Social media gives big companies the fear because it is an unpoliced environment where bad noise travels fast. And increasingly consumers are using it to say all kinds of things about brands, and also to aim direct questions at them (in public).

In many cases these companies aren’t remotely geared up to deal with questions, and they would much rather communicate with customers in private. 

But here’s why customers do their complaining in public: it’s easier. It’s really that simple. People don’t mind bitching out loud, and sometimes they take a little comfort from it, but if customer service wasn’t so broken in the first place I think customers wouldn’t be so quick to resort to the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

Here are 20 reasons why customer service is broken…

1. Charging customers premium rates to call your service team.

File under ‘shakedown’, rather than ‘service’.

2. Making customers navigate through a series of automated menus.

Sometimes it takes two minutes before you’re even placed on hold. Ridiculous.

3. Leaving customers on hold forever.

This is especially shocking for high value customers. I pay Virgin Media more than most for a 50MB internet connection at home, yet once had to wait for 55 minutes before somebody (the fourth person I was transferred to) fixed my problem. It took them about 90 seconds, once I was finally put through to the 50MB team. Why not provide me with a specific number to contact them directly? 

4. Forcing customers to listen to crappy ‘have you tried using our website’ or other sales messages.

I only ever pick up the telephone as an absolute last resort, and normally because I can’t do the thing I need to do via the website. If I could, I would. Playing these messages to a customer rather than picking up the telephone is entirely wrong-headed.

5. Interrupting hold music with ten-second ‘Sorry, all of our advisors are busy. We are experiencing high call volumes. Please continue to hold…’ messages every seven seconds.

That’s you I’m talking about, Bloomsbury Bowl.

6. No ‘email us’ option.

Word to the wise: it is in fact 2011. As such there is no excuse for dodging email. It is cheaper to process an email than it is to employ somebody to speak to a customer. Email customer service is really important… so much so that it’s actually a legal requirement.

7. No acknowledgement of email.

If a customer takes the trouble to write then it’s worth immediately firing back an automated email, as a kind of receipt. The customer can be advised of the time it will take before they’ll receive a proper reply (and just for the record, 25 business days is not acceptable). 

8. ‘Donotreply@’ email addresses.

How rubbish is that? This is a total palm off.

9. Failure to communicate by email.

I asked Ladbrokes for my account history recently and received an email that instructed me to write a letter to The Compliance Officer at head office. This is downright avoidance, considering that I asked the question while logged into my supposedly secure online account. I will write a letter the next time I receive a minor flesh injury.

10. Contact forms that don’t work on certain devices / browsers.

Those little things that people speak into can also access the internet. Amazing, isn’t it? This is about accessibility, and about understanding user behaviour (and their preferences).

11. No live online chat.

For high volume businesses this is a really good idea. It provides customers with the immediacy of the telephone while using the website. CSRs can run several chats concurrently (unlike when they’re speaking to a customer on the telephone). We have experimented with live chat in the past and will do so again.

12. Shoddy returns policies.

No shopper wants to jump through hoops in order to return a product. Why make it difficult? Also, if you are charging for returns then you’re doing it wrong

13. No visible contact number on a website.

Beleaguered customers do not want to play hide and seek with your phone number.

14. Low rent FAQs.

Improving the FAQ section of a website is one of the best ways of reducing inbound call volumes. 

15. Ignoring people on Twitter / Facebook.

A study recently proved that only a quarter of UK retailers bother to answer questions asked of them on Twitter. Shocking.

16. Delivery timescale fail.

“We will deliver your item between 8am and 6pm. You will need to sign for it.” 

17. Lame delivery tracking.

Providing the customer with a long alphanumeric code and a link to a courier’s website isn’t particularly joined up.

18. Poor response times.

The average time it takes UK retailers to respond to an email is 10 hours (often it can be significantly longer than that). On Twitter it is around 94 minutes (when retailers bother to reply). On Facebook it is 78 minutes. I think these are all ok, until I start to really think about it… there is scope for vast improvement.

19. The lack of a single customer view.

Yes, it’s difficult to achieve this: it requires a commitment to a joined-up, multichannel customer experience. Econsultancy research found that 90% of businesses think this is ‘important’, yet only 4% have managed to achieve it. Until it happens customers will continue to be frustrated by the fact that a company’s left hand is unaware of the right hand.

20. The blind focus on customer acquisition.

This, for me, is the key reason why customer service remains broken. Too many firms are too focused on acquiring new customers, when they should be trying to retain existing ones. It is a cultural issue, for many businesses. It reflects the fact that sales and marketing have acquisition-based targets on which their bonuses are based. Many CSRs do not receive any kind of bonus. Customer service is perceived by the boardroom to be a horrendous cost to the business. This is all wrong… it’s myopic and it needs to change before customer satisfaction scores will rise across the board. If that happens, the rewards on offer are fantastic: increased loyalty and customer advocacy, a higher average customer lifetime value, and far healthier profits. What’s not to like?

I daren’t think about how many things I’ve missed. What frustrates you the most? Which areas of service need to be improved the most?