My dog, Lily, is pretty mellow — if it's not supper time, nothing much can get her off the couch. But whenever I dial the phone and say "customer service," she slinks out of my office, knowing there's a good possibility I'll soon be slamming down the receiver in frustration. (Yes, I still have a land line. They're much more satisfying to slam.)
Turns out I'm not the only one getting annoyed. According to the aptly named 2015 Customer Rage Survey, released this month, more than half of American households had a problem with a product or service in the past year, up from less than a third in 1976, when the survey was first conducted. In this year's survey, 79 percent of those with problems felt they were bad enough to contact the company — often, but not always, their cable or satellite TV provider — and only 17 percent were satisfied with the outcome. Clearly something's amiss in customer service land.
If you're ever at a dinner party and conversation starts to lag, try bringing this subject up; everyone will have a story they can't wait to tell. Mine generally involve having to talk to machines — especially ones that try to sound human by adding pauses and puzzled "uhhmmm" sounds to their questions (I'm talking to you, Apple) — or spending 20 minutes on the phone before realizing the person you're talking to is not able or willing to help. Perhaps most irritating is not being allowed to ask the simplest question without first identifying yourself by name, address, birth date, phone number, last four digits of your "Social," your third-grade teacher's sister's best friend's maiden name, and your favorite song on the day you lost your virginity.
Part of the problem is that "there's a whole set of things they train agents on that are good for them but not necessarily satisfying for you," according to Scott Broetzmann, whose firm, Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, in Alexandria, Virginia, conducted the survey with Arizona State University's school of business and others. Insincere phrases such as "I'm sorry if this has caused you any inconvenience" make you feel as if you're not being heard. And even worse is being transferred, put on hold, or given a runaround so convoluted you feel as if you've entered a Monty Python sketch. "Your goal is to get off the phone," Broetzmann says. "Theirs is to get through their list of talking points and make sure they say your name twice in every conversation."
I generally find interacting in person better than on the phone, but retail stores, too, have their challenges, especially at this time of year. You're already stressed out from having to park somewhere on the outskirts of Siberia because of the holiday crowds. Then you have to search to find an employee or wait in a line so long that by the time you reach a salesperson, you're already on edge.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center suggested that the instant gratification of Internet connections is making consumers more impatient, but I'm impatient because I've learned that patience is rarely rewarded. Sometimes I'll try counting to 100 while waiting for the customer at the register to unload a cart full of stuff, arguing over what's on sale, and then trying to pay the bill in painstakingly counted change before switching to a debit card that won't swipe. After all that, it's finally my turn to ask a question, and the answer invariably ends up being "Oh, we don't carry that." So why not just interrupt in the first place?
When I'm having a bad day, the best employees are not the ones who get defensive and snippy in response but those who identify with my frustration or lighten my mood with a little joke. When I encounter them, I usually leave feeling better about life in general than I did when I walked in. Broetzmann agrees that that kind of empathy is the best way to turn around a touchy situation. On the list of the top things people want from customer service, "almost all are nonmonetary," he says. "Someone to treat you with dignity, see your side of the story, give you an explanation, reassure you it won't happen again, and apologize." Apparently those sorts of things don't happen often enough: In the rage survey, 63 percent of those who contacted customer service said they received "nothing" for their trouble.
The other day I got on the phone with my mortgage company to ask why my escrow had gone up so much. "Hello, Ms. Gehrman," the Southern-accented woman began, "how are you today?" "Fine," I replied through gritted teeth, having spent five minutes pushing buttons before getting to her. "Can you tell me something, Ms. Gehrman?" I waited for the inevitable identity question but got instead "Is it cold up there in the North?" A couple of days later a woman at a call center in India also started chatting with me as though we were old friends. I discovered she was in Hyderabad, and I eventually confessed that India was at the top of my list of travel destinations.
It turned out both women were making small talk while waiting for their computers to do whatever they were supposed to be doing, but I have to admit, it was refreshing to be disarmed. See? I'm not so difficult to please.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
> 35% — Percentage of complainants in a survey who have yelled at a customer-service representative
> 15% — Percentage who have cursed at one
Chart source: 2015 customer rage survey
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