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 Study: America Suffering Customer-Service Meltdown

PSST, MARKETERS. MORE THAN HALF your customers hate you.

Well, that may be a little strong, but according to an upcoming report, about 62% of Americans say companies “don’t care much” about their needs. That’s a big increase from 52% in 2004, says Lexi Hutto, senior consultant for Yankelovich in Chapel Hill, N.C. And 67% say marketers care more about selling existing products than really helping the customer, an increase from 58% in 2004.

Part of the issue “is that consumers are more demanding,” says Hutto, who worked on the survey, called “Consumers in Control: Customer Service in the Age of Consumer Empowerment.” “They are becoming more and more adept at using a variety of tools–the Internet and blogs, for example. They really feel that they have the skills to get what they want, and to some extent, they feel they have marketers over a barrel.”

For instance, if they feel the quality of service they get in a store isn’t good enough, 71% say they’ll walk out–”even if the store has exactly what they are looking for. And 86% say that when they get bad service, they speak up,” she says.

But consumers also say most customer service is pretty lousy. About 39% of those in the poll say the level of service has declined in the last five years, 18% say it has improved, and 43% say it’s about the same. Even more telling is that more than ever, consumers feel they know more about the product in question–whether it’s a digital camera or an allegedly organic peach–than the hapless “associate” trying to sell it to them. Hutto says 31% of people agreed with the statement “I often know more about the products and services being sold than the people who are selling me those products and services at retail locations”–an increase from 27% in 2006.

So what do all these ticked-off customers, peeved at what they perceive as incompetent customer service policies, do when they stalk off into the sunset? Some certainly shop online, Hutto says, “and most blame the company–71% say a bad experience at one store makes them damn the whole chain. But mostly, they go out and complain and tell friends and relatives what they think about the company.”

But what consumers hate most of all is the way most businesses try to “help”: When using automated phone trees, for instance, 92% say they have tried to circumvent an automated phone tree to find a real person, futilely jabbing at the zero and pound sign. “And 58%, when prompted, say ‘agent’ or ‘representative’,” says Hutto.

“That means the majority of people don’t like using these things.” These “loophole” behaviors are further evidence that consumers feel themselves in an increasingly adversarial role with marketers and that they need to outwit the company in order to get the information they want.

Overwhelmingly, what they want is a person with an excellent command of English. About eight in 10 consumers feel it is important to have the ability to talk to a live company representative-27% say they would even be willing to pay for the privilege. “And, quantifying consumer resistance to the trend of off-shoring corporate call centers to India and China, nearly three quarters (71%) say having customer-service representatives based in the U.S. is important, with 25% willing to pay more for this,” Yankelovich says.

Yankelovich suggests that companies customize customer service, since the canned scripts so many companies use also turn consumers off.

Among the companies earning high scores for a customer service process that lets customers find a warm body fast are Hertz, Commerce Bank, Dillard’s, Land’s End, LL Bean, Comfort Inn, Day’s Inn, Hyatt and Walt Disney World.

“And Netflix took an unusual step for a Web-based company in July 2007,” Yankelovich says. “It eliminated e-mail-based customer-service inquiries. Now all questions, complaints and suggestions go to the Oregon call center, which is open 24 hours a day.”

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