Why Customer Service Has Gotten So Bad

A new book explains how customers can fight back.

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Photo by Sharon Bicks

Wondering why you have to wait on hold for an hour each time your credit card company makes a mistake? Or why the cable company demands that you sit at home for three hours and wait for its representative to show up? Journalist Emily Yellin's new book, Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives, answers those questions and more. She takes on the customer service industry, and explains why it makes so many of us miserable. Excerpts from our recent conversation:

What is it about customer service that makes people so mad?

I started as an angry customer just like everybody else. I think it comes down to a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness, and our sense of dignity. The way that many companies have treated customers -- the things we hate like staying on hold -- that disrespects our time. And then to speak to someone who can't understand us or we can't understand them, that creates a feeling of helplessness. Then also the automated systems -- that's the third thing we all hate. The company pre-selects the options you have, and if your option isn't on there, you're lost. Bad customer service is a result of the company thinking about it's own needs, not customers' needs.

Is it fair for people to complain about speaking customer service representatives in India, or another country? What's wrong with speaking to someone outside the United States?

The outsourcing issue has a lot of emotion behind it, both politically and when not being able to understand someone thwarts you in your daily life. Our worst qualities sometimes come out.

One of the things I found is that we make 43 billion calls per year in America to customer service. If you do the math and divide by [the population of] 300 million, that's 143 calls per year for every man, woman and child. I realized myself that it's the one bad call out of maybe ten we make per month that we remember. The minute you bring up customer service, people launch into one of those complaints, but we forget about the other nine people we spoke with who were fine.

Should companies be allowed to put customers on hold for so long? Some people have jobs where it's just not possible to wait.

If I spend an hour on the phone with an agent, they're getting paid and I'm not. It's empowering to realize that you're paying their salary. Sometimes that's forgotten. If you're talking about a cable company and you spend $100 a month on services, that's $1,200 a year. If it's been 10 years, that's $12,000. So it's important for customers to realize their value, even if the company doesn't. When dealing with these frustrating encounters, keep those facts in front of you -- what your time is worth, how much you spend with the company. That's talking the language of business. Customers need to look at it as more of a business transaction.

Meanwhile, companies need to look at this whole customer service function more personally. If businesses look at it as something that's part of their entire organization, not just something that's slapped on at the end, [that would be better]. Fred Smith, the chief executive of FedEx, said it needs to be "baked in to the organization." Tony Shea at Zappos said, "It's not just a department, it's part of our whole organization. That gets at a sense of respect for our time.

Do companies have a moral obligation to provide customers with good service?

I think any company that takes a customers' money and is in the business to provide whatever service or product that person paid for, part of that contract now includes customer service. Whether it’s a $12 charge on credit card that's not supposed to be there, or medical insurance for a dying family member, any of those transactions require a company to provide customer service. The idea that once you've made a sale, you're done, is old.

There's been some research that suggests companies should just drop customers that are "complainers" because they are too expensive to take care of.

I think some companies have done that to their own detriment. While there are some hard financial facts of how much it costs to provide service to a customer who asks a lot, to me taking that view [that dropping customers is the solution] indicates something deeper, and that isn't a good thing for the company. I'm thinking of Sprint, the famous example of a company that fired its customers. The cost to their already sagging reputation was great.

I think companies who only look at it from their perspective are possibly ignoring some deeper issues within their company. Customer service is being proven to be a leading indicator of the financial health of a company. You have to look at why these customers are calling all the time. Is it because there's a fault in your products your system? I don't think people are just loving calling customer service.

If you've had a horrible experience and are so frustrated, what should you do? Is going public, through blogs or media, a good idea?

It's definitely a good idea to go public. Different companies pay more attention to [what's being said about them on] the Internet. Getsatisfaction.com is a great site, founded in Silicon Valley. Their whole thing is creating a social network to bring companies and customers together in a community that's civil. You have to use your full name and there's a real conversation [between customers and companies].

For more, read:

  • "The Art of Complaining"
    • "Playing the Returns Game"