The problem with customer service

Our new survey shows that company promises and even new technology haven’t made the customer-service experience much less painful

Published: July 29, 2015 06:00 AM
Navigating your way to a satisfying customer-service result takes stamina and strategy.
Illustration: C.J.Burton

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Almost everyone has to deal with customer service at some point. In fact, 88 percent of the people surveyed recently by the Consumer Reports National Research Center had done so in the past year—to question a bill, request a repair, return ill-fitting merchandise, and more.

And many of them didn’t like the experience and had a problem with customer service. Half of the people we surveyed reported leaving a store without making their intended purchase because of poor service. Fifty-seven percent were so steamed that they hung up the phone without a resolution. Women were more annoyed than men, as were people over age 45.

(Looking for customer-service advice? Find out what works for career customer-service experts—including Consumer Reports “acquisition” pros—on the job or at home.)

We live in a world of instant connection, where owners of Amazon Kindle Fire tablets can instantly summon a tech adviser live onscreen by tapping a “Mayday” button, for example, and Neiman Marcus customers snap photos of shoes in magazines to automatically search for them in the store’s inventory. So why are we still so frustrated?

“Many companies today are simply awful at resolving customer problems, despite investments in whiz-bang technologies and considerable advertising about their customer focus,” said Scott Broetzmann, president of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting. “Customers spend valuable time and invest considerable effort—and get little in return.”

Satisfaction with service is actually no higher than it was in the 1970s, according to research from Arizona State University. The latest version of the school’s “customer rage” study found that companies are doing all the right things but in all the wrong ways. Think 800-numbers with overly complex automated response menus, agents with limited decision-making authority, and understaffed call centers.

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More consumers are yelling when dealing with customer service.

Do we take those survey results as a sign that service is improving or that we’ve grown desensitized to brusque treatment?

All of that chaos can cause nasty behavior. There has been a significant increase in incidents of consumers yelling, even cursing, at reps, the ASU study revealed.

But it may also breed futility. The same study found that the number of Americans who think that complaining is worthwhile has fallen to 50 percent, from 61 percent, since 2011. Perhaps that’s why, when we compared some common service-related irritants (see below) with the results of a similar survey we conducted in 2011, we found that people were actually less piqued overall.

Jack Abelson, a retail-industry consultant, speculates that younger consumers, especially millennials, have never experienced top-flight care, so they don’t know what they’re missing. Other experts suggest that we’re less irked now that we’re becoming accustomed to serving ourselves, whether it’s at a grocery store checkout line or banking online.

“Companies are making it easier for customers to use simple solutions, like FAQs,” said Shep Hyken, a customer-care consultant. There are also online how-to videos that enable customers to get info quickly.

The Better Business Bureau logged fewer complaints last year than in 2013, and nine of the 10 most trouble-prone industries saw declines (cable and satellite TV services were the exception). The reason for the drop, the bureau says, is increased proactivity by consumers, who are now more likely to check out a business first rather than complain later, and their new ability to lodge a complaint or post a review directly on the BBB site.

Prevention may be better than a cure, so try to be picky about where you do business.

Our subscribers often had to wait to to speak to a customer-service representative.
Photo: Getty Images

Consumer Reports Rates our own customer service

As hard as it is to admit, we know that even we fall short sometimes. Looking back at more than a year’s worth of correspondence with our subscribers, we saw that some took us to task, especially for:

• Extended phone waits

• Failure to respond to e-mail

• A phone number that’s difficult or sometimes impossible to find

• Recorded messages that say we’re busy, followed by an automatic disconnect.

“We are aware of our customers’ pain points and are committed to creating an excellent experience,” said Carolyn Clifford-Ferrara, vice president of operations. “We’ve significantly improved our phone wait times, with the majority under 30 seconds. Most e-mails now get a response within 24 hours. We’ve also added the Customer Care phone number on our website, and we’re making it easier to find in Consumer Reports magazine.” That starts now, so take this down: 800-333-0663.

What Americans hate most about bad customer service

Illustration: C.J.Burton

The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 1,016 adults about the pain points listed at right using a scale of 0 to 10, from “not annoying at all” to “tremendously irritating.”

A Silver lining? Whether they interacted in person, by phone, or by e-mail, fewer Americans were agitated over lousy service than they were in 2011, when we conducted a similar study. The percentage of those whofumed over various practices declined in almost every category, most notably the rudeness of salespeople and the inability to get a live person on the line.

The top irritants

Percentage highly annoyed

Can’t get a live person on the phone


Customer service is rude or condescending

75 (For in-store experiences, rudeness was highly annoying to 71 percent of respondents.)



Disconnected and unable to reach the same rep again


Transferred to a representative who can’t help or is wrong


Company doesn’t provide—or hides—customer-service phone number


Long wait on hold


Many phone-menu steps needed


Repeatedly asked for the same information


Proposed solution was useless


Salesperson ignored me


Unsure whether on hold or disconnected


Can’t speak with a supervisor


Phone menu doesn’t offer needed option


Voice-recognition system works poorly


Sales pitch for unrelated goods or services


Salesperson is too pushy



Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


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