A Few Thoughts on the God-Awful State of Customer Service

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Everybody loves the airline attendant who dramatically quit his job because he was overworked and sick of being pushed around by customers. But wait just a second. Aren’t consumers sick of workers in the “service” industry who couldn’t care less about making sure the customer is satisfied?

There’s no shortage of reasons consumers hate service workers (and vice versa). It’s a standoff in which both sides feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick—either via pitiful customer service efforts or via pitiful employment paychecks.

Ultimately, both sides of this standoff should be angry not so much with each other but with the exasperating business model that makes confrontations inevitable.

In his New Yorker column, James Surowiecki explores today’s “Crisis in Customer Service.” While the working man (and woman) has reason to be angry, he writes …

everyone knows that the contemporary customer is mad as hell, too—fed up with inept service, indifferent employees, and customer-service departments that are harder to negotiate than Kafka’s Castle.

Why is it that businesses do things that will drive customers batty—and that will most likely drive them away? It comes down to money. Businesses don’t see good reason to spend money on something that doesn’t clearly and directly bring in quantifiable revenues. Surowiecki explains:

Customer service is a classic example of what businessmen call a “cost center”—a division that piles up expenses without bringing in revenue—and most companies see it as tangential to their core business, something they have to do rather than something they want to do.

How unbelievably shortsighted.

And how blind these businesses are to customers’ true experiences. Surowiecki cites a survey that asked big companies if they would describe themselves as delivering “superior” customer service. Guess how many answered “yes”?


Now guess how many consumers described these same companies as delivering “superior” customer service?


That’s some disparity. As customer service continues to deteriorate, and as consumers come to increasingly assume things like automated customer service lines with endless waits and blatant lies like “Your call is important to us,” smart businesses should come to realize that the customer service bar is lower—and that today, it’s easier than ever to differentiate your company from the pack with (crazy as it seems) actual quality customer service. When you hear “Your call is important to us” dozens of times while you’re on hold forever, what they’re really saying is: “Your money is important to us. Your call? Not so much.”

These days, it doesn’t take much to exceed customer expectations. I’m happily surprised whenever I call a customer service line and am greeted with a human (non-recorded) voice that says “Hello” rather than automatically asking me to press 1 if I want to review the list of options in English. Nowadays, even this minimal human touch qualifies as “superior” customer service, if only compared to the competition out there.

Read more:
The Reward for Bad Customer Service