Customer Service Buying Guide

Customer Service Buying Guide

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.

Our latest survey explored what shoppers dislike most about today’s brand of customer care. We also crunched numbers from our studies of 22 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

We live in a world of instant connection, where owners of Amazon Kindle Fire tablets can instantly summon a tech adviser live on screen 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," says Scott Broetzmann, president ofCustomer Care Measurement & Consulting. "Customers spend valuable time and invest considerable effort—and get little in return." Indeed. 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.

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 "consumer 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. All 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.

What You Need to Know

Callers Want to Reach a Person
What are consumers’ key complaints? Seventy-five percent of survey respondents were "highly annoyed" when they couldn’t reach a human on the phone. The same percentage felt that way about rude customer-service reps. Seventy-four percent were highly irritated over getting disconnected during a conversation.

And They Prefer to Reach out by Phone
Eighty percent of those who participated in our national survey did so by telephone. More than two in five said it was the most effective way to resolve an issue. Forty-four percent addressed a problem face-to-face, which ranked second in effectiveness. For all the talk of social media, remarkably few respondents chose to go public with a dispute or issue.

Big Names Need Big Improvement
Some well-known companies scored relatively low for service. HSBC Bank, for instance, Walmart, Xfinity (Comcast), Target, and Verizon DSL, to name a few. Conversely, Publix, Virgin America, Consumer Cellular, Apple, Amica, and Vanguard were among the standouts.

What Qualifies as Good Service?

Stellar service starts with the person in charge, say retail consultant Jack Abelson. 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 the feared IRS) 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:

"My laptop battery doesn’t hold a charge like it used to."
Our shoppers found the number for Apple in fewer clicks than those who searched for HP/Compaq. A shopper from New York who called HP/Compaq said: "If you want a number, you must enter all this personal information into their online form and submit it. Then they present you with a number to call. All that to ask a simple question. Even then, I never got a simple answer." (Tip: Tech support couldn’t diagnose the problem without model and serial numbers, so be sure you have them when you call.)

"Can I take our small dog on the flight?"
Our Texas shopper placed nine calls to Spirit before she could get beyond a fast busy signal. She eventually got the information through menu prompts, but when she pressed the touchpad to add a pet to her reservation, she was put on hold for 26 minutes before giving up. At Virgin, transferring to a live rep was usually a bit easier. When a shopper had a lengthier wait, she was given the option of leaving a callback number for a rep to reach her. Another shopper simply said, "taking dog on plane" and was transferred to an agent, who was thorough and cordial.

"My mom lives on her own, and I pay for some of her care. Can I claim her as a dependent on my taxes?"
Our shoppers took various routes when calling the IRS, but all hit the same wall. One waded through five options in 3 minutes before getting a real person, who promptly hung up. Others didn’t get past automated menus, which said questions about dependents would be answered by a live person only until tax day, April 15 (shoppers called in June). They were then directed to an interactive online tax assistant before the calls ended with an abrupt disconnect. One shopper said, "I hope everyone who has a tax question has a computer."

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." "Illmannered 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.

America’s Top Gripes
Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 1,016 adults about key pain points associated with customer service using a scale of 0 to 10, from "not annoying at all" to "tremendously irritating." 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 who fumed 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. But that doesn’t mean consumers were thrilled. Far from it. Besides long waits on hold, rudeness, and phone disconnects, more than six in 10 were piqued when they were transferred to an unhelpful rep, had to deal with multiple phone menus, couldn’t locate the customer service telephone number, and were repeatedly asked for the same information.

Getting the Service you Need

How to Rattle a Company’s Cage
Though it may feel good to vent, complaining can frequently be futile. The Arizona State University Rage Study found that the number of Americans who think that complaining is worthwhile fell to 50 percent, from 61 percent, since 2011.

But consumers aren’t helpless. Shoppers have new tools to express themselves. Internet forums can turn one person’s headache into a corporate migraine. Many companies actively monitor the sites to intercept problems before they go viral and do greater damage, so you’re likely to get a quick response 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, Instagram, and blogs constantly for brand references. Some even 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 Menus
The old ploy of pressing "0" (with or without the "#" sign) sometimes works. Another option: Forget support entirely and press the prompt for "sales" or "to place an order," when companies are likely to roll out the red carpet. Dealing with a TV provider or telecom company? Leapfrog service and go directly to customer retention, whose agents are empowered to negotiate. Websites such as and list customer-service numbers and tell how to bypass automated prompts to reach a real person. Another free service,, 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 picks up.

Show (and Ask for) Empathy
Many customer-care reps are low-paid workers subject to poor treatment, and their opinions are rarely sought. If you’re in a store, act with sensitivity if you notice one of them being abused by another customer. End a request with the words, ‘Can you help me?’ He or she may not have the authority, so instead of making insults, politely ask whether you can speak with a supervisor. You also might want to say, ‘Don’t you agree?’ or ‘Would you want that done to you?’ In addition, don’t take things personally. Realize that yours might be one of 100 requests a rep handles in a day, and that person may be frazzled. Getting mad won’t help.

Try Live Chat
The option, if available, can be just as effective as using the phone and is often faster. It also results in a transcript for follow-up purposes. Chat reps tend to be more senior than phone reps and have greater decision-making authority, said John Goodman, vice chairman of Customer Care & Measurement Consulting.

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. We never suggest that you become uncivil, but if you’re stuck, be forceful. Companies rely on voice-recognition software to detect anger, sarcasm, and inflammatory phrases like "you people," and swiftly transfer you to an operator.

Build a Case
You don’t have to be a lawyer to get satisfaction, but it helps to think like one. One of Consumer Reports staff shoppers was recently surprised when Verizon FiOS pulled the Weather Channel from his TV package, replacing it with the company’s own version. When he asked why it was removed, the response was a terse, "We’re just not doing it anymore." So our shopper went Perry Mason: " I signed a two-year contract; you changed the lineup and altered our agreement. The way I see it, that contract is null and void." The representative ended up getting a discount on his bill.

Seek Outside Help
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers help with problems involving financial products and services such as loans, leases, debt collection, credit cards, and banks. File a complaint at, and the federal agency will forward it to the company and work to get a response within a specified time frame. You can also share your story to help protect other consumers.

Cancel and Come Back
Cable companies used to trip over each other trying to snatch a competitor’s customers with enticing incentives. These days, they seem to have no qualms with letting you walk. But that can work to your advantage. When our shopper’s half-price HBO promo ended and the cable company refused to extend it, he dropped the package. "Once I quit, they offered it to me again—in the same phone call," he said. Another shopper dropped Cablevision completely when his bill skyrocketed. After he quit, the company was willing to deal to regain his business.

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. Writing is effective, too. Only 3 to 5 percent of consumers do that, so executives tend to pay attention.

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

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 for the complaints mentioned on the facing page, especially:
• 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 (, under the ‘Contact Us’ link, and we’re making it easier to find in Consumer Reports magazine." That starts now, so take this down: 800-333-0663.