media, changed the way businesses handle their customer
The internet has been one of the most important tools customers have ever had in standing up to companies
that have treated them wrong. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook and Yelp have
fundamentally changed the way that companies deal with their customers. I see it as mostly a good
influence. Companies can’t hide bad policies, products or treatment of customers behind customer service
firewalls as easily anymore. Customers have more power to join together. They are not as isolated from
each other in dealing with companies and so can see when they are not the only ones who have had
problems. It really is a revolution that I think will make it harder for companies to get away with some of
what we all have come to hate in customer service. But it will take time.
Also, I think that businesses are just starting to see the amazing intelligence they can gather if they would
just listen to their customers more closely and more seriously. The customer service department is a
company’s built-in conduit for that. And social networking allows them to do it in real time, where before
they had to spend tons of money on expensive and not-always-reliable focus groups, or other sorts of
annoying surveys. I don’t think social networking will replace that. But again, I think it is forcing all
listening by companies to become more customer-friendly.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about customer service improving?
Since doing the book, I am more optimistic than I was when I started. And I tried to show some hope in the
book, since people are so bitter about their bad encounters with customer service. Everyone has a story to
tell about their most recent or most horrible customer service encounter. I want my book to help people see
that things can be better, and that we as customers need to ask for more and expect more. But again, I think
the main thing that has to happen for real improvement in customer service is that companies have to
elevate the role of customer service in their corporate hierarchies and value its amazing ability to contribute
more to the bottom line as well as to the general tone of how we treat each other in public. That is a tall
order. I can’t say I am entirely sure it will happen. But I am convinced that it is the only way the lasting
change needed will be possible.