Why Customer Service Sucks These Days

The Soup Nazi from 'Seinfeld' giving bad customer service

Bad customer service from The Soup Nazi in ‘Seinfeld’ | NBC

If you’ve dealt with a surly cashier, or a server who gave you a ton of attitude, you’ve probably wondered just what in the hell has happened to customer service these days. Of course, you’ve likely seen the inverse of these situations play out as well — say, a group of customers treating a server at a restaurant like an animal, or someone escalating a minor issue into a full-blown hissy fit at a crowded retail store.

The fact of the matter is, customer service has, and likely always will, suck. Not just for patrons, but for those who work in the sector as well.

But if you feel that over the past several years, customer service has really declined? Well, there is some evidence to back you up. Surveys have shown the customer service experience has indeed declined, particularly in certain industries. So, if you’ve suspected as much, you’re not crazy.

But the question of why still remains. And it’s not easily answered.

Part of the issue stems from large, structural changes to the economy, and in business in general. Ever wonder why every call to Comcast leaves you thirsty for blood afterward? It’s because Comcast (and many other giant companies) aren’t investing in customer service. They know that no matter how mad you get, you’re still going to pay them. This is because they have enough market power to get away with it.

Other companies and industries have cut back on their investments in customer service for the same reason: They’re making the bet that they can cut costs by hiring people who may not be as good, and still retain most of their customers. That’s why calling customer service might get you some guy named “Travis” in Mumbai, who is pretending to have intricate knowledge of your internet connectivity issues at your home in Portland.

So, there’s a delicate mix at play here. Monopoly powers in certain industries allow many companies to get away with big cuts to customer service costs — often by sending those jobs overseas where labor is much cheaper — knowing that customers can’t, or won’t, go to a competitor. But big economic changes may play a role as well.

Given that the American middle class has been shrinking, and many well-paying jobs have been lost, a lot of people have been driven into the service industry. Service industry jobs are typically not the best in that many only offer part-time hours, sporadic schedules, and low pay. These are jobs that a lot of people are being forced into, and they may be resentful of the fact that they’re there. That’s not an excuse to be a jerk or unprofessional, but it’s something that may produce bad experiences.

Overall, however, customer service itself hasn’t changed much. But the elements within it have changed.

The workers: customer service professionals

As we just discussed, many people who are now working in the service industry may not have ever thought that they would find themselves there. They may have been displaced by technology or large-scale economic changes, but the fact of the matter is, many people working in the industry may be relatively new to it. And if you spent several years or decades working in manufacturing, for example, and now are in a customer-facing role? It can be a tough adjustment to make.

Because many companies aren’t investing in customer service or experience, they’re not spending much money in labor costs, or in efforts to find the best customer service reps out there. As a result, you’re not necessarily seeing the best employees out there, but those who are willing to put up with low pay, weird scheduling, and constant abuse.

There are, of course, still millions of perfectly competent and professional customer service workers out there. But the labor and talent pool has been diluted, so to speak, and many people are experiencing the results of that first-hand with bad customer service experiences.

The customers

Black Friday shoppers jostle over merchandise

Black Friday shoppers jostle over merchandise | John Moore/Getty Images

The people on the other end of the phone, or behind the counter at your favorite retail stores may have changed over the years, but so have the customers. It’s fairly commonplace to witness people having meltdowns — be it through screaming and crying, or putting on their own private “Occupy”-style rebellion — when they don’t get what they want.

Just look at what happens all across the country around the holidays — Black Friday, to many people, has become a day when they think it’s perfectly okay to engage full-blown chimpanzee mode, and use violence and intimidation to get what they want. And for some reason, we tend to laugh at it or ignore it. We’ve let it fester, and now it’s relatively common.

“The customer is always right”

Finally, consumers have adopted the mantra that “the customer is always right” in an effort to get businesses and their employees to bend over backward for them. We’ve all witnessed someone use this trump card when complaining about something, or trying to get a deal. Unfortunately, this phrase doesn’t at all mean what people think it means.

While consumers will use it to try and translate the idea that a business simply has to do whatever they want, the phrase doesn’t take into account that customers can be dishonest, manipulative, or bullies. It’s more accurate to think of the phrase on a bigger picture — as in, the consumers are right in making purchases of the goods and services they actually want. If you open a stuffed tiger store and go out of business, that’s not the fault of the consumers; they were right. You were wrong for not catering to their tastes.

At the end of the day, you can’t deny that customer service has changed. Yes, it seems it has gotten a little worse, but then again, so have the customers. It’s a complicated stew of factors that have gotten us to where we are, and the best thing you can do if you wish to have a positive experience is to do your best to be patient and understanding.

Or, just treat others as you wish to be treated.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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