American customers have it bad – but here’s how it can be better

Did you know that when it comes to customer satisfaction, the United States falls short of the top 10, behind Russia, Poland and Chile? That the worst industry for service is social media? Or that the worst time to contact customer support is after 6 p.m.?

Well, now you do. The findings come courtesy of Zendesk’s latest report on customer satisfaction, which measures service across 6,000 companies and 125 countries to determine the best and worst countries, industries, and even time of day for customer support.

The research paints a bleak picture for American consumers, suggesting that we’re often ignored when we ask a company for help. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s hit a few highlights of the Zendesk data. For those of you who don’t know Zendesk, it’s an app and website that helps companies handle service requests, so it’s in a position to know who is getting the best service — and who isn’t.

Here are the top 12 countries for customer service:

1. Canada
2. Australia
3. Russia
4. Norway
5. Denmark
6. United Kingdom
7. Israel
8. Poland
9. Chile
10. Sweden
11. United States
12. Brazil

Which industries deliver the best service? Here are the top 12. (Social media ranks dead-last, at number 17, in case you were wondering).

1. Information technology
2. Government/nonprofit
3. Education
4. Real estate
5. Web hosting
6. Health
7. Manufacturing
8. Web apps
9. Software
10. Marketing
11. Travel
12. Business support

And then there’s the timing of your complaints. Zendesk reported that support tickets submitted outside of normal business hours have the slowest first-reply time. The process speeds up when tickets are submitted around 9 a.m., after the tickets submitted from the night before have been processed, but before the tickets from the day have begun to accumulate.

The worst time to call the support desk? Around 6 p.m., when much of the support staff leaves for the day and non-urgent tickets may have to wait 12-14 hours before the next fully-staffed shift begins, the process tends to be at its slowest.

So what does all of this mean to you? I asked Sam Boonin, Zendesk’s research lead, to break it down for consumers.

Time of day is very important
“If you go through the day, you can see that companies are very responsive to their customer requests at the beginning of the work day,” he says. So if you want to contact a company, the early bird gets the worm. If you can get your support request in by lunch time, you’re likely to get a fast response. The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait.

Calling tends to yield better results than using social media or other communication channels
Many companies field their customer support requests via social media, but for pure speed, nothing beats a voice call. “Our data shows that the phone is the happiest channel,” says Boonin. Having a direct conversation leads to the most satisfaction. (Note: this doesn’t eliminate the need to keep a careful paper trail on some more complex requests.)

Choose the company you do business with based on its ability to give good service
“It’s easy to choose the cheapest company,” Boonin says. “But the best bet for consumers is to choose companies that value you through your entire lifecycle.” We spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to find those “best” companies, but a good place to start is the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which ranks companies based on their service scores.

So, time your service calls. Remember that not all companies — or industries — value good service equally. And keep in mind that if you’re reading this story, you probably live in the United States, which is not a service superstar.

Can America do better, when it comes to customer service?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    It’s hard to believe Russia and Israel scores above the USA.

  • Justin

    Calling before 6PM yields better customer service:

    1). Customer support varies during the day, because many companies offshore after hours. Pending service was domestic to start. So complaints routed overseas face a futile effort of overcoming the language barrier and finding resolution.

    2) People become physically spent later in the day. After taking hoards of calls, I’m sure the troubleshooting or generosity meter decline exponentially. Human nature.

    3). Sad but nothing new to see. We rank poorly on broadband, education, and now customer service. Have to keep the status quo alive somehow.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Raven’s Tale of the Week:

    Photography is my hobby. I spend a lot of money on my cameras and electronics. The SO and I decided to a photoshoot of the baby for Christmas cards. We made a little set, dressed her up, and took some great pictures. As a joke, I watermarked them. Sent them over to CVS to print.

    I went to try and pick them up yesterday. First, they didn’t want to give them to me because it was “suspicious.” I asked what the pimple-faced kid saying that meant. He replied, “I don’t know. They got flagged.”

    So, he calls his manager. She comes out and says that I can’t have MY PICTURES of MY DAUGHTER because they are “suspicious.” I said, “Do you mean because I watermarked them?”

