After Hurricane Irene knocked out telephone service to Margaret Holwill's home on Tilghman Island, Md. in August 2011, she attempted to have it repaired by Verizon, her phone service provider. But when the technician arrived, she was told the work would not be covered by her existing contract, even though her package included an upgrade for wire maintenance. Her final bill for the repairs came to $386.
She had no luck contesting that bill with Verizon, so she decided to cancel her contract and live without phone or Internet when she's at that house, which is a second home. "I am still angry," she says. In response to an inquiry from U.S. News, Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell said the company is currently reviewing records of the situation and will work with Holwill to find a "satisfactory resolution."
Wireless carriers, along with television and Internet service providers, have some of the lowest customer service ratings of any industry, according to Temkin Group, a consulting firm. "There's a historic lack of focus on the customer ... they've traditionally been monopolistic," says Bruce Temkin, managing partner of the firm that researches the customer experience. At the other extreme, grocery stores, retailers and fast food chains tend to have higher average customer service ratings, partly because the goods they deliver are more straightforward, Temkin adds.
The way to customers' hearts isn't all that complicated, customer service experts say - they just want quick and personal service, just like they always have, long before the advent of online shopping. "It's still the same basics," says John Zogby, founder of Zogby Analytics, a polling and research company. "People want it personal. They want to be able to get to a decision-maker. It's not rocket science."
Consumers want to feel a "human connection" or a sense of empathy and trust from companies, says Jeanne Bliss, president of CustomerBliss, which works with companies to help them understand a customer's perspective. "Are you open and honest with the customer? Do you gear them towards the best deals? Or do you make it complicated to understand the rules and policies of doing business?" she asks.
Temkin says he breaks down the customer service experience into three parts: the ability to fix problems or accomplish other goals quickly, the ease of the experience and whether it leaves customers with a good feeling. Often, he says, the end of the interaction determines that feeling. "If you want to improve how customers remember you, end on a positive note," he says.
One of the worst things companies can do to irk customers is be hard to reach, says Jon Yates, author of the Chicago Tribune's "What's Your Problem?" column and a book of the same name. "There are so many of these automated systems that put you on hold forever. These days customers feel special if it takes just a few rings to get through to somebody," Yates says.
When customers reach representatives, the representative should have the authority to correct mistakes, and they should also take proper notes so if customers call back, they don't have to start from square one with their story, Yates adds. Options to connect through online chats and social media sites like Twitter can also provide greater convenience to customers, he says, as long as there are also more traditional communication routes, including the phone, for customers without Internet access.
The following list of the top 10 companies for customer service is based on interviews as well as rankings from the Temkin Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Forrester Research and Zogby Analytics in partnership with MSN Money.
1. Amazon: This e-commerce giant sells almost everything and ships orders to you quickly. Temkin, J.D. Power, Zogby/MSN Money and Forrester all rank the company at or near the top of their lists.
2. United Services Automobile Association: USAA provides financial services to members of the military and their families, and it frequently ranks near the top of customer service rankings, including at Forrester, Temkin and J.D. Power. "Across the board, people feel taken care of by this brand. They're not just a number; they feel well-known and a sense of camaraderie," says Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer of Market Force Information. In a report on auto insurance companies, Market Force found that USAA members are the most satisfied and most loyal.
3. Lowe's. The home improvement retailer scored top ratings for customer service and satisfaction at Forrester, Zogby/MSN and Temkin.
4. Trader Joe's. Known for low prices and an affable staff, the grocery store notched top grades with Zogby Analytics/MSN and Temkin.
5. Marriott. The international hotel company scores high on Forrester's rating system as well as Zogby/MSN's. Marriott Hotels and Resorts as well as Courtyard by Marriott, which caters to business travelers, are singled out on Forrester's rankings.
6. Home Depot. Like Lowe's, Home Depot specializes in helping people tackle do-it-yourself projects and other home-enhancing plans. It landed top spots on the Temkin and Zogby/MSN rankings.
7. Barnes & Noble. This online and brick-and-mortar retailer helps get books, as well as toys, music and movies in people's hands, and they do quickly and efficiently. Zogby/MSN and J.D. Power both singled it out for kudos.
8. Marshalls. Clothes and accessory retailer Marshalls lands in the top spot on the Forrester customer experience index and is also highlighted by Temkin for having a top customer service rating.
9. Sam's Club. This wholesale club offers customers low prices in exchange for a membership fee. It ranks at the top of Forrester's customer service experience index and is also touted by Temkin.
10. Costco. Like Sam's Club, Costco offers members lower prices on products ranging from groceries to computers. Forrester, Zogby/MSN and Temkin all give it high scores.