An illustration of various facial expressions to indicate happy, confused, and sad customers.
Illustration: Jason Schneider

Bob Solomon was counting the hours until he could start counting sheep in the new queen-size bed he’d ordered from Amazon. “I’d cleared out the old mattress and box spring, and hand-waxed the bedroom’s parquet floor to prepare for the delivery,” says Solomon, a CR member and retired professor from Alberta, Canada. But on the day the bed was guaranteed to be delivered, it never showed up. At least not at his address. “From outside my house, I could see the box sitting at a neighbor’s, about a block away,” he says.

It was too heavy for Solomon to carry and too large to fit into his car, so he reached out to the shipping company, Purolator, by phone and email. “They kept insisting that their GPS coordinates showed the box was at my home, and that if I just stepped outside I would see it,” he recalls. “I told them I was standing outside and it wasn’t there. But they ignored me.”


More than 24 hours, 12 emails, and many phone calls later, the shipping company admitted its mistake. But even then the company said delivering the bed would take three more days because it had to do a mandatory warehouse search first. “I told them, ‘This is crazy! This is illogical!’” Solomon says. “I felt so frustrated and ignored and mistreated that I canceled the order even though I really wanted the bed.” Amazon ultimately saved the day by delivering a new bed and extending Solomon’s Prime membership for his trouble. He was sleeping in his new bed two days later.

(Purolator told CR that it regrets the error and is reviewing its procedures to prevent this type of miscommunication in the future.)

More on Customer Service & Retail

Consumers have been frustrated by dismissive, unfair, and otherwise unacceptable customer service since the dawn of commerce. One of the earliest recorded complaints was lodged in 1750 B.C. by a Babylonian demanding a refund from a merchant who sent him copper ingots of inferior quality. “What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt?” the unhappy customer asked in an entreaty that was engraved into a clay tablet but would not be out of place in one of today’s online product reviews.

People eventually put their complaints on paper, then moved on to the telephone and email, but little else changed in the intervening 3,000 years. Now, however, social media and other forms of technology are beginning to radically reshape the customer service landscape, giving consumers powerful new tools to solve problems and make themselves heard.

Consider the experience of Jean-Luc Bourdon, a financial planner in Santa Barbara, Calif. When the Hertz car he’d reserved at the airport in Tahiti wasn’t available and he was forced to rent from another company, he called Hertz customer service and spoke to an agent who said the company would get back to him within days. Not satisfied with that response, Bourdon tweeted a message to the Hertz social media team. It responded immediately and referred him to another department, which ultimately refunded the amount he requested and awarded him enough points for a complimentary rental. (A Hertz spokesperson said that all of the company’s customer service agents are empowered to resolve any issue a customer may face.)

“My instinct is to call first because it can be a lot more efficient than back-and-forth messages over social media,” Bourdon says. “But when I really run into frustration, I find social media to be the best remedy.”

Apart from social media, companies are increasingly using other technologies to interact with customers. While some of these, such as web chats, have the potential to improve service, others are raising concerns about privacy and fairness, because they rely on data that may be inaccurate. (See “Paying With Our Privacy: When Technology Meets Customer Service,” below.) With so many ways to reach out to companies—from calling to chatting to email to posting on Facebook and Twitter—it pays to know how they can work for you—and potentially against you.

Decades of Discontent

Consumers have had it. More than half of Americans report that they’ve had a problem with a product or service in the past year. Of those, more than half said they were extremely or very upset by the experience, and a third reported feeling anxious, betrayed, or sad about it, according to the 2017 Customer Rage Study, conducted biannually by the consulting firm Customer Care Measurement & Consulting (CCMC) and the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Moreover, the study found that only 18 percent of people who’ve complained about problems were completely satisfied with the actions the company took to resolve them. That sorry satisfaction rate isn’t something new: It’s actually somewhat lower than the 22 percent of respondents who reported being completely satisfied 41 years ago.

Still, while the problems you might expect—waiting endlessly on hold, dealing with faulty voice recognition, jumping through hoops to cancel a service—are the source of many woes, experts say much of our present dissatisfaction stems from a complicated confluence of factors.

“Twenty years ago, a faucet was a chunk of metal that you expected would last 30 years,” says John Goodman, vice chairman of CCMC and the author of two books on customer service. “Now, you can talk to your faucet or wave your hand at it to get it to work. There’s technology in everything we buy.”

Many products today are interconnected, which can make it difficult to know where to turn when there’s a problem, says Kate Leggett, an analyst who covers customer service trends at the research and advisory firm Forrester Research. “You have to ask yourself if the problem is with the internet, the router, the product itself, or a combination of all three,” she says.

There’s also been a shift to self-service, because the basic questions we used to call about are easily answered by referring to the FAQ section of a company’s website or by watching a YouTube video. (An unofficial video on how to clean the Dyson V6 cordless stick vacuum, for instance, has 2.9 million views.)

“Now, by the time consumers contact customer service, they’ve exhausted the many ways available to find an answer,” Goodman says. “That means they’re likely dealing with a complex issue that by its nature is not easily solved.”

