Readers Weigh in on Customer Service

Survey-takers feel driven to the edge by that No. 1 annoyance, hold purgatory, and they name names from their best and worst experiences

Frustration comes in many forms. On the golf course, it can be quick and piercing as the dimpled ball slices wide right for the fifth time on nine holes. In a traffic jam, frustration builds slowly as your car rolls forward. Then there's the scourge of every customer hoping for timely service: waiting on hold. The time spent standing, sitting, or pacing with a phone stuck on your shoulder provokes its own unique irritation. There's no steering wheel to pound. No clubs to toss in a pond. Nothing to do until someone finally gets on the line and chirps, "Thank you for holding," as if there was a choice.

Waiting on hold is the No. 1 complaint voiced by our readers. As part of our annual ranking of Customer Service Champs, we surveyed a group of BusinessWeek readers to find out what really ticks them off—and what delights them—about the businesses they deal with every day. Of the 1,033 readers surveyed, 54.8% say the purgatory of hold is the most annoying experience. One respondent describes (in all caps) "waiting for 15 minutes to talk to a representative only to be put on hold for 10 more minutes to be transferred to someone else only to have my line go dead." Another lamented the "wild goose chase through the warrens of Verizon's customer service and tech support." We've all been there.

These days, of course, no company can afford to lose business, and the easiest way to do so is to treat customers poorly. We heard loads of complaints about having to search for sales staff in stores. Stalking employees through cavernous store aisles turns potential consumers into bloodhounds, and not the loyal kind. That irksome chore was cited by 30% of our readers as most frustrating. One reader put Marshalls in the doghouse, "[Staff] was rude and unyielding," and then excommunicated the brand: "Will never shop there again." Annmarie Farrette, manager of corporate communications for parent TJX Companies (TJX), says, "At Marshalls, our top priorities include providing a pleasant and positive shopping experience and quality customer service at each of our 806 stores throughout the country."

Getting It Right

To be sure, there are plenty of companies that are making customers happy. Some of the comments on the survey read like love letters: "Willing to admit mistakes" and "They spoil you!" (Mercedes) (DAI); "The 'atmosphere' at the dealer is so inviting and comfy; coffee and water with cookies, TV on news channel (not just football!)" (Lexus) (TM). Emirates Airlines staff lavished a reader's children with chocolates and took commemorative pictures of their first flight. Before takeoff, an Aeromexico staffer ran out to buy a pacifier—serving not just a passenger with a crying baby, but a whole planeload of customers.

To our readers, highly satisfied sounds like this: "It's a pleasure to do business" (Apple) (AAPL); "I was VERY impressed" (Capresso); and "Very friendly and engaging people, great service, no surprises" (Southwest) (LUV).

Many companies try hard to pamper their customers. Take J.C. Penney's (JCP) CustomerFIRST program, which started in 2008. The retailer looked at research and businesses "legendary" for their customer service, says CEO Mike Ullmann III. "A big 'aha' for us was that satisfied customers came no more frequently than dissatisfied customers. Satisfied is not enough."

What Ullmann is striving for is the next tier of happy customers—the highly satisfied.

To get there, J.C. Penney has retrained all 150,000 employees to promote greater employee autonomy and a stronger focus on customers. Managers no longer need to approve every unusual transaction, and staff is no longer divided into helpers and stockers. Previously, employees who were stocking goods were told to focus on that job. These days, they're expected to drop everything should a customer require help. Now, store manager evaluation scores take into account how customers rate service. "There's recognition of how important service is to loyalty," says Bruce Tempkin, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR). The retailer's internal surveys show that highly satisfied customers, on average, make 20% more trips to the store and 11% more purchases.

Hold: New and Improved?

In a lot of cases, improving customer service depends on the personal touch. But there's new technology available that might help eradicate the No. 1 complaint of our readers: being put on hold. Services known as Click to Call and Click to Chat let customers get only the information they care about—and quickly. There's even the option of having a customer service agent call you, flipping who has the upper hand.

Companies such as BMW (BMWG), Best Buy (BBY), Continental Airlines (CAL), Expedia (EXPE), and Louis Vuitton (LVMH) use Click to Call and Click to Chat (C2C) from Art Technology Group (ARTG) to let their customers contact call-center agents via instant messaging or over the phone. Through IM, agents are able to split time between multiple customers, cutting down hold times. In both cases, agents can view their customers' Web page and recent history. The service transmits a screen view from the users' computer to the call center so they can see what the customer wants. This "360-degree view" offers the advantages of physical retail and allows agents to handle more callers more helpfully.

Waiting on hold may never go away, but Audio Messaging Solutions aims to put your wait time to use. The service fills hold times with short music scores, voice-overs and "talking newsletters." Businesses can provide useful information while their customers are on hold, and callers stay on the line up to 25% longer vs. dead air or background music, according to President Mitch Keller. And if what you're hearing is truly useful, you might even be glad you're on hold.

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