We Talk to a Consumerist Editor About How to Tackle Inept Customer Service

By , dealnews contributor

Whether awarding the Golden Poo trophy to the Worst Company in America (this year Electronic Arts won the title) or putting together quirky stories about how even Indians aren't fond of India-based call centers, The Consumerist dishes consumer advice and activism with attitude. The Yonkers, NY-based website fights many a battle with companies that treat consumers like cattle, and is often fueled by readers who gripe about shoddy service from enterprises like Bank of America, AT&T, and Countrywide.

Despite a prolonged recession, customer service hasn't necessarily shaped up the way one would expect. But no consumer is without resources, or allies in the form of the Consumerist team. dealnews spoke with Consumerist Deputy Editor Chris Morran about the current state of customer service, and how to take action when companies replace courtesy and respect with incompetence and neglect.

In 2012, where do we stand in terms of customer service in America?
Chris Morran: I would say it's getting worse. Good customer service is expensive because it requires good employees, but good employees that know that they're good either get bumped up to management or go into a line of work that pays better. Plus, the return on [employee] investment is nowhere near as high as if it's shifted to a call center where people are paid less. Customer service is a long-term capital investment that brings long-term benefits, whereas cost-cutting brings an immediate benefit. It's short-sighted, but when the value of your stock depends on how close you are to bankruptcy, companies will look at the short-term.

Are there any particular industries with notably shoddy customer service?
CM: We polled our readers informally a year ago to find out which industry had the worst customer service, and cable and telecom had the absolute worst. That's because there's little or no competition; with cable, for example, customers have no decision to make regarding the the cable provider they get, so there's no vested interest for the companies to improve customer service. It would be nice to have the positive PR and people loving you, but Comcast still makes the same amount of money at the end of the day regardless.

Does coverage on Consumerist change the way some retailers operate?
CM: A good number of companies have given us contacts to reach out to before we post something, or else they reach out to us, sometimes within minutes of a post. I have a good contact at Wells Fargo and I will make comment requests. We take readers at their word, but we know it's just one side of the story, and we hope that by getting both sides together we can get them to solve things. We do see some companies promising to fix things, but only if we promise not to post an article. It's only happened once or twice since I've been there, but effectively it's like blackmailing us or the readers to solve an issue. And with some companies, we get bullied to take a post down after it's been resolved. We'll update it, but unless they can prove the post is untrue, we won't take it down. We like to get readers problems resolved, but ultimately it's about calling these companies out on their practices.

Do you ever see improvement or a sincere effort by a company to stop tripping itself up?
CM: Sprint has set up a hotline to resolve customer service issues, and when people call that number, they have been able to resolve issues. But has Sprint gotten better as a company? That's hard to say. I know that their merger with Nextel was disastrous: They went from tops on the [annual ACSI survey] list to the bottom of the list in terms of customer service.

Do any companies deserve good marks for taking care of their customers?
CM: It's weird. People who fly Southwest still love Southwest, even after the AirTran merger in 2011 and despite tremendous PR gaffes: the anti-fat people policy, and kicking celebrities off their planes — Kevin Smith [too fat] and Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day [for wearing saggy pants] — continue to pop up. However, Southwest has been very proactive in terms of solving issues, though, and most problems [stem from] employees misunderstanding policies. Netflix has been pretty good, too, but they [ticked] off a lot of people when they doubled everyone's rate by separating streaming and DVDs services. It may have hurt them in the long run, but people still appreciate Netflix's customer service; they'll proactively email people when they have massive outages, and offer refunds. They obviously get a little bit of grief, but they are now one of the top 10 or 12 retailers in the U.S., and they are probably the only company that we constantly receive good customer service stories about. With Target and Best Buy, it's nothing but bad comments. I can't remember the last time we had a good story about Best Buy.

Do any unusual scenarios get your attention?
CM: Amazon Prime customers have complained about the shippers they use. And while Amazon uses all of the major companies, customers never know which one Amazon is actually going to use. Sometimes its FedEx, sometimes it's UPS, and sometimes it's USPS. Amazon also uses a company called LaserShip, and we've gotten a lot of complaints about them. But that may be a case of a small company getting overwhelmed with the business. People will contact Amazon and Amazon will say, 'Oh sorry, you have to contact the shipper' But as far as the customer is concerned, that's an extension of Amazon's service.

What can the average consumer do to get the attention of a big — and often impersonal — company?
CM: The first thing we recommend is the executive email carpet bomb, or EECB for short. It's generally pretty easy to figure out how to navigate a corporate email system, and figure out whether the addresses are 'first name.last name' or 'first initial [followed by] last name.' Then just plug in as many names as you can find; sometimes we've published those names, but then companies have changed their email system. Then you'll want to write a very detailed letter — not nasty, but disappointed — to these people. Give as much information as you can and suggest remedies. Don't go overboard, and remember it doesn't always work, but you'd be surprised at the reactions and results sometimes. One day you might be in the middle of a problem that's lasted for a year, and the next you get a call from the company president's office.

How can you word such a letter to ensure the greatest chance of being heard?
CM: The number one thing people are looking for is not anger or vitriol. Even at Consumerist, we're not looking for nasty. We try to figure out who we can help. Writing an effective letter starts with clearly stating issues without tangents. When names and details are included, that helps us. And if you suggest a remedy, we can determine whether it's worth posting on the site. If you write, "Comcast just screwed me over," we have to ask, "How did they screw you over?" And if you say, "They messed up my wiring," we have to ask, "Well, how?"

There's nothing wrong with being angry, but being angry in and of itself isn't going to get you anywhere. It has to be anger with a purpose and a goal attached to it — and not just venom.

Front page photo credit: OMNIBeat
Photo credits top to botto: TriviaWorks, Focus.com, and HotSearch

Lou Carlozo is a dealnews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth, and was most recently the managing editor of WalletPop.com, and before that a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

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Also wanted to mention, I have had nothing but great customer service from Amazon in the past. Twice I have contacted them, and both times I feel as though they have done their job well and maybe gone above and beyond what I would expect.
I am actually very surprised to hear people complain about Target's customer service. I am a customer service rep at Target and I constantly do whatever possible to help. We can almost always help the guest, even when they don't have their receipt or they have gone just over the 90-day return limit. Personally, I always try to go the extra mile for the guest. I think maybe it's because there are a few guests that want us to go way beyond (Like returning an item we don't sell) and then they act like we are not doing everything in our power as guest service reps to help them. Overall, I feel as though Target has a very fair return policy in general and attempts to resolve all of our guest's concerns.
What is the best way to find the emails of CEOs or the head of Customer Service? Who do we write to for complaints against the horrendous cable service we receive? We use Cox and it is perfectly awful.... They have downright lied to us regarding options.
Thanks for a very enlightening article.