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March 29, 2010


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There are companies that continue to build a competitive advantage through superior customer service...USAA and Apple are excellent examples of companies that "get it" and invest in this area, and are rewarded with customer loyalty and tons of free word-of-mouth advertising.

Given the paucity of examples in most industries, though, it seems like there aren't too many companies taking this strategy, leaving the door open for new entrants. Hopefully we'll see more companies taking advantage of this.

"What happened to over-the-top service?"

In general, people are not willing to pay for it. People tend to prefer the low prices of a place like Walmart to the good service of a place like Circuit City (yes, they used to have good service, before they gave up and tried to compete with Best Buy, Walmart, etc.) You can offer lower prices if you don't spend as much on things like customer service.

My guess is that that problem lies with both the company and the employee. The company doesn't reward great service and actually discourages it by trying to do the same amount of work with less people. The workers feel no motivation because they're either just doing enough to get by, or aren't even full employees. Think of all the major companies are that turning to temp workers because temps don't get benefits.

Now that you mention it, some of the best customer service I've ever had was through 2009. I guess since the economy was so bad that many were all too eager to go that extra mile and sell you something.

Yeah, based on my limited experiences over the past year or so, I think customer service in general somewhat improved. Before that, it wasn't that great.

It seems as if there's a standard script used to bilk the customers. For example, we purchased a certified used car in January from a dealer about an hour from our house. My husband called the service dept. when we arrived home to inform them that the alignment was slightly off (didn't notice during the test drive). Since we live so far away, they said he could bring it in to have it looked at when we came in for our free oil change for no charge.

Of course, a few mos. later, he called, explained everything to the service dept. and scheduled the free oil change and alignment. Don't they try to charge him $189 for an alignment? They told him it was due to hitting pot holes! He said there was no reason for him to lie about the fact that the car was like this on the day of the purchase. He literally had to fight with them and hold his ground!

Of course it was okay, though, when the dealership neglected to send us the proper paperwork TWICE in order to get the car registered in a timely manner at the DMV, right?

Customer service is one of those things that moves in the opposite direction of the economy.

When the economy is roaring and unemployment is low, the customer service person on the other end of the line could care less about his/her job because he/she could have another comparable one very quickly and easily, and the company they represent could care less about you as a customer because they are overflowing with customers.

When the economy is down and unemployment is high, the customer service person on the other end needs his/her job pretty badly, he/she would be in dire straits if he/she lost it, and moreover, the company they represent probably has laid out some pretty solid incentives for him/her to bend over backwards to keep you as a customer.

Just my anecdotal experience.

I'll just quote and agree....

"it's gotten worse, but it's been over a longer period of time than five to six years. To me it seems like good customer service has been on the wane for a decade or more."

I don't think I've seen any broad change in customer service levels. Our customer service experiences are about as random as the different companies we happen to deal with. I've gotten some great customer service from our insurance company. I've had some poor service from our phone company. I had a good customer service with an online merchant. I don't think I've had any problems with any bank we deal with for years. Overall its mixed.

Oddly I've found that customer service over the phone seems to have improved over the years. Cellphone carrier, Cable Company, Banks, etc. have all been friendly, courteous, professional and overall helpful. Some have gone above and beyone even making repairs or replacing products out of warranty.

Service from employees in person has declined dramatically. Their appearance, professionalism and attitude are horrible in general.

Worst of all has been contractors. Attention contractors! If you schedule an appointment with a customer to install a new furnace, garage door opener, etc. It is customary to actually show up for the install. Many of us burn vacation days to wait at home for your services. Thousands of my dollars have gone to your competitors when you've failed me with this simple, obvious task.

Service has become an issue. That's why there are publications like Angie's list. I am willint to pay more for service. but we are now in a time of "less money" is best. People, quality costs more and is worth it.

so ti goes

I have to agree with Boojack on USAA. I have had them for insurance since I started to drive and checking accounts as well, along with the occasional money market and CD. I have also had rental insurance, homeowners and personal property insurance with them as well. The people are helpful, friendly and do a solid job. If they mess up, they admit it and do what it takes to fix it. One of my biggest money "faults" is I never compare insurance prices because I do not feel like I am paying outrageous amounts for coverage and I just do not trust I will get the same level of service elsewhere.

A CS feature I really like is the online chat. Ally recently implemented that and it is very convenient, especially if you are on a computer all day at work (although I generally do it over my lunch).

Companies that are bad are E*trade and Circuit City. Simple things are just too hard for them sometimes, and I think their struggles/failure reflect that.

All I ask is that if they mess something up, fix it. Don't tell me I have to to do something to fix it. I will not yell and scream to get my way, but I will not hesitate to ask for a supervisor if I am continually told that I have to do certain things to fix a mistake they made.

One obvious thing (although it was not always obvious to me) that I learned from a CS rep from Macy's was that some places have offshore centers for non-business hours, but during business hours those only get the overflow. So, if you can, call during normal business hours.

Overall, being a customer service rep is a completely thankless job most of time. For the most part people only call when they have a problem. It is hard to get someone who has (job) choices to sign up to get blamed for things they had no part in, they just happen to work for the same company.

