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Declining customer service: How consumers strike back

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Nearly 1 million Americans submitted a complaint to the Better Business Bureau last year, a 6 percent increase over the year before. Telecomm companies, auto dealers and collection agencies drew the most complaints.

unhappy woman on phone

Much of the irritation on the part of customers stemmed from their inability to reach company personnel with their questions or concerns.

A growing number of businesses are “driving a wedge between themselves and their patrons through poor use of technology and inadequate training,” according to a new survey by Consumer Reports magazine. Many companies today sidestep customer calls any way they can to save money, the report said.

The declining level of customer service Americans feel today was reflected in the survey:

  • More than 70 percent of respondents said they were “tremendously annoyed” when they couldn’t reach a human on the phone. Women and respondents older than age 50 were particularly annoyed by this.
  • Nearly 65 percent were “tremendously annoyed” by rude employees and had either hung up the phone or left the store.
  • Men were especially annoyed by customer reps who pitched unrelated products or services.
  • Repair people who don’t arrive on time are another major irritant, in particular to younger consumers – 35 percent were “tremendously annoyed,” 10 percent more than any other group.

Among companies with low marks for customer service were Walmart, Sam’s and US Airways, while at the other end of the spectrum with high marks were L.L. Bean and Zappos.

The study also showed that many consumers are quite patient. Phone delays of up to 10 minutes were fine with 37 percent of respondents, and 9 percent said they didn’t mind holding 20 minutes or more. Only 2 percent said any delay bothered them.

What unheard customers can do

In today’s high technology world, customers aren’t without alternatives. There are more and more ways for unhappy customers to strike back. Consumer Reports recommends consumers take some of the following measures to get the company’s attention:

  • Use the Internet Word spreads like wildfire on Facebook, Twitter and such popular sites as Yelp where customers write reviews for the world to see. Smart businesses closely monitor these sites to nip problems in the bud.
  • Be persistent Unhappy customers who speak loudly and often are more apt to have their voices heard. Twitter, in particular, puts the message out for everyone to see.
  • Keep a record By noting the time and context of each conversation, who was spoken to and what responses were received, customers have a better chance of getting the problem resolved.
  • Complain in person The chance of getting a complaint across correctly and having something done about it increases when customers and customer relations personnel discuss the situation eye to eye.
  • Bypass automated phone systems Customers are obviously fed up with phone systems that place them on hold, route them around, or try to sell them other products while they wait. Companies that don’t treat their customers that way have a leg up. Today, there are even sites like DialAHuman.com and GetHuman.com that tell consumers how to get around telephone prompts. LucyPhone, for no charge, even takes customers’ phone numbers and calls them back when a real person is finally on the line.
  • Take it to the next level Customers who aren’t getting the answers they want get better results when they tell the agent they want to “escalate” the status of their complaint and take it to a supervisor.
  • Contact the CEO’s office When all else fails, Consumer Reports tells unhappy customers to contact the CEO of the company. That’s one way that’s almost certain to get attention.