Why Customer Service Sucks

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by Jay on January 10, 2012

Back in the good old days before the savings and loan crisis and our recent financial difficulties,  I was gainfully employed in the banking industry just when deregulation was picking up steam and banks were freer to introduce new products.  For a time I worked as the retail deposit services product manager in Winston-Salem at the headquarters of a bank whose name was first appropriated and slapped on another bank to hide its customer service sins and moved to Charlotte. More recently its name has ignominiously disappeared from the North Carolina scene.

Our team created products but we also killed old ones that were no longer promotable and in most cases less desirable alternatives for the consumers that owned them. It was then that I formulated what I called Zenner’s First Law of Bank Marketing, which is that you can never overestimate the inertia of your customer base.  It was amazing how difficult it was to get people to do something that was clearly in their best financial interest and give up a legacy product.  Inertia is king.

This same bank before it was sacked and plundered undertook a sincere effort to create a new strong customer service culture in its retail offices with what they called the Personal Banker.  Every retail bank customer was assigned a person they could call for whatever they needed from travellers checks to an IRA account and beyond. Personal Banker developed some tremendously loyal customers but the fact of the matter is that most people’s day to day needs are pretty modest and they don’t need a personal banker. The SVP who created the program would cringe watching customers in focus groups joke that they had had 4 personal bankers in the last two years and never met any of them. This heroic customer service program eventually sunk under its own weight…a promise that couldn’t be delivered at a reasonable cost.

What brings this to mind this morning is a half hour I spent on the phone (Skype actually) with the company that provides cable and internet into my home.  I seldom try to reach them unless I know I’m going to have at least an hour I can spend being shuttled back and forth between automated phone systems and clerks with various scripts.

The call this morning was one of the shorter ones, just shy of a half hour.  I use Skype for these calls because the minutes are cheaper than cell minutes and I can do it totally hands free at my computer and continue to work while I’m on hold. While I was doing that this morning I had an “ah ha” moment when it finally made sense to me why customer service is so bad at these large companies, especially in the telecommunications industry. I used to wonder why technically adept companies couldn’t have smoother “call director” systems.  The noise when you’re on hold seems to alternate randomly from really bad loud music, through various messages about  the importance of my call is that are randomly truncated. I had to give my name, telephone number, address and PIN number three different times during this session. Each person I talked to had to “pull up my account” and review everything before they could talk to me. When I asked why I was told that they needed to verify who I was.  A password words fine for my bank, I don’t know why it should be a problem for a cable company. What’s the worst thing someone could do, pay my bill?

I’m sure someone will argue that they are trying to push customer service to the internet. I could buy that except that service online is even worse and is extremely limited. The on-line “chat” is like working with a REALLY SLOW computer… not a chat at all. If there is a real person there they must be dealing with 30 people at a time or they’re asked to man the “chat” line during their lunch hour. The customer service phone number on the site is wrong, I cannot see the details of my statement and I cannot add or change my service on-line.

Of course, what they really want is to discourage or, as a last resort, talk you out of reducing service and in fact, my last two encounters with them have involved being shuttled to the “retention department.” Going through this effort  will probably only save me two or three hundred dollars over the course of the year and I’ll probably blow it somewhere else. They understand that, and giving up a couple of hundred dollars every now and then to the persistent is money well spent in their equation if they keep that other hundred a month in the cash flow.

So here’s my conclusion. Service could only be this bad by design. They do it on purpose. They want the experience to be as unpleasant as possible. The Discover Credit Card ads now running on TV captures it perfectly in “Peggy” the bearded customer service rep from Siberia. My observation about inertia years ago was not as clever or unique as I imagined at the time.

You might think that consumers take financial issues very seriously, but they don’t. For most people it’s just background noise that they have to pay attention to occasionally or when they get in trouble. The people that design these customer service systems understand and take advantage of this.  It’s simply not worth the effort or time sacrificed for many people to get issues resolved in their favor…so they just bend over and pretend to like it.  Ditto for switching to another source. Inertia rules and the cynical customer service managers know it.  Good customer service is a loser.

I don’t blame the people that are hired to be customer service reps. They aren’t really “Peggys.” It’s probably just retirees that  call anyway who have the time to watch their nickels and dimes. They aren’t really in the customer service business, they’re  just there to be flack catchers and have scripts to prove it. That’s why they end each call in the sweetest voice possible with “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”  This after you have complained about lousy service for 10 minutes and they’ve done nothing.

Ironically, the best customer service I’ve gotten in the last year has not been from a large corporation or a local mom and pop operation. It’s been from big government in the form of the Social Security Administration.   Hmm…Imagine that.

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