Is Customer Service Getting Worse?


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Is it just me or is customer service getting worse? I’m a consultant working in the field of customer management, and my wife hates going out with me to a restaurant or shopping. She says I am always “on duty”, observing how customer-centric are the people serving me. And every time something goes wrong (which is more and more frequent, it seems to me), I take the role of difficult customer just to see how they handle the situation.

Now I may be an official grumpy old man – heck, my wife thinks I majored in it – but if customer service people have received the training, why can’t they put it onto practice? It’s not rocket science. They just have to stop thinking about themselves or their company and try to imagine how the customer feels and what would be best for them. But they don’t, despite all the training and superficial ingratiation. When something is clearly broken or just plain stupid, why can’t they say, “You’re right and I am really sorry it has happened but this is why. Here’s what I can decide to do for you. And I will recommend a change in the policy, process etc to correct it to avoid it happening to other customers”. They can’t say that because they are not allowed to. The command and control culture lives on in the 21st Century.

In July 2004 I bought a 40GB iPod whilst travelling in the US. I’m seriously into music and I became a raving fan. I even wrote an article about customer needs that was circulated in Apple. In the article I said that T-Mobile, my cellular carrier, did not understand my needs as they had given me BlackBerry and that it would only require Apple to add mobile capability to the iPod and BlackBerry was dead.

Boy was I wrong. I forgot something kind of important … reliability. After 6 months, my iPod broke. The disk had crashed. I took it to the Apple Store in London who confirmed it had indeed crashed but advised me that I would have to take it back to the US, as that is where I had purchased it. “That’s a separate company to EMEA.” A very kind lady in customer support agreed to replace the dead machine. The UPS man who collected gave me the warning: “I collect a lot of these; they’re always going wrong”. Sure enough, 6 months later, he was back collecting the replacement, which had the same problem. Then 6 months again, and finally my 3rd replacement iPod died exactly 6months later, just two years almost to the day since I purchased the first one.

So back I went to the Apple Store in London. I wanted to see one of the technical people at the Genius bar. The technical lady was very empathetic but confirmed that the offending item was indeed deader than a dodo. I said that I felt that a 6 months lifecycle seemed a little short for such an expensive item, especially as I used it very seldom because I had all my music in iTunes on my very reliable Dell laptop. She read the serial number on the back – which is more than I can do – and went off to speak to a manager who came over and offered me a brand new 60GB video iPod free of charge, including all the stuff in the box such as a USB cable and headphones and a year’s free warranty.

I was ecstatic but also a little disappointed. If the technician felt that the situation warranted a free replacement, which she clearly did, why couldn’t she make that decision? Why did she have to get a “manager” to make the decision? Don’t they trust her? Why do companies train their frontline people to be customer-focused and then not trust them to make decisions for customers? It seems plain stupid to me. Am I unrealistic, insane or just plain idealistic?

What do you think?

David Rance
David Rance, CEO of Round, is a former customer care director for a national telco. Round is a leader in capability management models and software tools that enable organizations to align at their chosen level of customer centricity.


  1. I work in customer service, and I have for quite sometime. There are times when “good” customer service is outweighed by the customer being belligerent and not listening to the customer service representative. I have had many instances when it is impossible to get anything through to the customer. They are insistant on controlling the call and the representative can offer no solution for the customer because they are not allowed. I know in our field the customer is always right, which is true, but sometimes when it comes to company policy that the customer does not agree with, they always want to be escalated to the next tier and the next tier until someone tells them what they want to hear, even if against policy or could possibly get that person in trouble. I think with customer service, the customer needs to meet half way for any kind of resolution. And customers calling in yelling and screaming like an angry tyrant is just ridiculous and helps nothing.

  2. Mr. Rance,
    Your comments on customer service written in your November 28, 2006 article are absolutely on the mark. Customer service everywhere IS absolutely getting worse. It has become more and more apparent that what so many vendors are counting on is that the customer will not take the time and trouble to say anything and walk away. Many will walk away rather than put up a fight or report an offending company to the Better Business Bureau or some consumer regulatory authority. It is true that some customers will rant and scream (as Tracy indicated in her response), but I do not believe that those customers are the norm. If a customer has reached the point of ranting and screaming, it is probably because no one would listen or care when he was polite.

