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?

Chris Lake

Published 19 May, 2011 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (23)

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Paul Griffin

I had to call BT to try to find out why our broadband wasn't working, the first thing I was asked was if I had looked at their website FAQ!

In diagnosing the fault I had to tell them the colours of the lights on the router. Their routers use Orange, Amber and Green lights - I am 80% colourblind which they fund astounding and as such couldn't help further. What's wrong with on or off, or numbers?

I registered with Talk Talk as they had a very low advertised rate for broadband at home. On completing the registration thing including giving over Direct Debit details the advertised price had risen from £9.95 to £27.00 so I immediately cancelled. I called several times subsequently as they started sending me "welcome packs" etc. Eventually I was advised that everything had been cancelled as I asked and they didn't see the need to communicate that fact!

@TweetDeck have still not responded to even one of my 12 technical reports, even when posted on Twitter using TweetDeck!

As you rightly say, many opportunities to improve!

about 7 years ago



When I called AA insurance yesterday they informed me that “by making this phone call you agree to be contacted about further offers”.

I hung up at that point and tried someone else.

about 7 years ago


Peter Austin @MarketingXD

#21 Facebook page doesn't link through to the company's real-world support channels, e.g. by listing the postal address and phone number.

about 7 years ago



Just had a bad experience with Eventim, largest ticket seller in Germany. I pointed them to a problem on their website, which made me order the wrong tickets. Instead of taking it as a chance to improve their service, they replied that I used a totally different ordering system than I actually have, and that they couldn't help me.

So I thought, let's see if they have a Facebook page, maybe I can talk to the people there. Well, they have. Posting product information. You can comment on their posts, but you can't post yourself. No chance to get any customer support that way.

My impression: They don't want customers, they only want the customers' money.

about 7 years ago



That's not 20 reasons. It's 20 examples of 1 reason: most companies don't care about customer satisfaction after they've got the money.

about 7 years ago



Orange could not seem to understand I can connect to my home internet when using my iphone. I did not want to connect to the internet when outside the home so did not need to pay their £5.00 monthly fee. After 3 months they still didn't get it.

Thankfully Tesco did and I'm now with them.

Thats all you can do in the UK, vote with your feet.

about 7 years ago


Nick Stamoulis

"Too many firms are too focused on acquiring new customers, when they should be trying to retain existing ones."

Exactly! It doesn't make sense, does it? It takes far more effort and money to get a new customer than it does to keep an old one. Once someone has purchased your product, why wouldn't a company do everything they could to make sure that person came back?

about 7 years ago


Canadian Steed

Great post! Living in Canada, one of the most frustrating things I encounter is calling into a company's CSR, only to find they can't (read: don't have the authority to) solve my problem. I ended up ascending through the ranks until I'm talking to a Manager who, with a mouse click, resolves my problem. WHY HAVE INEFFECTIVE CSR'S AT ALL?! "Just put me through to your Manager" has now replaced "hello" when talking to these companies.

about 7 years ago


James Doncaster

Another customer 'service' fail is from companies who operate purely online (LoveFilm, efax etc) whom are more than happy to take your money month on month, but when you wish to cancel, they make you phone up - and invariably keep you waiting and waiting... and waiting...

about 7 years ago


William King

To wait during call and keep listing their products or their played bore music is normally experienced while calling to the help line of your mobile services. While there are also few sites which neither show their email addresses nor show any form to contact to them. Just present their office addresses in this electronic media's era, to write letter to them.

about 7 years ago



How about tradesmen and companies that offer home services such as tiling comps, carpet comps, decorating comps? I had my house repainted internally recently and the manager of the two painters kept calling me 'mate'. Also, all he seemed concerned about was the money, first the deposit and then the final balance. When I told him that I wasn't going to pay the balance till all the snags were done, he still pushed for the money and suggested I hold back £350 until the snags were done, which I did. In the end I sent him an email telling him I wasn't his mate especially when £3000 was concerned. Another example - carpet fitter. They wanted all money up front - why? They know where we live. Why should I pay for a product that hasn't been yet fitted? In the end they agreed to split the final balance and I haven't paid it yet cos the fitter only did half of it as his back gave in. I told the company this totally vindicated my refusal to pay all up front. There is no such thing as customer service anymore in my opinion. Lack of deference to customers, lack of care for customer sensitivies i.e. no personalisation. Only some top brands such as first direct do it well.

about 7 years ago


Anthony Trollope

I think the promises business make on a one-to-one level are getting increasingly bad. People just don't hold themselves to their word any more and leave you constantly dismayed at why they feed you a load of hot air promises. My pet hate is when someone promises to call you back that same day, but forget or just don't prioritise how important customer service actually is.

about 7 years ago



Companies that want to differentiate themselves should take note and raise their customer service quality, instead of treating customer service as an unwanted cost! RAC, RBS, Tesco Bank are examples of organisations that have noticed this shift and making improvements to service their customers effectively and efficiently.

about 7 years ago


Clare Rayner

Lately I've been invited to do talks / workshops at various events about customer service.

