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Column: Customer service doesn’t have to be this awful

Customer service has declined amid the pandemic.
Customer service has declined amid the pandemic. It’s time for companies to recognize that treating customers better is good business.
(Los Angeles Times)

Among the various things the COVID-19 pandemic has changed, and not for the better, is customer service. Just ask anyone who has tried to contact California’s Employment Development Department with questions about unemployment benefits.

But I don’t see this solely as a problem. I see it as an opportunity.

First, an example of what consumers are up against in trying to deal with a large company or organization at a time when many service reps are working remotely or dealing with a huge backlog in customer issues.

Steve Endres and his wife were planning a trip last month to California’s wine country from their home near Charlotte, N.C. They spent more than $2,300 for round-trip tickets on American Airlines.

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Unfortunately, Endres’ wife was diagnosed in June with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. Her doctor said she shouldn’t fly until she got control of the condition and a safe COVID-19 vaccine was available.

Endres, 70, told me he promptly contacted American Airlines to cancel their booking. He asked for a refund.

“The customer rep said she could provide a voucher for a future flight,” Endres recalled. “But she couldn’t provide a refund. If we wanted that, I’d have to contact a different office.”

Specifically, he’d have to write via snail mail to an address in Phoenix and make the case for a refund to a different airline employee.

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To me, this smacks of placing an obstacle in the way of customers getting money returned, a deliberate effort to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to pursue a refund.

Endres has a more charitable view of things. “Maybe it’s like going to a bank,” he observed. “The teller can give you cash but can’t give you a loan. For that, you have to talk to someone else.”

OK, fair point. But look what happened next.

Endres said he sent the letter and supporting documentation, including a report from his wife’s doctor, to American. He waited nearly a week. No response.

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He called the airline again. This time, Endres said, a service rep advised him to fax his refund request to the Phoenix facility. He did. No response.

So he reached out to me.

“I know they’ve probably been inundated with refund requests,” Endres said. “But it seems unusually hard to get through to anyone.”

It’s worse than that. I contacted American myself and was told there was no record of either Endres’ letter or fax being received. Injury, meet insult.

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A study last year in the Harvard Business Review found that the average American consumer spends 13 hours a year stuck on hold trying to resolve problems. Thirteen hours.

A third of disgruntled customers have to make two or more calls to resolve their issue, the study said. Many just give up.

More than three-quarters of consumers come away “less than satisfied” with a company’s customer service.

And to no one’s surprise, the study found that in many cases, companies design their customer service departments to prevent irate customers from solving their problems.

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“This structure, we argue, keeps a lid on the amount of redress customers are willing to seek,” the researchers determined. “In other words, by forcing customers to jump through hoops, the organization helps curb its redress payouts.”

Curtis Blessing, an American Airlines spokesman, told me that “for customers who voluntarily cancel their trips, we do not offer refunds. However, our customer relations team will review individual cases due to extenuating circumstances.”

Think about that. No refunds, period. Except possibly sometimes.

No wonder a customer like Endres would feel frustrated. He’s dealing with a business whose stated policy is to say no until it might say yes.

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And American is by no means alone in adopting such a hard-nosed stance. Most airlines have similar policies, as do other companies in the travel and hospitality industries.

The Harvard Business Review study found that the larger a company’s market share, the less it cares what customers think of it. It cited in particular “airlines, internet, cable and telephone service providers.”

“This may help us understand why some of the most hated companies in America are so profitable and why customer service, unfortunately, remains so frustrating,” the study concluded.

I said higher up that pandemic-related challenges involving customer service represent an opportunity.

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What I mean by that is companies can acknowledge that treating customers shabbily is bad for long-term business and that upgrading customer service operations can translate to greater loyalty and, ultimately, higher profits.

It won’t be easy. For decades, large-scale businesses have been seeking to cut costs by outsourcing customer service to third parties and overseas call centers, not to mention rolling out labyrinthine automated switchboards designed to keep you as far as possible from a human being.

It’s time to reverse course. My first suggestion is to restore customer service to this country and score PR points by creating American jobs. (And, yes, I know the Los Angeles Times uses an overseas call center.)

More important, empower and train service reps to actually deal with the problems that customers bring.

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As it stands, frontline reps typically lack the ability to go beyond whatever’s in their basic script. You have to escalate to a supervisor before you can reach someone able to get things done, and even that may require multiple follow-up calls.

Take Endres’ case. How nice would it have been if the frontline service rep he reached had the authority to facilitate a refund in the event of a major illness, death or similar catastrophic event?

Even if that refund were contingent on providing supporting documents, there’s no need for this process to require more than a single point of contact (unless, of course, the goal is to prevent refunds).

It would be more expensive to maintain domestic call centers and to train service reps to handle a wider variety of issues. Shortsighted companies would balk at that.

Solution: Temporary tax breaks for companies that bring customer support jobs back to this country and provide workers with more comprehensive training.

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We’re not talking all pain, no gain. What companies stand to receive in return are more loyal customers and employees, increased customer satisfaction and the likelihood of increased business.

After I reached out to American, Endres said he was contacted by a senior airline official, who said she’d expedite his refund request.

Endres replied that he and his wife look forward to flying again with American in the future.

See how that works?


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