Why does customer service still suck?

By | February 1st, 2016

We can probably all agree that there are few things more frustrating than sitting on hold with customer service — except maybe navigating the customer service phone system in the first place. Between automated menus, voice-activated options that never work, and seemingly unnecessary transfers from agent to agent, I’m usually discouraged from even calling in the first place.

Technology and innovation have changed many aspects of our lives over the last few decades, and the pace is accelerating with each passing year. So why does customer service still — for lack of a better word — suck?

True, some companies are adding live-chat customer service features. I prefer live chat for several reasons, including but not limited to the fact that you can multitask better when you’re dealing with a small chat window as opposed to a live person on the phone, you receive an automatic written record of your conversation, and the “hold time” before you reach a representative is usually nonexistent.

That said, many of the same customer service pitfalls remain — scripted responses, transfers between agents, and a general lack of helpfulness.

I’ve found that banks are often the best and most efficient at customer service — be it traditional or via online chat — while retailers, travel vendors and cable companies are among the worst. While many companies offer online FAQs to address the most common problems, most of the time you just need to talk to a live person to explain your unique situation!

Is there any hope for technology to change that?

Related story:   How long should I give a company to respond to my complaint?


Imagine this: You come home from work to find that your cable isn’t working. You try all of the usual procedures to fix the problem, to no avail.

Instead of making the dreaded call to the cable company, you log on to its website and select from a list of keywords that relate to your problem. If you don’t see keywords that describe your problem, you can add your own. Once you’ve chosen the appropriate tags in the text field, you describe the specific problem and any steps you’ve taken. You hit “submit,” then relax with a book and a nice cup of tea.

While you’re relaxing, an algorithm, with the help of the tags you’ve assigned to your issue, sends your note to the appropriate customer service department. A live person reviews your issue and ensures that it gets in front of someone who can actually help. (You know, someone who specializes in cable rather than Internet, and is paid well enough by the company to care. Pipedream?)

Thirty minutes later, you receive a call from the cable company. You’re prepared to explain the problem again from the beginning, verify that, yes, you have tried to unplug and replug the cable box, wait on hold while you’re transferred to Tier 2 customer service where you’ll have to explain the problem again — and so on, and so on.

Instead, you’re quite refreshed to hear that the person on the other line is calling in regard to your specific problem and is ready to try alternate solutions while on the phone with you. Total time spent on the phone: 10 to 15 minutes. If it comes down to needing to send a technician, you’ll only have invested a few minutes, rather than hours. (Don’t tell me you haven’t spent upwards of 45 minutes on the line before getting to the “testing solutions” phase; we’ve all been there.)

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Or, let’s say you need to rebook your flight. You sign on to the airline’s website and enter your flight confirmation number and other identifying information. If possible (and some airlines do this already), you can simply choose your new flight and rebook online. If it’s more complicated than that, a live chat window appears and a customer service representative provides you with all of the information you need in writing. If one of you needs to reference a specific policy, you can provide a link, rather than blindly take their word for it or struggle to remember what you read.

That’s the dream.

If companies can implement advertising that follows you around the Internet based on one search, if they can spend money on celebrities in their marketing campaigns, and if they can remotely log in to computers from the other side of the country — even the world — there has to be a better way. There just has to.

What’s been your worst customer service experience? The best? Has technology improved or hindered your experiences? What changes do you think we’ll see in the future? Is there any hope for the customer service process?

I’ll just be over here avoiding making a customer service phone call, angrily tweeting @TSA.

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