Experts say our discontent also may be linked in part to a handful of companies that have raised the customer service bar so high that we’ve come to expect a similar level of care from everyone we do business with. “Consumer expectations have risen because of the great personalized experiences companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Uber are delivering,” Leggett says. “So we’re no longer comparing the customer service of, say, one financial institution to another. We’re comparing the quality of service we get from a financial institution to the ease and simplicity of returning a product from Amazon.”

When to Tweet, Post, or Chat

When a company lets us down, most consumers—particularly those 35 and older—turn to the phone, according to an annual survey by the information technology firm Dimension Data. In an informal poll conducted by CR on Facebook and Twitter, a large majority of respondents said they preferred to contact a company by phone when they had a complaint, while only a small fraction said social media was their first choice. “When you’re really angry, you want to talk to someone and convey your rage,” Goodman says. “On the phone, I can also tell from the agent’s voice if he’s really going to help me or not. That doesn’t come through via email or other nonverbal channels.”

Of course, calling can come with its own frustrations, including phone trees, an eternity spent on hold, and being pingponged from person to person. The Customer Rage Study found that people are referred to a different contact 75 percent of the time they reach out to a company to complain, with customer satisfaction dropping each time.

In the CR poll, an online chat was the second most popular way to reach a company, after the phone. It’s true that response times, especially for basic questions, may be much quicker using a web chat than contacting a company by phone or email, but none of the CR members or customer service experts we talked with said that chatting was any more effective.

Social media lagged far behind phone calls, email, and web chats for a vast majority of people in CR’s informal poll and the Dimension Data report. But it appears to be a powerful secret weapon when it comes to customer service, many experts and consumers say.

“Smart consumers know that if they contact a company on Twitter or Facebook, they’ll get a better response and a faster response than they will if they call customer service,” says Sunil Gupta, co-chair of the Driving Digital Strategy executive program at Harvard Business School. “No one else knows when you call a company with a problem, but on social media a lot of people see the complaint, which is exactly what companies are worried about. It certainly is a way to get a company’s attention.”

What Consumers Really Want When Something Goes Wrong
To be treated with dignity
An assurance that my problem won’t be repeated
My product repaired/service fixed
To be talked to in everyday language, not a scripted response
Offending company puts itself in my shoes
An explanation of why the problem occurred
A thank-you for my business
An apology
My money back
Just to express my anger/tell my side of the story
Financial compensation for my lost time, inconvenience, or injury
Revenge

Source: 2017 Customer Rage Study.

Why Social Media Succeeds

Feedback from many CR members suggests that social media can be a highly effective way to resolve customer complaints, even when other approaches fail. When Lindsey Viscomi, a marketing executive from Vienna, Va., called JCPenney to sort out a billing problem, the company’s automated phone system told her she would be on hold for 45 minutes. She had a better idea. “I tweeted a message to JCPenney that their telephone wait time was nuts, and asked if someone could call me back,” Viscomi says. A representative quickly tweeted a reply and, after a few messages back and forth, the company credited her a refund. “I didn’t hang up the phone, because I was afraid to lose my place,” Viscomi says, “but the whole thing was resolved on Twitter in 20 minutes—before anyone ever answered my call.”

Viscomi has also used Twitter to resolve problems with companies including CVS, Delta, Lyft, and Nordstrom. Like many CR members, she notes that a key advantage of using social media is that it frees her from the frustration of navigating phone trees and being put on hold. “Social media is public, so you get a lot of eyeballs on your complaint,” she says. “I feel like it kind of lights a fire under the company to get back to you.”

Eighty-four percent of consumers who posted complaints on social media used Facebook and 26 percent used Twitter, according to the Customer Rage Study. CR members reported success with both platforms, and typically used the one where they were active.

Joey Davis, a CR member and telecommunications worker from San Diego, has used both Facebook and Twitter for customer service and finds that Facebook has several advantages. “Facebook is so effective that it’s now my go-to, even before customer service chat,” Davis says. “I get a more immediate response from companies when I post on their Facebook page than I do when I contact them on Twitter, and the Facebook posts seem to get more comments and stay visible longer than tweets. I’ve also had product questions answered by other consumers on Facebook before the company ever got back to me. There’s almost always someone in the crowd who knows the answer.”

And there’s no doubt that having a massive social media following may help you get a company’s attention, as Kim Kardashian West did last May when she tweeted a complaint about the Jack in the Box chain to her 62 million followers. (The company responded within 24 minutes.) But given that none of the many CR members who have resolved problems using social media have celebrity-level followings, being well-connected can work to your advantage but is certainly not a requirement.

How Consumers Speak Out, By Age Group
Of the many ways consumers have to communicate with a company, social media is preferred (see number in bold) by those under 25, while email or phone calls are still the top choices for others.

Contact Method

Under 25 Years

25 to 34

35 to 54

Over 55

Social Media

32.3

15.8

1.7

0.8

Mobile Application

27.1

22.3

5.8

0.8

Instant Messaging

18.1

20.4

5.4

0.5

Telephone

10.3

15.8

51.1

90.0

Email

6.6

22.6

34.2

6.6

Virtual Assistant/AI

5.6

3.1

1.8

1.4

Source: Dimension Data’s 2019 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking Report.

