Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

Hounded by customer service

Enough already with the surveys and polls and follow-up calls. What's the point if you ignore what consumers tell you?

By Liz Pulliam Weston

This summer, I had a little glitch with my e-mail service -- a glitch that consumed several days of my time and a few hundred dollars of my hard-earned cash trying to fix.

Sure, that was annoying. But what came next was almost worse.

Each of the three companies with whom I dealt pelted me with phone calls and e-mail surveys demanding to know how they performed. The tally so far:

  • Microsoft, provider of my Hotmail accounts (and of MSN Money): three live phone calls and two e-mails asking me to rate their service.

  • Adelphia, provider of my high-speed Internet service: two live phone calls asking how they did.

  • Best Buy, provider of the Geek Squad technician who came my home: two recorded calls asking me to phone an 800 number to complete a survey.

I was actually pretty pleased with the service I got from all three companies. But after the second time that an Adelphia representative called to ask about the person who scheduled my appointment -- a person that I couldn't even remember the first time a different representative called -- my generally positive feelings started turning distinctly sour.

I'm not alone. Several folks on the Your Money message board volunteered their own stories of getting hounded by customer service:

Littlest O bought new French doors from Lowe's, which triggered an onslaught of follow-up calls.

"They called to congratulate us on our purchase, then they called to see if the service appointment to measure the door frame was satisfactory, they called to come several weeks early to put the door in (wasn't disappointed with that), and then they called to see if the installation went okay," Littlest O wrote. "I'm not complaining that we got everything, and we were very satisfied, but it did seem like for an entire week, every time the phone rang it was Lowe's."

Poster supersavercalistox had a similar experience with Hewlett-Packard after a computer was zapped by lightning and had to be sent in for repair.

"The next day I received a call asking if they service had been successful. THE COMPUTER HAD NOT EVEN BEEN PICKED UP YET!" supersavercalistox wrote. "For the next 5 days I received (calls asking if the service had been) successful although I still had not received the computer back … I love the follow-up, but not every 5 seconds."

Poster moneyhoney bought a Honda from the dealership where she works and has fielded at least five calls about her purchase.

"What am I going to say?! That I hate the car and never want to go back to work?" moneyhoney wrote. "The last straw for me was the written follow-up survey making sure (a previous) phone survey had been satisfactory. AAAAAAAAH!"

Another car buyer, gofor, reported being coached three times by the dealership on how to fill out a survey the manufacturer, General Motors, would send. The dealership promised a free oil change if the survey was filled out in a way that cast the dealership in the best possible light.

The dealership "called at least twice after my purchase, not so much to see if everything was OK with the car, but to ask if I had received and completed the GM survey," gofor reported. "I received but did not complete the GM survey and I take my vehicle elsewhere for my oil service."

Other posters complained about long surveys that took up to an hour to complete and companies that relentlessly solicited feedback but seemed to do nothing about the problems that were reported.

So what's going on here? Some posters speculated that companies want to appear caring, without actually changing their stripes. Customer service expert Keith Bailey is less cynical: he believes many companies have their hearts in the right place, but they're bungling the execution.

"Customer service is still a differentiator in the marketplace," said Bailey, co-founder of Sterling Consulting Group and co-author of "Customer Service for Dummies."

"Companies want to find out how well they're doing, rather than assuming they're doing well."

It's the execution

The problem is how they're going about it:

Companies are using the wrong methods. Two of Bailey's particular pet peeves: those "rate us from 1 to 10" polls and the "bounce back" survey cards often inserted into restaurant and hotel bills.

The cards are "almost completely worthless," Bailey said, because they tend to be filled out only by those "who were really, really happy, or really, really upset."

"They're either people who had such great service they can't contain themselves, or it was so bad they have to write it down to get it out of their systems," Bailey said. "You don't get the vast majority of your customers."

The 1-to-10 surveys are often so rigidly structured, and so mechanically delivered, that they don't really tell companies what's going on. Business development consultant Ron Karr remembers giving one company generally high marks in a phone survey but rating it low in one aspect of customer service. Rather than follow up on the low mark, however, the survey taker just went on to the next question.

"We're not training people to really hear what the customers are saying," said Karr, who co-authored "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Great Customer Service."

"Without really hearing and making changes, you're offending the people you're asking."

Companies are rewarding the wrong behavior. Many companies outsource their customer service surveys, said business consultant Don Blohowiak, and the survey-takers are often rewarded based on how many questionnaires they complete, rather than the quality of the information revealed. That leads to the relentless pursuit many of us have experienced.

Even worse, in Blohowiak's view, is the coaching that Your Money poster gofor experienced at the car dealership. In its zeal to get good ratings, the dealership is undermining the whole purpose of the survey and alienating customers at the same time.

"It's the law of unintended consequences. You've got people doing the wrong things for the wrong reason," said Blohowiak, founder of the Lead Well Institute and Karr's co-author on the customer-service book. "There's this huge disconnect because it's become a game."

Companies are failing to follow through. The real sin, and the reason for so much "survey fatigue" among consumers, is that so few companies ever report back to customers about the results of surveys or what's been changed as a result.

"You get the sense," Bailey said, "the results are just going to disappear somewhere."

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What companies should be doing, Blohowiak said, is having more open-ended discussions with customers and with employees on the front lines, who tend to get the most immediate, unadulterated feedback. Any surveys given to customers should be short, easy to answer and allow for a variety of responses.

"Companies should be asking, how was your experience, would you do business with us again, would you recommend us to your friends and why?" Blohowiak said.

Choose how to respond

As customers, we may not be able to convince companies to abandon counter-productive customer-service surveys. But we can choose how to respond when we're contacted. To wit:

Respond only to the surveys you want, in the way you want. You can fill out or delete e-mail surveys, respond or say "no thanks" to phone inquiries. If you're feeling hounded by calls, ask the offending company to add you to its internal "do not call" list. Companies are required by federal law to maintain and abide by these lists; if you're called again, you can then complain to the Federal Trade Commission.

If you've got a problem, go directly to the top. I covered many techniques for dealing with recalcitrant customer service in "How to complain and win" and "7 ways to win the customer-service game" but in my experience the most effective way to get a problem resolved is to write to the company's chief executive.

Write letters of praise when warranted. A letter from a real, live customer tends to get a lot more notice than any survey will. Praise-filled letters are often added to an employee's personnel record and may result in bonuses or other rewards. In my view, rewarding service people who get it right is the best way to encourage them to keep doing so -- and hopefully influence others with their good example.

Liz Pulliam Weston's column appears every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. She also answers reader questions in the Your Money message board.

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