Customer service is horrible in the U.S. The survival of any company is dependent on this whether we are dealing with vendors or individuals. Regardless if we are in good or bad economic times, the way you treat your customers whether they are church parishoners, parents, children, vendors can make or break you. Relationships are key in this new millenium and we can't take for granted that somebody just wants to pay for something without getting respect given to them in person or via the phone. I have provided customer service for over 20 years and how you treat people is key to your survival.

I don't know about the US (I live in Belgium), but I don know that the fall in customer services over here are a consequence of 'growth management.'

What it basically comes down to is that management is rewarded more for attracting new customers than retaining the current ones. Guess what gets lowest priority in that environment?

In my experience it seems that CS for cell phone providers has improved (service over the phone). Back in the early/mid 2000s CS was a real pain...Alltel, T-Mobile. But it seems that they figured out that customers really did care about how they were treated over the phone and began to improve in those areas. I switched to AT&T in 2007 and right away was very impressed with their much that it crossed my mind that I would never leave them :)

I also heard positive comments from my parents, who have been with T-Mobile since the beginning of time, that their CS has improved as well vs. when they first became customers. Now I am a fairly satisfied customer of Verizon Wireless (only been a customer for 2 months.. so it's a little hard to know yet) and have noticed, in my one call to CS so far, that the rep was very friendly, understandable, helpful, and patient.

It seems to me that CS has improved (for wireless providers) overall. Maybe I've just had some really great experiences each time I've called... what does everyone else think?

I agree with most above, and would say that it varies by company and industry. I would say that as companies have started to backtrack on outsourcing call centers a bit, I feel that customer service for those companies has gotten better. In retail establishments, it seems to have decreased. Also, it has decreased in many industries because of a declining sense of loyalty between employer and employee.

Okay, I'm starting this off by saying that these are lists based SOLELY on customer service. I'm not taking into account the products themselves.

AWFUL Customer Service:

GREAT Customer Service:
ING Direct
Harris County Toll Road Authority
My local library
AT&T Uverse (reps in home were reps are average)

Overall, most customer service seems average. I'm in my late 20s and can't remember a time when customer service was any better or worse...anybody with a little more experience remember a great time?

For the last 20 years, I have had great customer service at Talbots and Lands End. The service has remained unfaltered with both.

As a person who has worked in call centers for more than 10 years, I say, yes, customers are worse. Customers do not listen to the questions the reps ask and treat the reps like they are complete morons, simply because the person is a rep.

Customers interrupt the reps, yell at them and, please, do not make calls when you are ordering through a drive-thru. Or calling while you are in the bathroom. And if you are calling to ask for a phone number, please have a pen and paper with you.

And what is your name is not a trick question.

@Melissa: You may have a point regarding a different question: Have Americans (since we're ALL customers of somebody) simply got more rude and inconsiderate?

I don't want to sound nostalgic for a magical (and probably non-existent) past, but our more-technologically enabled communication system may have encouraged us to communicate more abruptly, and to multi-task to the point of rudeness. (Have you ever noticed that the most inconsiderate drivers are those on cellphones or texting? I'm not refering to the safety debate - simply failing to yield, etc.)

And a second question: In your experience, do call center employees receive training on dealing with difficult customers? I have noticed that some people know how to calm down an emotional/rude/stressed customer, and others simply seem to escalate the situation.

@Mark: I recently e-mailed some former co-workers and asked them if customers are ruder now. They said they are. Ruder and angrier.

The first call center where I worked offered extensive initial training and a large portion of it was dealing with difficult customers and how to avoid escalating calls. It was very good and I still refer to what I learned in this training. We had quality assurance (QA) sessions one time a month and two or three calls were reviewed and we received face to face feedback with a QA specialist. I have worked at other call centers and we did not have as high-level expectations for the quality of our work.

And it's tough. The customer is always right? We can't tell them they aren't right; however, sometimes the things the customers ask to have happen are downright impossible.

I could go on and on. I attribute some of the problems to cell phones and texting. People expect immediate information. A lot of people call as if in mid-conversation and expect me to know what it is they want without providing much information. It’s the first time I’ve heard of the situation so the customer is going to have to explain to me what is happening.

I agree here with Mark and Melissa..speaking from my own observaiton of course, I think that society as a whole is becoming less patient. I dont know if that's attributable to more technology or not, but regardless, it seems that we're less and less patient now.

In some cases I beleive it is dependant on the individual providing the service. I have an example from DirecTV and T-Mobile where a service issue was not going in my favor, then it went 100% in my favor just minutes later after exiting the call and calling back in again. To be honest, in both cases I was completely shocked that the 2nd rep I spoke to didn't seem to have data on my prior call from moments earlier. In the DirectTV case I even asked the 2nd rep if they could pull my data from the prior call and they couldn't. Maybe it's a privacy issue? Whatever it was, calling into a different random rep worked in my favor.

So don't be afraid to politely drop the call (oh my child woke up, or someone is at the door, or whatever) then call back in. It might work.

But even more importantly than that, remember that the service providers are real people doing a job. A polite tone of voice and common courtesy will certainly benefit you. In many cases, service reps are directly empowered to help you, and they are more likely to use that empowerment if they like you.

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