There's an old joke about customer service: A man dies and is given the chance to look at both heaven and hell before deciding which to choose. In hell, he finds a group of happy people having a feast, drinking fine wine and listening to great music. Heaven is peaceful, but a little dull. The man chooses hell, but upon arriving, he finds only anguished faces and incredible heat.
"What happened to the food, wine and music I saw yesterday?" he asks the devil.
"Yesterday you were a prospect," the devil replies. "Today you are a customer."
While not quite devilish, many companies appear to go to great lengths to acquire customers, only to treat them poorly once they are on board. A new MoneyRates.com survey conducted by Op4G finds that cable companies are the worst offenders of this sort, evoking customer-service dread in more respondents than any other type of company.
The companies customers hate calling
When asked what type of company they most dread calling, 25 percent of survey respondents named cable companies. Gathering 15 percent of the vote, credit card issuers were the second most popular choice -- aside from "none," which gathered a surprising 20 percent of the vote.
The apparent poor service standards of cable TV companies may be a lingering habit from when the local cable company typically had a monopoly on premium programming in an area. Now, with the proliferation of alternatives such as satellite, Internet service providers and phone companies, cable companies may want to re-examine their approach to customer service.
Worst things about trying to reach a representative
The survey also examined which customer-service experiences most annoy consumers today, and it appears many consumers' frustrations start with simply trying to reach someone to listen to their problem. When trying to reach a representative, the most common complaint was long waits on hold, which was cited by 42 percent of survey respondents. Phone trees that don't have an option for what the caller needs were also a common complaint, at 26 percent.
Note that these complaints are not mutually exclusive. Some of the worst customer-service experiences start by trying to navigate an unhelpful phone tree, and then waiting for a long time on hold upon choosing the option for speaking to a representative.
Worst things once you reach a customer service representative
When they finally get through to a customer-service representative, consumers' problems may be far from over. Forty-seven percent of respondents chose poor language or communication skills on the part of customer-service representatives as their worst pet peeve. The next most annoying experience was representatives who stick to a prepared script rather than answering a question.
Both these problems are symptoms of companies treating customer service as an expense to be minimized, rather than an opportunity to be maximized.
What consumers can do about it
Here are some tips for getting more out of your customer-service experiences:
- Take names (or ID numbers). Start every conversation by asking for the name of your representative -- or an ID number if he or she won't give a full name. Sometimes, just knowing they are being held accountable makes customer-service representatives more responsive.
- Ask to speak to a supervisor. Don't hesitate to work your way up the ladder. Chances are the rank-and-file representatives don't have the authority to solve any real problems anyway.
- Try online service centers. More and more companies are gearing themselves to servicing customers online rather than over the phone, and you might find it a more efficient use of your time to go that route.
- Check your alternatives. If you have a serious gripe with a company, check out what alternative providers there are. This is good to know before you take the next step.
- Threaten to cancel. Sometimes this is the only thing that gets a response, but don't threaten it until you know you have a viable alternative lined up.
Some companies treat customer service as a numbers game rather than an opportunity to satisfy people. They expect a certain percentage of customers to leave over poor service, but they consider that cheaper than spending the time addressing their problems. If that seems to be the case with the companies you encounter, you shouldn't hesitate to take your business elsewhere.
The next company you deal with might not be any better in the long run, but you will at least get to enjoy the feeling of being a prospective customer again -- if only for a while.
The MoneyRates.com/Op4G survey gathered responses from 2,000 U.S. adults in December 2013.