Americans Fed Up with Customer Service and Griping About It

by Diane Berenbaum

Have you had a frustrating customer service interaction in the last year? If so, you're not alone. According to a recent Consumer Reports study, customers today think service is so bad that two out of three are walking out of stores due to poor assistance. Not only that…of the 1,000 people surveyed nationwide:

  • 71% were "tremendously annoyed"when they couldn't reach a human on the phone

  • 67% hung up the phone before their problems were even addressed

  • 56% can't stand having to take multiple phone steps to reach
    the right person

Gripe-O-Meter Reveals Most Annoying Service Issues

Consumer Reports set out to discover the customer service problems that infuriate people the most. Respondents rated various practices on a scale of 0 (not annoying) to 10 (tremendously annoying). Their results were displayed on their "Gripe-O-Meter" in their July 2011 edition. Here are a few of their findings:

  • Phone customers gave an 8.2 for a long wait on hold and
    unhelpful solutions

  • In-store customers griped most about rude salespeople (8.7),
    pushy salespeople (8.2) and salespeople who can't be found (7.5)

  • Women were more likely to be annoyed by unapologetic associates

  • Men were more frustrated with extra pitches for unrelated
    goods or services

  • The youngest consumers (aged 18 – 34) had the lowest
    tolerance for repair people who didn't show up on time

All in all, not a pretty picture. In fact, retail industry consultant Jack Abelson rates the overall level of customer service in the U.S. today as "abominable."

Clearly, customer service is not getting better, despite proclamations from organizations around the country declaring they are customer-focused and "The Customer is No. 1." Americans are fed up… and they're not going to take it anymore.

Complaints Made Easy, a Little Too Easy

What makes matter worse is that social media has made it even easier for consumers to share their complaints. In the "old"days, customers would file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, which involved time filling out forms and dealing with bureaucratic systems.  Perhaps that laborious process made people think twice before protesting about an issue somewhat minor in nature.  No more. With a few keystrokes, customers can now send gripes in merely seconds. 

In the May 29, 2011 Wall Street Journal, Randall Stross wrote about a new company called Gripe, which describes itself as a "better Better Business Bureau for the Twitter Age." Gripe is a free location-aware mobile app that lets people use their word-of-mouth power to publicly share complaints (or cheers) about local businesses or service providers worldwide. Every incident report (gripe or cheer) is sent by Gripe to the business for response, while quickly spreading through Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

And then there's Tello, a website and mobile app that encourages users to chime in on their customer-service experiences, good or bad. Businesses, and even specific employees at those businesses, can be rated with a thumbs up or thumbs down and a detailed comment.

Secrets to Service Success

Jack Abelson attributes the decline in service quality to Corporate America's short-sighted focus on cost cutting. "There is a complete failure to recognize and appreciate the value people bring to the equation." He notes that good customer service, done right, is "a profit producer.”

A perfect illustration of the success of that philosophy is Apple Computers. An article titled "Secrets from Genius Bar: Full Loyalty, No Negativity" (6/15/2011 Wall Street Journal) reveals some reasons why Apple retail stores are so successful. Apple recognizes the connection between service and sales, so they focus on the customer experience and develop their sales associates' customer-facing skills. Associates are not even allowed on the sale floor until they are deemed "ready."

Solving customer problems, not pushing products, is Apple's core principle. According to their employee training handbook, their job is to understand all of their customers' needs—"some of which they may not even realize they have." It also contains specific instructions such as "Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome," "Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns," and "End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return." Now that's deep, customer-focused listening; not classic selling of features and benefits. Who wouldn't want to buy from a company that models this approach?

So, has their adoption of this philosophy and intensive training paid off? You bet. Their sales per square foot are five times that of electronics retailer Best Buy and 50-150% greater than luxury retailers like Tiffany and Coach. Enough said.

What Would Customers Say about You?

How would your customers rate your service practices? What would the Gripe-O-Meter say about your customer experience? Could your organization use a service boost? Recognition of the biggest customer gripes is a great first step—now it's time to take that a step further. Adopt customer-focused practices and train your associates to model those practices…consistently. Not only will you get fewer complaints, but you'll also get a lot more compliments (and more profitable business too).
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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