Customer service at the tipping point

When companies botch service calls, they stand to lose more than just one customer

I recently received a letter from my bank asking me to call about an error on my mortgage payment. It was a simple matter -- a bill I'd paid had gone to the wrong address when the bank sold my mortgage. Normally, I'm a fairly calm person; I am accustomed to the mercurial moods of a teenager, am a regular tester of beta technologies, and am a Windows user. Despite all that practice with frustration, within 30 minutes of dialing the bank, I was hurling strong language at a robot.

I'm not proud of that. But in my defense, I venture that the robot was very bad at her job. I assumed she was hired to interpret voice prompts and transfer customers to the right department. I'm a college-educated, not noticeably accented, native speaker of the King's English, so I shouldn't be an enormous challenge in this regard. But she sent me to the wrong department several times, put me on hold till I hung up, hung up on me several times -- after proclaiming she was happy to help -- and proudly announced that my problem was solved when it most certainly wasn't.

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Admittedly, the robot didn't understand my loud expletives any better than my calm explanations. But I, unlike her, am only human. She remained calm throughout the entire process -- so calm, in fact, that despite my initial assumption that she was there to help facilitate calls, I went away convinced she was designed to make customers go crazy and leave. Under that assumption, at least one of us had accomplished something.

So I was heartened to see a report from ClickFox informing me I'm in good company. ClickFox recently conducted a survey asking people about their most frustrating customer service experiences and how they respond to them.

Here are the top five most frustrating industries, according to the responses:

  1. Cable
  2. Telephone
  3. Health care
  4. Insurance
  5. Banks

The things these companies do that are the most frustrating? Leaving us on hold for long periods of time (41 percent), making us speak to several people -- explaining our problem each time -- to resolve a problem (13 percent), and not being recognized by speech recognition programs (9.3 percent).

I'm not crazy -- but these companies are.

Because when a customer gets as frustrated as I did -- and a large percentage of cable and telephone customers are feeling flustered if they are turning up at the top of the list in a survey -- we don't just assume we are nuts and keep our bad experiences to ourselves. As any regular participant here at Gripe Line knows, we talk about it. And we keep talking about it. And we take our business -- and the business of those we influence -- elsewhere.

In fact, according to the ClickFox survey, 51.8 percent of respondents make a point of telling friends and family their customer service war stories and 20 percent make a point of posting something about the bad experience to a blog or some other form of social media.

This is very bad for the brand of the company that decided to hire that idiot robot. She sent me to what the ClickFox survey calls the "tipping point": the moment when a customer -- depending on the feasibility -- decides to leave a company and never buy from them again and to use their own time and energy telling as many people as they can about the bad experience.

As it happens, I had already reached the tipping point years ago with this particular financial institution but ended up in this mortgage through no fault of my own. In fact, I put a substantial amount of energy into an attempt not to do business with this company.

That is another thing that bears mentioning about the customer's tipping point: It has a very long life span. My original experience was more than 10 years ago. If I can judge by the comments in the ClickFox survey, that's also not uncommon. One respondent estimates that after 10 years, he has told his tale of woe about one company to thousands of people.

How about you? Have you reached your tipping point with a company? Would you spend more to do business with its competitor?

Got gripes? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com.

This story, "Customer service at the tipping point," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

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