    “No,” she said. “Because taking that many pictures of a little girl in that many outfits is…gross.”

    I asked if she was calling me a pedophile. She looked nervous. “Well, not really.”

    “Sounds like it,” I said. “Just give me my pictures.”

    She digs through the box and then says, “These can’t be yours. They’re too professional.”

    I said, “Of course they’re ‘too professional’ I probably paid more for my camera equipment than you make in a month.” (Yes, I was a jerk, but this witch had just accused me of being a perv and was now telling me I was ‘too good’ to print my pictures.)

    General Manger came out from somewhere after hearing this argument. He gave me the pictures, but man, I am so not using CVS ever again. Apparently taking a lot of GOOD pictures of your own kid dressed in various Christmas dresses that people have sent her is not allowed.

  • RWD

    I always call. Most companies never reply to email or acknowledge they received one even when they have a “Contact Us” email explicitly on their web site.

  • Alan Gore

    It’s a little-known fact that for years store clerks have been empowered to make decisions about the putative moral values of their film-developing customers. People would come to Walmart to pick up their film processing order and find themselves surrounded by cops because the clerk thought there might be too many topless pictures of your five-year-old in the order. And as with drug charges, the Constitution does not apply in such cases; you have to hire a high-powered lawyer and prove your innocence.

    Now that everyone uses digital cameras this is less of a problem than it used to be, but it can still bite people who, as in your case, use those drugstore photo printing services. For more professional service, look for the online photo printers who advertise in camera hobby magazines.

  • Len

    next time take pictures of someone else’s kid. : )

  • omgstfualready

    I think it is about expectations though. We expect more and get disappointed more.

  • Deepstardiver

    Any time the recorded message ” Due to unprecedented call volume” comes on I know that I am getting or going to get poor service.

  • $16635417

    Meeting expectations is a huge part of it. Spirit Airlines gets crucified on its customer service. I have bought tickets and flown them before and had no complaints. This is what I was prepared for: non-existent legroom, surly employees, nickle and dimed on everything and eventually have them get me from A to B late. They met expectations. Will I fly them again? Not my first choice, but in a pinch I will and set my expectations low.

  • cscasi

    Many companies “offshore” at all hours. American Express, Chase, HP, Sears and a lot of others. Many times when I have an issue, the call goes overseas. The agent there many times cannot take care of what I need and has to transfer me back to the United States. That causes frustration, loss of time and in my estimation, poorer customer service. The companies add to their bottom lines by paying less for overseas call centers, but they get dinged for poor customer service. Most companies do not seem to care, though. It’s all about the profits.

  • emanon256

    Ive noticed when I e-mail Amazon after 6pm, I often never hear back, when I do, its often over 24 hours despite their 12 hour response guarantee, and sometimes the reply is blank. When I e-mail them first thing in the morning, I get a very well written response within an hour.

  • emanon256

    Holy Crap Batman!

  • Justin

    True, but companies with domestic support, often offshore during the night to keep the lights going 24/7. Honestly, Id rather 9 to 5 hours than routed overseas.

    I now ask for an American call center. One time I got a survey and wrote a scathing review. I said what can be solved in 5 minutes takes mutliple calls wasting hours.

    Corporate somehow got wind and called me a day later. Apologized and said please ask for an American call center from now on.

  • Justin

    I never email unless escalating a complaint to corporate. I find email support inferior to a phone conversation and taking far long to rectify problems. Assuming someone answers the email.

  • Justin

    Please hold while our next available agent will be with you shortly. Due to high call volume we’re currently experiencing longer than usual wait times. Your current wait time is..

    Sad when the message is repeatable without second thought.

  • sara8032

    I’ve had the same response from Walgreens – “these photos are too professional looking so we can’t give them to you. we need a letter from the photographer stating that you have the right to print them.” ‘but I am the photographer.’ “er, well.. I can’t give them to you.”
    If you order them online and have them sent to you, though, they don’t give a rats a**. Personally I prefer to use Shutterfly over going to the pharmacies. I’m sure there’s plenty of other such sites out there as well; so much nicer than having to deal with jerks who can’t imagine there existing private folks who can produce nice photographs by themselves.

