Customer service

Customer service buying guide

Last updated: April 2013
Getting started

Getting started

Need help? Good luck. More and more, airlines are burying their phone numbers, cable companies are sidestepping your calls, and retailers are steering you to online FAQs. It's all about saving money--theirs, not yours. Although recorded messages insist "your call is very important to us," many companies are driving a wedge between themselves and their patrons through poor use of technology and inadequate training of staff. The Better Business Bureau logged 950,000 million complaints against North American businesses last year, up from 895,000 in 2011. Telecomm companies, auto dealers, and collection agencies drew the most.

In a new nationwide survey, shoppers told us what they dislike most about today's brand of care. We also crunched numbers from our studies of 21 industries to identify the companies that were best and worst for customer service. And we asked experts about the most effective ways to complain. Among our findings:

Frustration runs high

Sixty-four percent of respondents said that during the previous 12 months they had left a store because service was poor, and 67 percent had hung up on customer service without having had their problem addressed.

Callers want to reach a person

Seventy-one percent of survey respondents were "tremendously annoyed" when they couldn't reach a human on the phone; 65 percent felt that way about rude sales-people. And 56 percent felt that way about having to take multiple phone steps to reach the right place.

Demographic differences appear

Women were more annoyed than men when they couldn't reach a person by phone; men were especially annoyed by customer-service phone reps who pitched unrelated goods or services; people 50 and older were more annoyed than others by convoluted voice-messaging systems.

Face-to-face is out of favor

Only 16 percent of Americans prefer to deal with a customer-service problem in person. Twenty percent favor the phone; 2 percent, live chat. Fewer still prefer e-mail. Sixty percent of respondents said that their preferred method of contact depends on the nature of the problem.

Walmart and Sam's Club win the booby prize

One or both were among the worst for customer service in eight industries, including appliances, electronics, cell phones, and supermarkets.

"Abominable" is how retail industry consultant Jack Abelson describes the state of customer service in the U.S. today. He attributes the decline to corporate America's focus on cutting costs instead of increasing revenue. "There is an almost complete failure to recognize and appreciate the value people can bring to the equation," said Abelson, who terms good customer service "a profit producer."

Tales from comments on our website, ConsumerReports.org, reveal that some big-name companies have plenty to learn.

  • When Mabel Eng of Bellerose, N.Y., bought the wrong version of the Bible at Walmart, a customer-service rep told her that books weren't returnable as a matter of policy as well as law. Eng asked for those rules in writing, and for the next 20 minutes, the employee searched in vain for the policy and a supervisor. Eventually, the rep agreed to try to credit Eng's charge card but doubted that would work. It did. As of early May, Walmart had no response to our question about Eng's experience.
  • Bob Smith of Plano, Texas, contacted Dell when his 2½-year-old computer died while under warranty. After two weeks of conversations, Dell agreed to send a replacement, which took a month to arrive and was a different, refurbished model. "I must say bye to Dell," Smith said. In response, Dell said it issues a refurbished computer if the broken one is more than 90 days old.
  • During a move from the West Coast, Tom Jackson of Chattanooga, Tenn., contacted AT&T to end his landline phone service. He spent six hours on the phone, starting with a rep in India, where he faced a language barrier, and ending with a supervisor stateside. During that time, he was disconnected several times and had to repeat his story from scratch. "AT&T isn't stupid," Jackson said. "I think they do this on purpose, hoping customers just give up." An AT&T spokesman said that Jackson's experience was "far from typical" and "not acceptable" and that his initial responses may have caused him to be routed to an offshore center by mistake.

What qualifies as good service?

Stellar service starts with the person in charge, Abelson, the industry consultant says. If he or she is truly interested in customer service, the company will provide an easy-to-find phone number that consumers can call at all reasonable hours to speak with a representative who's in a position to help.

To see what differentiates the best from the rest, we had our mystery shoppers anonymously contact a handful of companies and record their attempts to get an answer to a simple question. Most experiences were pleasant, but some weren't perfect. Among the lows--and highs:

At USAirways, one of our losers for customer service, an automated voice told a caller that she'd be on hold for about 3 minutes, yet she waited almost 20. At a Walmart, a caller was disconnected while waiting to find out whether a certain coffeemaker was available. When she called back, the rep checked a computer and said, gruffly, that the item wasn't in stock. He checked the sales floor only when asked, then admitted there were "a few on the shelf" but didn't offer to set one aside.

