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The worst customer service of 2012

This article initially appeared on The Age

Words: Tony Featherstone

The 2012 Worst Customer Service Awards are a dead-heat: Vodafone Australia and Telstra Corporation provided the worst service this year, judging by 160 reader responses to last week's blog.

Yes, the awards are a chance for readers to whinge about Australia’s epidemic of poor customer service, and the blog format is hardly scientific for benchmarking bad service. But these raw responses, many of them detailed, give useful insight into recurring service problems.

Over four years, The Venture’s Worst Customer Service Awards have identified repeat offenders – telcos, electricity providers and department stores – and emerging service problems. Government enterprises received more nominations for terrible service than usual in this year’s awards.

I was surprised telcos were so prominent. After dominating the 2009 awards, you would have thought they have had more than enough time to improve their service. Virgin Mobile Australia, Optus and even iiNet received nominations in addition to Telstra and Vodafone.

I thought Telstra had improved markedly in the past few years – albeit off a low base – but several readers wrote about poor service experiences with the telco giant.

What’s your view?

  • Has Telstra’s customer service improved?
  • What are the main causes of poor service by other telecommunication companies?

Other industries fared better. I expected more negative comments about petrol station chains, but there were hardly any. Banks barely rated a mention and there were even some positive responses about the Commonwealth Bank’s service. Myer and David Jones also received far fewer complaints this year; maybe people have given up whingeing about department store service.

Taken together, reader comments in this year’s awards pinpointed recurring issues and offered terrific insight for companies that are serious about improving service and gaining an advantage over their rivals.

Here are eight service problems I identified from reader responses. Add other service problems you see, by commenting on this blog.

1. Disinterest

It’s astonishing how you can still walk into a department store or electrical goods retailer and find staff talking to each other and doing all they can to avoid serving customers. This problem seems to get worse every year, with no solution in sight.

2. Poor product knowledge

Nothing frustrates customers more than sales staff who do not know what they are talking about, especially with high-tech purchases where dodgy advice takes hours to undo. Being passed between supposed “product experts” within companies further infuriates customers.

3. Deliveries

This is becoming a bigger problem as more people order goods online. Some readers in this year’s awards lambasted Australia Post and, to a lesser extent, TNT Express Australia for messing up deliveries. Poor delivery services also reflect on the company selling the goods.

4. Warranties

Several readers complained about warranties that were hard to understand and even harder to use to seek restitution over faulty goods or services. Too many companies, it seems, think the relationship with the buyer ends when they leave the store. Smart companies understand that managing the warranty process goes a long way to creating life-long customers.

5. Making good

This problem follows on from point four. Several readers expressed frustration about companies that saw their complaint as a nuisance rather than an opportunity to rebuild and strengthen a customer relationship. Hardly any companies these days seem to offer a genuine “make-good” when they screw up – for example, a discount, two-for-one-voucher, or no charge for a small purchase. Some don’t even apologise. They don’t give enough autonomy to sales staff to decide when a make-good is in order.

6. Call centres

No surprise here. Waiting on the line for an interminable period and dealing with offshore call centres continues to annoy customers. Dealing with confusing automated call systems is becoming a bigger problem. Having too many recorded prompts to deal with service queries forces customers to hang up.

7. Customer information

Many complaints this year stemmed from customers changing location. Some readers had lingering service and billing problems with utility providers when they moved interstate for work and required new electricity, gas and phone connections. As the workforce becomes more mobile, companies need to get much better at following their customers to different locations.

8. Inappropriate marketing

A few readers complained about companies annoying them with SMS marketing messages late at night. I, too, get annoyed when companies send marketing offers, or other useless information, as text messages to my phone. Short Message Service (SMS) marketing offers great potential for companies, but there is also a great risk that customers feel it is too intrusive.

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