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Why customer service ratings are getting worse

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

American dissatisfaction is rising on both ends of the customer service line. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they've had product or customer service problems over the past year. That's according to the National Customer Rage Survey, which tracks customer satisfaction and incivility. And on the other side, consumers are described as combative and aggressive. Amas Tenumah is the author of "Waiting For Service: An Insider's Account Of Why Customer Service Is Broken And Tips To Avoid Bad Service." And he joins us now. Welcome.

AMAS TENUMAH: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. OK. So just set the stage for us here. Exactly how much worse is customer service this year compared to last year?

TENUMAH: Yeah. You know, there are several ratings agencies, but it is anywhere from five to 10 percentage points worse versus a year ago. Now, keep in mind, this is customers' perceptions of how customer service is going. If you survey - and many organizations like Glassdoor do - customer service professionals, they actually report even worse satisfaction ratings.

SUMMERS: So when you're thinking about the anger and the dissatisfaction on both ends of the customer service line, I'm curious, based on what you know, how much of this has to do with worker shortages?

TENUMAH: Yeah, I think that is definitely a contributing factor. But customer expectations have been rising. And for years, organizations have pushed customers into more and more digital channels. So you put those two things together, and then there's a worker shortage, we've gotten to a place where this perfect storm has caused all kinds of chaos and confusion. So it's a contributing factor. But I wouldn't even give it 20% of the blame.

SUMMERS: So say we were to create something like a grace meter for customers who are looking to resolve an issue that they've had with the business. Exactly where do Americans on average start on that meter, and how long does it take for that meter to start to plummet?

TENUMAH: You know, I'll tell you, Americans are incredibly gracious when they start. If it's on a scale of one to 10, most people start at a nine or 9 1/2. But then you start this interaction and you're met with an automated system, right? - press one, press two - or a machine you're trying to communicate with that can't understand you. And then you get past that and then you give them your information and this is who I am. And then you finally get to a human and the human asks you to repeat your information. Now, your grace started at nine. At this point, you are at, like, a four. And then, God forbid they transfer you, by the time you are transferred after dealing with the machine, repeating your information, you are at a zero, and lots of people are in the negative.

SUMMERS: So how much does a company stand to gain and lose from the social media reviews of service that someone might post on Google or Yelp or something like that?

TENUMAH: Yeah, the stakes are so high. I was writing the other day about the first-ever recorded customer service complaint, and it happened in 1750 B.C. A man was so upset, he carved a 294-word complaint on a rock. Unfortunately, you said that customers can broadcast their good experiences. That hardly ever happens, and they are real-life consequences for these businesses, especially when they are in hypercompetitive industries. I'll give you an example. I had a bad experience with AT&T, and I tweeted at AT&T. I got a response back not from AT&T, but from their competitor with a link for me to ditch AT&T and switch to their service.

SUMMERS: Savvy.

TENUMAH: (Laughter) That's how high the stakes are.

SUMMERS: What do you think the formula is to keep customers happy and to make this a business where workers like those people who are behind all of these things that we need to live our daily lives can feel respected in the work that they do?

TENUMAH: First and foremost, your first customer are your service employees. I usually say customer service is harder than rocket science, and the reason it's harder is while there are formulas that can calculate putting a rocket on the moon, there is no formula for putting two strangers on the same phone call to resolve an issue. So we need to, like, change that social contract and not think about these employees as low-skill workers. This is extremely high skill, and the quicker we evolve as an industry, the better off we will be.

SUMMERS: Ama Tenumah is the author of "Waiting For Service: An Insider's Account Of Why Customer Service Is Broken And Tips To Avoid Bad Service." Thank you so much.

TENUMAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.