On the other hand, reps at L.L.Bean and Zappos were quick and courteous. Asked whether the company would fix an old, broken duffel bag, L.L.Bean reps offered to replace the bag or refund the price. Asked about shoe sizes, Zappos reps answered fast. For one shopper, even the Zappos phone tree was fun. One option: "Press 5 to hear joke of the day." ("What kind of shorts do clouds wear? Thunderwear!")

Are consumers too whiny?

The jury's out. Among those saying yea is Patrick Maguire, author of the blog "I'm Your Server Not Your Servant." "Ill-mannered adults are breeding, modeling, and enabling a whole new generation of arrogant, narcissistic, selfish humans who think the world revolves around them," he said. "If everyone worked a mandatory six-month stint in customer service before receiving a high-school diploma, the world would be a much better place."

But Emily Yellin, author of "Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us" (Free Press, 2009), says that people are probably no less civil to one another than in the past. It's just that today everyone has a bigger megaphone, so more people see and hear the incivility. The anonymity afforded by the Internet, she says, allows people to be far less polite than they would be face-to- face. But Yellin notes that Americans were so rude to phone operators at the turn of the 20th century that laws had to be passed to keep customers from swearing at them.

Scott M. Broetzmann, president and CEO of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, doesn't think consumers are asking for too much. His company conducts customer-rage studies in collaboration with Arizona State University's Center for Service Leadership. Usually, Broetzmann says, wronged customers just want the problem fixed, plus a measure of "psychological currency."

Data from ASU's rage studies covering 2003 to 2007 show that 78 percent of consumers want an assurance that the problem won't recur or an explanation as to why it happened in the first place, and 70 percent want the company to thank them for their business. But few people said they got their wish. For instance, 25 percent got an apology; 20 percent, an explanation; and 17 percent, a thank you.

Judging by our survey results, many consumers are actually quite patient. Although 2 percent of respondents admit to becoming very frustrated by any wait on the phone, 37 percent said that they're willing to hold for 6 to 10 minutes, and 9 percent said they were fine holding for 20 minutes or more.

People seem even more willing to forgive a cable guy or appliance repairer who doesn't show up when promised. Thirty-seven percent of those surveyed said they'd wait 30 to 59 minutes beyond the scheduled appointment window before considering the delay unacceptable; 18 percent said they'd accept a 1- or 2-hour delay; and 7 percent said they'd tolerate a wait of 2 or more hours.

America's top gripes

We surveyed almost 1,000 consumers nationwide to find the customer-service problems that infuriate people most. Respondents rated 12 practices on a scale of 0 (not annoying at all) to 10 (tremendously annoying). Differences in scores of 0.4 or less are not significant. The inability to speak with a real person on the phone was especially irritating to women and respondents 50 and older. Women were also more likely to be annoyed by unapologetic employees, the need to wade through automated phone-menu prompts to get help, and an inability to find a salesperson in a store. Men were more likely to be annoyed by customer-service sales pitches for unrelated goods and services. The youngest consumers in our survey, those 18 to 34, had the lowest tolerance for repair people who didn't show up on time. Thirty-five percent were tremendously annoyed by that situation, at least 10 percent more than for any other age group.

Getting the service you need

How to rattle a company's cage

Sixty-one percent of Americans surveyed for an Arizona State University study said that complaining about a product or service was not worthwhile, but George Starr of Covington, Ky., wasn't among them. When Covington's seven-year-old rear-projection Sony TV died long after its warranty had expired, he learned that the problem might have been part of a broader problem discussed on a Facebook page called "I have a defective Sony TV." He e-mailed the company, which quickly sent a technician to investigate, and two weeks later he had a $1,500 replacement 55-inch flat-screen TV free of charge. "I'm a very happy customer," Starr said.

