Is customer service going to get worse before it gets better?

A company’s ability to deliver excellent customer service is increasingly becoming a source of competitive advantage. However, two recently released UK studies offer different perspectives and challenges on how companies are performing and what their customers think.

The Customers Perspective

In February, The Telegraph published an article on a report by the UK’s Ombudsman’s Services, provides dispute resolution for the communications, energy, property and licensing industries. The report, called the Consumer Action Monitor, found that over the last year there was a significant increase in the number of customers making formal complaints to businesses.

Here are some highlights from the report:

  • 66 million complaints about products or services were made in 2014, almost double the number made in 2013.
  • 47% of consumers made a complaint when faced with a problem with a product or service, compared to 34% the previous year.
  • Customers increased appetite to complain is reportedly underpinned by a growing cynicism about company motives with 33% of consumers reporting that they believe big businesses are only interested in money.
  • 80% of consumers say they are unlikely to put up with poor service without taking action, which is up from 67% the previous year.

How Companies Are Performing

In March, Eptica released its 2015 Multichannel Customer Experience Study, which this year evaluated the customer service capabilities of 100 leading UK companies by measuring how they responded to relevant questions sent to them via their web, email, social media and chat customer service channels. The aim of the study was to replicate the experience a customer would and to provide a set of meaningful results across different channels.

Here are some highlights from the report:

  • The web comes out on top as the best channel for delivering customer service with the surveyed companies successfully answering 64% of questions, on average. This is up on last year but the report raises some serious concerns about the growing gap between the best and worst performers.
  • More companies than last year made customer service via email available to non-customers and, generally speaking, email performance has improved. However, concerns were raised that the level of accuracy in responses is falling.
  • Social customer service has improved significantly over the last year in terms of response times and accuracy but, again, there are concerns that performance is patchy.
  • Web chat leads the channel mix in terms of accuracy and speed. But, it doesn’t seem to be getting the commitment and resources that it needs: 25% of the companies surveyed offered web chat but when the survey was conducted only 9% of companies had it working.
  • Finally, the report found that despite advances in technology and systems, companies were still struggling to deliver consistent responses and answers across channels. This is leading to confusion in the minds of customers but also higher operational costs.

When you combine the results of these two reports and look at the trends too, they raise some interesting questions:

  1. Are customer expectations rising faster than many firms ability to deliver?
  2. Does that mean that overall customer service could get worse before it gets better?

Only time will tell.

However, what we do know is that customer behaviour is changing and companies need to either step up their service and experience efforts and improve investment, resourcing and performance across the board or, potentially, face a rising tide of complaints from their increasingly demanding customers.

This post was originally published on my Forbes.com column.

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