Why do customer service reps often make you feel as if they have been taught to say sorry and do nothing else?

Posted May 11

It can seem as though customer service representatives are trained to do nothing but apologize and defuse the feelings of angry customers. It often feels like the problem you waited several elevator songs to explain will likely not get solved in the end. Whether or not the problem gets resolved, the interaction between a customer service rep and a consumer has a major effect on the customer's relationship with the company.

Here is one man’s experience dealing with customer service; perhaps you have experienced something similar:

“Several years ago we had problems with our Internet speed, so I called our Internet provider. In the process of fixing our Internet speed, the technician disconnected our satellite TV. I called the Internet provider back to ask them to come back and to fix the problem. I was put through a series of automated processes. When I verbally responded to the questions, the system did not understand me. After repeating the word “representative” many, many times, I was finally connected with a customer service representative. I recounted what had happened and asked them kindly to come back and reconnect my TV system, which was set up by a different provider. The representative accused me of disconnecting my own service and said it wasn’t their fault and they wouldn’t do anything about it! I asked to speak with a supervisor, who made the same claim. After two hours of negotiating, I finally got them to credit my account approximately $200 to cover the additional costs of having my cable provider come out and fix the problem.”

Three common complaints regarding customer service are: “I’ve been waiting forever,” “I keep getting shuffled from one person to the next,” and “they don’t seem to care.” While 29 percent of customers switch to a different company because of a lack of knowledge on the staff’s end, 32 percent switch because they are fed up with speaking to multiple agents. Approximately 53 percent switch because they feel unappreciated, and 42 percent switch because they are put off by rude or unhelpful staff.

When a caller feels the customer service representative doesn’t care, this feeling often becomes more important than the original problem. The harsh reality is that the customer service representatives often really don’t care!

So, if we can assume that many customer service representatives won’t care about us anytime soon, what can be done to help us, their customers? According to an AT&T survey, “Customers placed on hold without background music feel that the hold time is about three times as long as if music played.”

Maybe more companies can play good music for us.

Sometimes the customer service agent doesn’t know how to solve the problem. According to Inbound Telephones Call Center, "over 90 percent of business marketing budgets are spent to get customers to purchase, while only 6 percent on training customer service representatives. Many companies give their new customer service agents a script and tell them to learn as they go. This tactic is made worse by high turnover rates. Across the entire industry, call centers replace 26 percent of their front-line agents annually, according to Response Design Corporation.”

Perhaps part of the problem could be solved by having companies better train their customer service agents.

Simple, right? Knowledge and training. What a concept.

By the way, I tend to be a very optimistic person by nature. However, if, in five years, I write another piece about this topic, I do not expect that things will be much better.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Laura Steele, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.


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