How to Get Satisfaction

Social media can be a powerful tool to resolve consumer problems, but it’s far from foolproof. Ali Cornford, an advertising executive who lives in New York City, is a frequent Twitter user who says she has had little success with customer service using that platform. “I find that companies usually reply very quickly with a generic apology and a request that you direct message them,” she says. (Direct messages on Twitter aren’t seen by anyone but the recipient.) “They want to quickly take it offline and away from public view, but then nothing happens. It leaves you with a false sense of hope.” Indeed, a growing number of companies use chatbot technology to automatically respond to messages on social media, which means that, in initial exchanges at least, you might not be communicating with a customer service representative at all.

But for some people, a response from a company through social media is good enough, even when the company isn’t able to resolve the problem. CR member Susan Kreusch turned to social media last year after her mobile phone suddenly stopped picking up a cellular signal inside her home. “I called AT&T four times over four or five days,” she says. “Each time the agent did nothing but take down my problem. That’s when I thought, ‘Forget this, I’m going on Facebook.’” Less than an hour after she sent a message, she received a reply from an AT&T customer service rep who gave Kreusch her direct number. Kreusch says it took more than a month to determine that the problem was with a transmission tower and couldn’t be remedied by the company. But she remains an AT&T customer because of the way it handled her complaint.

“After contacting the company on Facebook, I got an immediate human response,” she says. “The agent continually kept me updated and would message me when she couldn’t reach me by phone. When I called, I didn’t have to listen to 99 options on an automated phone system. It was the epitome of customer service.”

An AT&T spokesperson said that customers can get questions answered or problems resolved by phone or through social media, an online chat, or the company’s website. “It’s our goal to provide the highest-quality experience regardless of how our customers engage with us,” she said.

As Jean-Luc Bourdon, the Santa Barbara financial planner, points out, sometimes just knowing you’ve been heard is satisfaction enough. “It used to be that when a company behaved badly, you either had to move on with a bad taste in your mouth or take legal action,” he says. “But social media empowers customers to demand to be treated as they should be. I find it comforting that there isn’t a place for really outrageously bad service to hide anymore.”

Paying With Our Privacy: When Technology Meets Customer Service
Companies are digging through your data to decide which agent you should talk with and maybe even how long to put you on hold. Here’s what you need to know.
Customer Lifetime
Value Score
What it Is: A measurement of a customer’s potential financial value to a company based on data (some from surveys or third parties) including purchase and return history, demographics, and perhaps even web-browsing history.
Why companies use it: To retain high-value customers by, for instance, prioritizing their calls and offering them perks or white-glove service. “Businesses have always known who their best customers are,” says Sunil Gupta, a professor at Harvard Business School. “But the richness of the data available today lets a company know the value of every single customer.”
CR’s take: “These scores can rely on highly subjective data,” says Katie McInnis, a CR privacy policy counsel who focuses on technology. “They also factor in information including your ZIP code, which can be a proxy for income and race. People should not be getting inferior service because they earn less than others or because of any other factor used to determine this score.”
Likely Behavioral
Pairing
What it Is: A form of matchmaking that uses artificial intelligence to analyze a caller’s billing history, demographic data, and previous interactions with customer service representatives to pair them with the agent they’re most likely to get along with.
Why companies use it: To increase profits and decrease cancellations. “By and large, behavior pairing results in customers spending more, retaining customers longer, and being happier,” says Chris Farmer, chief marketing officer of Afiniti, which provides this technology to companies.
CR’s take: The algorithms that run AI are only as good as the data used to create them, McInnis says. This is a new and fallible technology that could potentially result in negative outcomes for consumers.
Chatbot
Technology
What it Is: A type of AI that simulates human conversation. Most customer service chatbots respond to written communication, such as social media messaging and customer service instant messaging built into a company’s website. The technology is also being used more frequently for telephone interactions, such as to refill prescriptions.
Why companies use it: To increase efficiencies and improve the speed of customer service. Chatbots enable companies to respond to basic questions almost instantly and resolve simple issues quickly. They can also direct more complicated problems to the agents best able to resolve them.
CR’s take: You may not know when you’re chatting with a bot rather than a human as the technology improves. “Although this could benefit both businesses and consumers,” McInnis says, “customers should always have the ability to speak with a human operator in order to resolve issues.”
Speech
Analytics
What it Is: Technology that “listens” to customer service calls to identify trending topics, gauge the emotional state of customers, coach agents on how to talk with them, and identify knowledge gaps in customer service personnel.
Why companies use it: To improve a consumer’s customer service experience and identify common problems that could affect the bottom line.
CR’s take: Although advancements have been made in this technology, recent studies confirm that it’s not foolproof. “Companies that use speech analytics must ensure that the technology does not misinterpret customers’ accents or grammar in a way that could lead to unfair treatment,” McInnis says.


Editor's Note:
 This article also appeared in the January 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

An earlier version of this article had the wrong percentage for Revenge in the "What Consumers Really Want When Something Goes Wrong" infographic. The correct figure is 19 percent.