What's the difference between Fed Ex and Bank of America?
One knows customer service and the other doesn't, according to consumer surveys.
So, who does the job well and why do so many companies still put their customers through hell by putting them in an automated phone merry-go-round or flaunting a rude and indifferent attitude?
According to the sources we consulted, these companies are consistently cited for the quality of their service:
Four Seasons Hotels
Companies that score high believe in a culture of service. "These firms know that there are so many choices out there for consumers, if they don't please them, they'll go on to the competitor," says Horrell.
He cites Starbucks as an example. "They make that experience enjoyable, and I'm willing to pay for it," says Ed Horrell, the host of a radio program, "Talk About Service," and the author of "The Kindness Revolution."
"I can get a cup of coffee at Burger King or McDonald's for a third of the price, but you don't get the same experience."
Those top-rated companies recognize that much of their success is due to word of mouth, explains Marc Karasu, a former executive at Yahoo. "American Express seems to do a good job. So does Nike. They recognize the value of their customers referring them to friends. Those are the companies that tend to win over time."
But why do so many companies not get it?
A combination of factors, from the increasing reliance on automated phone systems to companies slashing budgets for their customer service divisions to disgruntled employees passing on their frustration, has provoked customers into voicing their complaints about the way companies treat them.
The latest target is Sprint, which made headlines Tuesday for booting 1,000 customers who habitually complained about their service.
Other recent examples include AOL, which attracted notoriety after a recording of a customer's inability to close his account became an Internet sensation, and Best Buy, which refused requests to redirect calls to stores.
The worst offenders invariably tend to be cell phone companies, cable TV companies, airlines and banks. These companies are among those that turned up in surveys by consumer and customer service consultants: AOL, Albertson's, Bank of America, Best Buy, Dell, Day's Inn, Home Depot, Sprint, Wells Fargo.
"I probably speak to 25,000 people a year, and every time I speak, I'll ask whether anyone thinks customer service is improving. Nobody raises their hand," says Horrell.
Horrell believes that companies have disconnected from what their customers really want because they don't train their customer service reps properly and they outsource those services to other countries. "What I found is that customers don't expect perfection, but a reasonable attempt to show that someone cares as opposed to the general attitude of indifference," he said.
In addition to Sprint, Horrell cites Radio Shack and the airlines because they illustrate how poor treatment of employees filters down to customers. "Last year, Radio Shack fired a couple hundred employees by e-mail. How is that going to affect the remaining employees? Why should they show any regard for their customers if they get treated like crap? There is a direct correlation between happy employees and customer satisfaction."
Automated phone systems are one of the biggest sources of complaints. Although they are useful at helping customers with routine transactions like checking account balances, such systems end up frustrating those who have more specific or complicated questions.
"The purpose of these automated systems is very specific: to save money by handling phone calls without going to a person," says Peter Leppik, the CEO of Vocal Laboratories, which is hired by corporate call centers to survey their customers. "The company has made the assumption that they can push you to use the automated system if you push hard enough. Satisfaction goes through the floor and frustration goes through the roof."
Although numerous Web sites listing tactics for getting around automated systems have been created by angry consumers, the companies monitor them and change their strategies to block out customers, says Leppik.
Despite recent accounts, the cell phone industry has actually improved its customer service, according to surveys. "We have been tracking the large mobile phone companies every quarter for four years and in that time, as an industry, they have improved their customer service demonstrably," says Leppik.
Leppik notes that large financial institutions such as banks, which his firm has been tracking for 2½ years, haven't changed their customer service ratings. And the airlines? "Lord only know if there's any hope for the airlines," says Leppik, who added that his firm dropped the industry a few years ago because "they weren't interested in the data we were providing since they were bankrupt."
Karasu is one consumer who took matters into his own hands. Soon after he had a "mild explosion" at his neighborhood dry cleaner after they left the collar stays in his dress shirt, he started Measuredup.com, which compiles accounts of good and bad customer service from thousands of consumers.
"I wasn't mad that the shirts were ruined but that the person working there could not care less," says Karasu. "In urban areas, where people are in a rush and time is at a premium, people feel that their dollars aren't respected and that they aren't getting customer service."
Karasu also get proactive by leaving cards that say, "You've Been Rated on MarkedUp.com" at businesses he frequents. "There are some stories on the site about people reading reviews and proactively fixing the problem."