Shoppers want customer service to do more than solve problems, study finds

Omnicom Media Group survey says brands that focus only on conflict resolution are living in the past.

It’s a common scenario. A consumer dials a 1-800-number to get help with a product. They answer several prompts through voice commands—most of which are misinterpreted by a computer—and then press zero until their finger’s numb in a vain attempt to reach a human.

That’s one example of bad customer service and usually one that’s prompted by a problem. But a recent study from Omnicom Media Group found that 51 percent of consumers surveyed think customer service is part of the entire shopping process—not just when something goes wrong. The study, titled "1-800-NOT-ENOUGH: The customer service playbook for the evolved consumer," found that customer service has dramatically changed since toll-free numbers were introduced in 1967.

"We know that ecommerce has changed the way that people shop," said Dr. Pamela Marsh, director of primary research and insights at OMG. "What we know less about is how the customer experience has morphed over the years."

To get some answers, Marsh and her team collected anecdotal evidence from an online focus group of 41 people and quantitative analysis from a Web-based survey of 1,014 participants. They found that consumers expect numerous touch points for customer service and 1-800-numbers just aren’t enough anymore.

If a brand has a presence on social media, in brick-and-mortar stores and online, Marsh said, consumers expect it to have a customer service component in those areas, too. Slack in any of them, and 50 percent of consumers surveyed said they consider it a customer service failure—whereas 52 percent said that customer service had to be omnipresent for them to have a good experience. Where brands can relax are automated phone systems and post mail; less than 30 percent of people found them effective.

"Customer service has become a tipping point for brand loyalty," Marsh added. "With price and quality being equal, customer service has now risen to be a top criterion in the route that a consumer will take."

And contrary to popular belief, "consumers are not out to get you" on social media, Marsh said. The study found that more people share positive brand experiences (16 percent) on social platforms than negative ones (4 percent), and 35 percent said that they post about both. The most popular reason for talking about a customer service experience on Facebook or Twitter is to brag about how great it was (44 percent), followed by broadcasting brand love (43 percent) to friends and family. If companies harness this correctly, said Marsh, they can create brand ambassadors from a single tweet or Instagram photo.

Ultimately, OMG found that customers just want brands to make it right from the moment they enter a store or add an item to their shopping cart online—not once a product breaks. "Customer service should help when you have a question on a product or just asking if a customer needs any help," a 27-year-old woman said.

And if consumers do have negative experiences, 57 percent of those surveyed said they would give the brand a second chance. However, only 31 percent said they would remain loyal to a brand after a customer service snafu. If companies want to win back consumers’ trust, action matters more than words. Sixty-four percent said they want their problem fixed for free, compared to 34 percent who want the company to promise that it’ll do better next time and 29 percent who value a personal apology.

The silver lining to a bad customer service experience is if companies resolve consumers’ problems in a satisfactory manner, they’ll reap huge rewards through word-of-mouth, online reviews, social media love and emails from customers, said Marsh.

 "I have asked to talk to the manager to tell them about an employee who went above and beyond," said a 41-year-old man in the survey—something that wouldn’t be possible had he dialed a 1-800-number.

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