  • bodega3

    I have found that most businesses are not fully staffed on Fridays, which last I checked is still considered a work day. Then you also don’t want to call during lunch time which seems to be from 1130a to 2pm. If you work and only have your lunch hour to call, you often spend it on the phone waiting. Time zones make all this challenging if you are calling to a US based office.

  • DavidYoung2

    One of the reasons is in the USA we have lots of choices and, unfortunately, most people chose based on price. So they get cheap Chinese crap and then complain because it doesn’t perform like the made in USA stuff.

    We manufacture here in the USA and people are always complaining that they can get the ‘same thing’ cheaper. Well guess what — it’s not the same thing.

    If something is important, buy the best quality you can afford. As dad used to say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

  • Extramail

    Exactly. I always ask for an American call center. Doesn’t always yield great results but at least we can understand each other.

  • Extramail

    Unfortunately, there is no paper trail when you call customer service. Thus, the customer service rep can, and does, say anything to placate the caller. I’ll pay a little more if it means the product/service is good enough that I won’t need to call customer service.

  • bodega3

    Actually, many companies do keep recordings or notes in your account history. I had a rep with my medical insurance company tell me, over the phone, that something was a part of my plan and would be paid for. The information was incorrect and when I got my Explanation of Benefits, it showed it was declined, I wrote them and they reviewed the history of my calls and paid for the procedure. One of the few times I can say I was actually impressed with my medical insurance company!

  • omgstfualready

    Is the guarantee 12 CONSECUTIVE hours? :-)

  • omgstfualready

    I like the ‘chat’ function so I have the record of it but I’m able to see right away if the person is having any language barriers. In that case I disengage and try it again.

  • Mark Carrara

    How reliable are the results when they come from Zendesk. They seem to market to small and medium business, I wonder how representative the sample is.

  • Chris Johnson

    Wow..just wow. Sorry you had to go through that. That reminds of the made-for-TV movie called “Snap Decision”, which was based on a true story of a woman and her female friend whose own photos of her children also got flagged, turned over to the police and both women were brought up on charges of child porn. Fortunately the judge saw how ridiculous it was and the case got thrown out at the beginning. But not until after both women had paid a lot of money to their lawyers. How the hell are employees at a photo counter in any position to judge something like this anyway? Also, since the advent of digital cameras and online developing, I haven’t been to a retail photo developer in over a decade, but I’m guessing the type of camera and film you had didn’t allow you to use an online developer.

  • emanon256

    That’s what they say. Although, they don’t say what happens if if they don’t respond in that time either.

  • emanon256

    I agree for the most part, except I bought a custom recliner chair recently from a company that prides itself on being made in the USA. The first chair arrived with the reclining mechanism broken, I called, they apologized and sent a replacement. The replacement came, and the foot rest was too wide and didn’t go in all the way, and there were greasy roller marks on the back of the chair. I called the company again and the company sent a professional cleaning service to clean the marks, but said he can’t afford to ship a third chair, but will give me a partial refund if I accept it as is, which I accepted. I asked why the chairs were all breaking considering they are made with pride in the USA, and he said he said when he started people really took pride in their work, now he can’t seem to find employees who care about their job, or who take pride in what they do anymore. I thought about asking him if he considered paying his employees a little better, but decided not to since he hadn’t given me the refund yet.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I would also be curious to know which country is their main market. There is incentive to skew results showing that your target countries have poor customer service to sell more apps.

  • bhaktapur

    I thought US had better customer service than Canada. At least that’s what I’ve experienced.

  • Bill___A

    Not hard to believe at all. I am awaiting a computer part that’s supposed to be “next business day onsite” and so is a colleague. And this is often the case.

  • Justin

    Better results than foreign support. I like being screwed over more by the local call center than offshored one. At least I know I was understood when the company pretends not to care.

    On the flip side, most problems at least have a happy median. I find bette results locally.

  • Cam

    I didn’t vote, not having experienced much American service, but I think it is all about expectations. Russians and Isrealies expect to be treated to like like s//t, and Australians use the “mateyness” shtick to cover hostile., agressice service. I’m Australian myself, so speak from experience.

    The other reason American service is so bad is because you guys refuse to pay a living wage to waiters ans the like.