Consumers have new tools with which to express themselves. Internet forums can turn one person's headache into a corporate migraine. Companies as different as Samsung and Domino's Pizza are on social-networking sites so that they can monitor what's said about them--and they often respond to a concern before it can go viral. Bad news travels fast. According to the ASU study, each dissatisfied complainant spreads the word to an average of about 18 people.

"Twitter has become the go-to brand for customer support," said Marsha Collier, author of "The Ultimate Online Customer Service Guide" (Wiley, 2011). "I had a question about OnStar, tweeted it out, and got the answer within the hour. Some brands will respond within seconds."

Many companies use social-media monitoring software to scan Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs constantly for brand references. And those companies have customer-service agents dedicated to those sites, says Jeff Brady, a public-relations expert who works with Working Solutions, a Dallas company that trains service representatives.

Some businesses are giving consumers a wider range of ways to reach them. L.L.Bean, for example, posts its toll-free phone number on all of its Web pages (a convenience few companies offer) and allows e-mail queries and live chat with agents. You can even leave a message for an agent who will call you back.

User communities are another way to catch a company's eye. Verizon Wireless, for example, encourages customers to post questions and comments and air grievances about its products and services. Verizon representatives frequently join the discussions.

Dedicated websites like Yelp, which let customers rate businesses and sound off about experiences (and invite companies to respond), are another option. Here are more ways to solve a problem.

Make your pitch in person

It might not be the favorite way to resolve a problem, but it can be effective. "On the phone, we use only 45 percent of the communication tools we use in person," customer-service expert Emily Yellin said. Missing are subtleties that break down barriers--a smile or tone of voice. "The opportunity for things to go awry increases when you're not face-to-face," Yellin said.

Bypass automated phone menus

Websites such as DialAHuman.com and GetHuman.com list customer-service numbers and tell how to bypass automated prompts to reach a real person. Another free service, LucyPhone, lets you avoid long waits on hold. You enter the company's name or phone number and give LucyPhone your phone number, and the service calls you back when a live representative is on the line.

Don't take things personally

Yours might be one of 100 requests a rep handles in a day, and that person may be frazzled. Getting mad won't help. If you realize the agent lacks the necessary authority, ask where to go for help.

Keep a record

Note when you called, the name and location of everyone you spoke with, how many times you were put on hold (and how long you waited for someone to pick up), and the responses you received. That way, if you need to follow up, you can say, "I spoke to John in your Chicago office at 12:20 and after a 30-minute wait he said he never heard of anyone who had a problem like mine."

Take it to the next level

If you get the runaround, tell the agent you want to "escalate" the status of your complaint. That's a guaranteed attention grabber and a reason for a quick fix because agents can be criticized for bumping too many problems upstairs.

Contact the CEO's office

"They don't like getting calls," said Shep Hyken, a consultant who speaks to corporations about service. "They want the problem solved before it reaches them." But when top executives (or their assistants) hear from an unhappy consumer, they'll often be sure that person receives a response.

Be persistent

Speak loudly and often. Repeat your story on social-network sites if necessary. Companies can hide your comments on Facebook but not on Twitter. If you're using Twitter, use hashtag keywords like "#Sears" and "#custserve" to make them searchable. Proper "netiquette" suggests good manners no matter how annoyed you are.

Give praise

Thank a company for a good outcome, especially if you've griped publicly. That way, you won't be branded a whiner.

Consumer Reports tests itself

It's easy to cast stones, but how is our own customer service? We had a freelance reporter ask Consumer Reports an easy question: What's the best deal on a one-year subscription to the magazine? The lowest posted price was $26. Here's what happened:

  • By phone: An automated system picked up after one ring and offered three options: "1. Change an address"; "2. Subscribe"; or "3. All others." She pressed 2, and a human picked up so fast that she couldn't tell what song had been playing. The rep said there were no discounts but offered 10 issues for $20.
  • By e-mail: Our reporter couldn't find her answer among the 30 FAQs at ConsumerReports.org. She then clicked on the "send us an e-mail" link under "contact us" and submitted her question. The site says to allow at least five business days for an answer. Within three days, she received a response similar to the one she got on the phone.
  • Facebook and Twitter: Queries posted on our Facebook page and tweeted to us in early May hadn't been answered by the next week.

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