My summary on this is as follows:

1. Customer Service = delivering on promises...
2. Promises made by a brand, implied or explicit, lead to setting expectations.
3. If a brand meets or exceeds expectations customers are happy. This builds trust.
4. Trust underpins loyalty, loyalty becomes advocacy. This increases your business overall.
5. If a brand fails to meet expectations customers are unhappy - but in fact it is not failure customers hate. Failure can be tolerated if....
6. When a brand fails how it is handled will be the measure of the final customer outcome... Listening, acknowledgement, ownership and some form of action can turn an unhappy customer back into a happy customer.
7. If a brand not only fails but then does not listen, acknowledge, own the problem or offer some action / resolution, then they have had it...

In talks I have found out just how fierce customers can be when they not only experience failure to meet their expectations but then are met with inadequate action on making a complaint!

In this day and age your customer service underpins your success - in an online, social, connected world failure can be tolerated only if it is addressed, but really you need to remove chances of failure.

To remove chances of failure take a long, hard look at your business, positioning, proposition and promises - what promises, implied or explicit, do you make that you might fail on? What can you do to eliminate risk of failure?

It is as simple as that really - it doesn't matter if you are a sole trader or a global corporate giant - the formula is still the same... Customer service = delivering on promises

Hope that was a useful comment :-)


about 7 years ago


Customer Thermometer

What if companies sent out a single "how did we do for you?" email after the service or product was delivered - the customer clicks a single button "rating from "brilliant!" to "awful!" and the company followed up each instance to fix things and improve things.

It would keep gripes off the web because it would stop them from getting there in the first place - and it means no more long forms to fill in for customers.

about 7 years ago

Patrick Mulder

Patrick Mulder, ceo at AdFiliate bv

Great article Chris. I've put some Dutch translation on my blog with a link to the complete article.

about 7 years ago



I filled out a "call me back immediately" form on a certain internet service provider´s website, I had a simple question before signing up. One week later, they call me. I had already signed up with another company.
Now I regularly receive phonecalls from them "regarding a message I sent", and this was months and months ago. It seems there are no shortage of sales staff to call you up every bloody day, but as soon as you need help "all our operators are busy"

about 7 years ago



@Merc - in my experience, Tesco Bank should be totally ashamed of their Customer Service!
My mum died 5 weeks ago and I had to contact them about her savings accounts - to make a very long story short, they aren't 'allowed' to put customers through to their Probate department but will pass on a message! Two phone calls later, both of which ended in me in floods of tears because I couldn't get hold of the right team to help me.
In the end I blasted them on Twitter! Ten minutes later - honestly! - I get a DM from their Customer Support Team asking for my number so they can call me - which they did immediately and within 24 hours the problem had been solved, along with a £20 voucher to compensate me for my distress.
So yes, they're switched on to the role of social media in reputation management but it should never have got to that point in the first place.

about 7 years ago


Joanne Briggs

Great article and so true to my experiences as well. I am also a Virgin Media 50mb customer and have experienced alot of outage over the last four weeks have probably had to phone them about 10 times and each time leaves my blood boiling. The only sensible people they seem to employ are their engineers who do seem to know about customer services.

As someone above said it seems most companies these days focus on new customers as opposed to retaining their existing ones as well. Do they not realise that eventually those old customers they have lost are all that is going to be left as the new customer "pool" will have been bled dry.

about 7 years ago


Kerry Morrow

Fab article, I totally agree that somewhere along the line customer service has gone terribly wrong. It doesn't seem to focus on the customer's needs at all!
If companies would just allow you to give feedback, actually listen to what you have said, and take action on it to improve the service they give, customers would be much happier and these companies would be much more successful.

about 7 years ago



Very pertinent. It is hard to comprehend why some companies are not even addressing the ones on the list which are easy to fix

about 7 years ago


Georgina Rushworth

When I receive good customer service I get very excited and tell everyone. Unfortunately I haven't had to do too much of that.

In my opinion excellent customer service is down to:
1. Recruitment - finding the right people
2. Valuing the customer service staff - train, empower, pay and reward them well
3. Measuring customer satisfaction regularly (do not live in the dark)
4. Actively and continually looking to improve service levels

about 7 years ago


Paul Forrest

Great article and sound comments. One question: Do you exceed the level of service to your own customers that you demand from your suppliers? Food for thought?

about 7 years ago

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