Could 2013 Be the Year That Customer Service Gets Better?

  • Share
  • Read Later

There’s nothing particularly new about the horrendous state of customer service. What is new is that maybe, just maybe, businesses will take steps to make customers happier this year.

Ask anyone for a story about bad customer service, and chances are you’ll get not one but a top 10 list of gripes. Confusing automated phone messages and long waits to speak to a live person have been commonplace for years, and it seems like everyone has a tale about encountering a particularly unhelpful or nasty service representative when a human being actually does get on the line.

Naturally, consumers aren’t pleased with the modern-day customer experience. A survey from 2010 indicated that 70% of consumers who had a problem with a product or service reported experiencing rage. A 2011 Consumer Reports study showed that 71% of customers were “tremendously annoyed” when they couldn’t reach a live customer service agent over the phone.

(MORE: Amazon’s Low Prices Are Targeted: Target’s Online Price Matching Policy Becomes Permanent)

To anyone who has been on the phone recently with their bank or cable company trying to get a problem fixed, none of this is likely to come as a surprise. What may seem surprising, however, is that business executives are only recently demonstrating some awareness that it may be a bad idea to expect customers to simply hand over their money and then never be heard from again. In a blog post listing predictions for businesses in 2013, the consulting firm Forrester states that it expects a renewed focus on improving the customer experience in the days ahead. Here’s why:

The idea that happy customers are more likely to remain loyal, try new products and services, and spread good news about their experiences has started to catch on. Over the past several months, we’ve seen a rise in the number of companies pondering the connection between enjoyment and metrics like satisfaction and Net Promoter Score (NPS).

After reading such a passage, the average consumer—someone who didn’t go to business school, never uses words like “metrics,” and wouldn’t know an NPS from NPR—probably reacts with thoughts along the lines of: Wait, why in the world would it be necessary for these concepts to “catch on”? Isn’t it fairly obvious that making customers happy would be, you know, good for business? Doesn’t everybody know that when customers are happy with a product or service, they tend to be loyal and probably mention their good experiences with others? Isn’t this especially the case in an era when people use social media and review sites to discuss every product they come into contact with and every little experience they have?

Apparently, in certain circles, such ideas are revelations. A while back, James Surowiecki of The New Yorker explained that because it’s difficult to measure the return on investment for improving customer service and the overall customer experience, many businesses don’t bother with much of an investment:

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. Although some unhappy customers complain, most don’t—one study suggests that only six per cent of dissatisfied customers file a complaint—and it’s tricky to quantify the impact of good service.

(MORE: Customer Service Hell)

Therefore, instead of constantly seeking ways to improve service, businesses often look for ways to decrease costs relating to service. Hence outsourcing, automated call centers, longer phone waits due to fewer service representatives, and so on.

Similarly, Michel Falcon, of the Falcon Consulting Group, recently wrote that CEOs are reluctant to spend to improve the customer experience because they can’t immediately see a return on investment:

What about customer experience? I believe the #1 reason some CEO’s won’t invest in customer strategies to support their experience is because the ROI of amazing customer service can take time to come to surface.

But in light of the success of companies like Amazon and Zappos—which score highly in customer satisfaction ratings—perhaps we are reaching the point when executives are willing to put more time, effort, and yes, money, into actually making customers happier.

(MORE: Online Shopping: More Popular, Yet Less Satisfying Than Ever)

In a Fast Company post about New Year’s resolutions for brands, Adam Hanft calls for businesses to over-invest in customer service:

Customer service needs to be reinvented for a world where consumers are demanding more, where comparisons happen in real time, where loyalty is fleeting and there’s diminishing friction in changing brands. Customer service is where social starts.

My proposal for 2013 is that every CEO and CMO spend an hour a week listening in on some of their customer service calls. The result would be eye-opening–and a revolution in customer service, I assure you.

This recently published list of the 15 worst companies for customer service—which is based on data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index and unsurprisingly features a disproportionally large number of airlines, banks, and cable and telecom companies—is a good place for the revolution to start.