    Just recently, I (the customer) had the most unpleasant experience of ordering a premium “X-Box 360” for my son’s intended birthday gift from a prominant national computer peripheral on-line company. The company prides itself on being No. 1 in customer service. Despite the fact that the customer ordered everything correctly, the company shipped the wrong item and sent a refurbished X-Box with no hard drive (not the premium model that was ordered). Customer obtained an RMA from the company and returned the item per exact instructions from the company. Shipping receipt documentation was received by customer indicating the date the company received the returned merchandise and who signed for it.

    Time parameters did not allow waiting for a replacement to be shipped, and at that point, customer requested full refund of funds paid to the credit card that was charged. Then despite the company’s promise to return the funds and numerous follow-up phone calls from the customer, the company would not credit back the customer’s credit card account. Finally after a full 31 days had passed since the company had received the return, customer ended up officially disputing the charge through customer’s credit card company and received credit for funds paid. THEN get this — when the customer reported the company through an on-line ripoff report venue, one of the company’s customer service reps responded by apologizing and offering the customer a $20.00 credit toward a future purchase with that company! Does anyone really believe this customer will ever do business again with that company?? Go figure. Sometimes, when a company chooses to act at all, they just do too little too late, and ONLY when customers expose them publicly. This is just ONE example, but I could actually write a book on the subject.

  3. I agree, customer service is a little hit and miss . Independent store owners have the luxury of telling the ‘difficult customer’ to take their custom elsewhere.
    Working for a large company, as I do, we have a lot of discretion as to the policy bending certain ‘difficult customers’ receive. If you approach us in a beligerant manner and are so full of your own imagined certainty that we are at fault, or you simply changed your mind about a purchase, that is usually when a’sorry, its not company policy’ answer is given.
    You are treating us like the enemy to start with, we are responding in kind. And, officially, though you may be placated by a higher authority, and indeed financially compensated, in that retail outlet you will be forever known as the @@@ who treats us like @@@@.
    Yes, the customer enters a contract when purchasing something and if that contract is broken by us not providing you with what you pay for, you have every right to be compensated for your inconvenience and disappointment.
    If the product falls below your imagined expectations or you simply changed your mind, and then decide to take a ‘difficult customer’ stance in order to test us out or create an elevation in your own social standing, then kindly take your custom elsewhere.
    We have enough @@@@@@@ in here already.
    A purchase, no matter how high does not make us your employee, I doubt your £200 purchase makes up a fraction of the cost of our training,and all the things you don’t see behind the scenes. What would you say to someone treating your employees in such a manner? For no other reason than ‘because you can’ It makes you a bully and negates all the good works and credibility of anything you may have to say about the subject that otherwise would be useful.

  4. I realize my response is years in the future, but I think it needs to be said. Dave, there is one big point you’re missing about customer service. As someone who works part time in retail: I don’t care. I don’t care about customers, their happiness, or their experience with my company. I don’t even care of my company goes bankrupt. Actually, I do whatever I can to minimize the success of the store I work at. Most of us at my mid-range retailer couldn’t care less about the happiness of customers. Why is this? Well, many companies have lowered the quality of these positions. The workforce is primarily part-time. My wage is close to minimum wage, and I’m treated poorly overall. This translates into a situation where 95% of employees would experience minimal inconvenience if they were to be fired tomorrow. I enjoy the extra money, but losing my job would simply result in me buying a few less martinis and less clothes. Combine this fact with poor treatment and low quality management, and you have a recipe for bad customer service. Customer service will not improve until wages are increased, conditions are improved, and a larger percentage of full time bread-winning employees are hired. Until then, I’ll just stand there behind the counter and watch you struggle to find whatever you’re looking for. And you can be as rude or difficult as you like, because all I’ll do is call a manager whom you’ll have to wait 15 minutes to see.


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