If Service Is Really So Bad, Why Aren’t Customer Complaints More Effective, and Where Is Customer Service Trending?


Share on LinkedIn

Although the technology for relating to customers, and providing personalized support, has significantly increased over the past few years, customer service, especially online, continues to deteriorate. At least, customer service appears not to be a priority in some companies and industries. And, at the same time, there is growing consumer demand for both speed and resolution, so the pressure to handle service transactions proactively, quickly and efficiently will increase. T

Repeated studies show that the jury is out on how well suppliers are paying attention to customer concerns. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, which attempts to measure the perceived quality of service delivery for industries across the United States, has found that satisfaction scores for business sectors such airlines, banks, department stores, fast-food restaurants, hospitals, hotels, and telephone companies are fairly dismal. Even taking into consideration that satisfaction scores are rarely a true indicator of customer loyalty behavior (and have no proven correlation with sales increases), this is problematical.

There are three fundamental issues involved in improving customer service.

The first is senior management attitude. If companies like airlines see themselves as providers of seats for travel, and banks offering mortgages see their ‘product’ on a commodity basis, rather than as service organizations providing strategically differentiated value, that shapes the culture, structure, systems, and virtually every process within the company. Customer service is viewed in those companies strictly as a cost rather than as an ambassador for positive perception, a conduit for dynamic information flow, and also as an engine for increased revenue.

The second issue is that customer service has become more complicated. It may take 15 minutes to sell a wireless telephone service, but it takes over 200 hours to train a customer service representative. Brokerage firm Charles Schwab, for example, estimates that the length of calls to Schwab has increased by 75% over the past five years. They have also increased the number of customer service representatives severalfold. This also puts pressure on keeping these highly-skilled knowledge workers.

Companies would be well advised to find methods of making CSRs more productive and contributory, while also giving them opportunity for leadership and advancement. There are many good models for having CSRs directly involved in customer relationships, as well as upsell and cross-sell initiatives.

Finally, the human factor, the ‘heart’, if you will, in relationships with customers, seems to have been drained from many customer service operations. The technological innovations that are available to customer service have only served to further remove them from direct customer involvement, diminishing both proaction and personalization. It may be less expensive to have bank balances available by automated telephone menu than by a human being, but the empathy involved in answering questions and fixing problems has gone into hiding.

Amazon, for one, considers every customer interaction an important opportunity – to learn. The company tracks the reason for each customer contact, on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. There’s a group within the customer service department that does nothing but analyze and anticipate problems, and also develop solutions. As an example, the number one question people used to ask Amazon was the status of their delivery. Now, on every page of their site, beginning with the Welcome page, there’s a box labeled: “Where’s My Stuff?” Operational changes at Amazon are truly customer-driven.

For years, I’ve been preaching about the potential contribution, company-wide, represented by customer service. As stated, companies should begin to more actively view customer service as a profit center rather than a cost center. At Amazon, it’s a reality. Customer service representatives are involved on all Amazon project and launch teams as ‘the voice of the customer’. That’s holistic, and the rightful role of customer service. It’s good for the bottom line, it’s good for the customer, and it’s good for optimizing customer service staff loyalty.

Customer service interaction can be the source of vital information and insight, not just for handling complaints or quality control issues. It can be a method of increasing customer loyalty. Truly customer-centric companies have learned that. Perhaps it’s time for more companies to go back to the future.

We often recommend including at least one cell of supplier staff – most often field sales, marketing, and, especially customer service – in every customer loyalty and customer experience study conducted for our clients. The results are frequently eye-opening. What we do with staff in these studies is, simply, ask them to respond to the same questions asked of customers, in the way they believe customers will rate and evaluate them as a supplier.

When, for instance, a client has actively pursued a total quality initiative, believing that accurate, technically-advanced, complete, on-time product or service delivery, at the right price, are the ways to differentiate themselves from other suppliers and create customer loyalty, they believe that customers will reward them for it with their loyalty. Customer service and/or sales staff have been force-fed a TQ diet, and they expect that customers will:

a) consider these tangible aspects of value delivery highly important, and
b) not only rate the company highly but believe that these deliverables will leverage customer loyalty.

In circumstances like these, where a company has followed a path that doesn’t have much impact on loyalty behavior, the perceptions of sales and customer service staff are often significantly out of alignment with customers. Staff and customers agree that the tangible elements of delivery are well-performed. Where they disagree is in the effect, or importance, of these elements.

We’ve frequently found that customers consider the intangible, emotional aspects of value delivery – trust, communication, interactive/collaborative aspects of service, brand equity, etc. – much more important, and more loyalty-leveraging, than the tangible aspects. They see the tangible aspects of delivery as basic, expected, and non-differentiating commodities. For companies involved in business-to-consumer products or services, the intangible elements of delivery can represent 70%, or more, of what drives supplier choice and loyalty decisions.

It’s equally likely to see situations where companies have made changes in their customer service protocols, such as the way in which calls or email messages are handled, without generating evidence of the effect on customers. Here again, customer service staff’s perceptions may be seriously out of alignment with those of customers. Other areas of potential misalignment, or perceptual gap, include how customers and staff see change in performance over time, how they see the effectiveness of experience management or communication programs, and how they regard the level and impact of complaints.

Does your organization seek an approach to reinforce a number of staff loyalty best practices—demonstrating employee trust, training, informing and debriefing them, etc.— all at the same time? It’s easy. Include customer-touching staff, as a sampled group (or groups), in your customer loyalty research studies. Comparing customer perceptions against staff perceptions can not only be very revealing, as described, sharing these gaps with staff can create a real awareness about what is and is not working with customers.

Need more convincing? Here are three key reasons why you’ll want to make employees a part of every customer survey:

(1) Including staff in customer loyalty research enables staff to have a voice. This tells staff their opinions matter, which in turns helps trust to grow between the company and staff .

(2) Surveying staff as part of the customer loyalty research process enables management to learn about specific process areas where there is disconnect between what staff perceives and what customers perceive. These revelations can open the door for needed changes in how customers are served.

(3) Surveying staff as part of the loyalty research process helps pave the way for staff buy-in and support of new initiatives and changes, on behalf of customers, that may affect staff, directly or indirectly.

It’s time for companies to be more innovative and inclusive with employees. They want it, and customers are the beneficiaries. Another key advantage, and one not to be overlooked: In all likelihood your competitors don’t have this level of customer and employee insight.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


  1. Customer complaints are not effective because companies do not take customers seriously. In many cases CEOs are so far removed from the front lines that they do not even realize that there is a problem.

    Another major issue is outsourcing. The people who talk to your customers should be paid very well, not the very least. After all, they are the ones keeping you in business.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here