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Customer Service Hall of Shame5/28/2008 12:01 AM ET

Why we hate cell phone companies

And cable companies and Internet providers. More than 30% of you say the service you receive from them is 'poor.'   

By Karen Aho

Communications companies, here's a message for you: Your customers are ticked.

From cell phones to cable TV to Internet providers, Americans are not happy about the service they receive, a fact made clear by the ranking of those companies in MSN Money's second annual Customer Service Hall of Shame. (To see the first year's results, click here.)

The MSN Money-Zogby International survey asked consumers to rate the service of 10 cell phone providers, and, on average, more than 31% of customers rated the services of those companies as "poor." For cable TV companies (and their satellite competitors), the average was 35%. Both averages could have put the entire categories in our Hall of Shame.

The two groups would have dominated the top 10, but we didn't include many of them in our Hall of Shame rankings, as there weren't enough respondents who had an opinion of their services. (For more on our methodology, click here.)

So what's the deal with communications companies? Are the services difficult to deliver? Are customers too demanding? If a cable customer screams and the cable company doesn't have a competitor, does anyone hear? Do the companies simply not care?

The experts agree on one point: Sooner or later, these companies will pay for angering their customers.

"They need to be providing good service, or those consumers who can find good service will leave," said Sally Cohen, an analyst with Forrester Research, a technology consulting company. "Twenty percent of consumers who have Internet service say that they would leave their Internet provider based on poor customer service."

Nature of the beast?

Analysts grant that these companies provide heavily used, complex and often highly technical services to huge numbers of users. Take a look at the numbers from the companies:

  • Comcast, the cable company, is also the largest provider of home broadband Internet service and fourth-largest phone provider. It has 24.1 million customers and talks to an average of 1 million of them a day, by phone, at retail centers or in homes. (Spokeswoman Jenni Moyer said that out of a million customer interactions HSBC handles each day, there is a subset that doesn’t go well.)

  • Time Warner Cable, like Comcast, provides bundled cable, Internet and digital phone service. It has 14.5 million customers and takes 12 million to 13 million calls a month. Last year, 63% of those calls were picked up within 30 seconds, spokesman Alex Dudley said. Customers use their Time Warner products an average of 10 hours a day.

  • Sprint Nextel, which became the third-largest wireless phone provider in a 2005 merger, had 54 million subscribers in 2007.

The fierce customers of 'now'

Many customers operate as if they can't live without these companies' services even for a moment. Rich Honack, an assistant dean, chief marketing officer and adjunct professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, calls these "nanosecond customers." And they're rife in today's nanosecond culture, he said. Studies have shown that people are far less patient than they were a decade ago.

"If my wireless goes out, I need it fixed now," Honack said. "And don't tell me I have to wait. If you tell me I have to wait two hours, I become an angry customer."

The problem builds when customers have nowhere else to turn. There might be another Internet provider in town, but that won't get the computer back online in the here and now. The same with banks and phones: It takes time and money to establish a new account.

"If people are in a situation where they're kind of hung up with no options, that's when they get frustrated," said Craig Johnson, the president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting firm. "It's a loss-of-control thing."

Look at the companies that often get good marks for customer service, Johnson said. Many are grocery stores. If you eat a lot of peaches but can't find them, you can just drive a few blocks to another store. It's so easy to fix the problem that people barely have time to get annoyed.

The only worry falls to the stores, which become motivated to improve service, Johnson said.

The phone-help death spiral

It hardly helps that the services themselves have become increasingly complex.

Telecommunications providers, in particular, not only offer choices within each service, but they also bundle those services. Consumers often don't know how the technology works or how it ties together their digital phone, Internet and cable service, Forrester Research's Cohen said.

"Providing service around a service that a customer doesn't really understand in the first place is challenging," she said.

Continued: Endless transfers lead to frustration

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