Fear and Loathing in Customer Tech Support

May 18, 2010

Suppose you surveyed your customers on their satisfaction with your products and support services and discovered widespread fear and loathing, like:

  • 64% of your customers have suffered “anguish or anxiety” from using your products
  • 20% of customers who have used your support services rate them “poor” or “terrible”
  • 42% of your support customers are unhappy with your service pricing
  • 25% of your customers have spent more than 11 hours over the past year trying to fix problems with your products

Such abysmal ratings would elicit a collective gasp of horror from everyone in your business, from C-level execs to customer evangelists. But those are the alarming results of new survey of more than 1,000 personal computer users in North America by the CMO Council’s Customer Experience Board.

The CMO Council’s report, “Combating Computer Stress Syndrome: Barriers and Best Practices in Tech Support,” confirmed what most PC users—and that’s just about all of us—know: Tech support from computer manufacturers can be a nightmare. Respondents cited long wait times, high service costs, barriers with language and communication, and inability to fix problems as their chief gripes.
Though the report did not break down customer satisfaction by brand, it did show Dell (used by 33% of respondents) and HP (24%) as the top brands in use. Compaq, Acer, Toshiba, Gateway, Apple, Sony, Lenovo, and Asus (in that order) were in single digits.

Support as the Last Resort

What’s worse, phoning tech support (the report focuses on phoning more than email or other channels) appears to be a last resort for most of us, which means we are often at wit’s end when we do reach out. Some 78% of respondents consider themselves savvy, self-supporting computer users and 64% attempt to fix problems on their own (or with help from family or friends). Nevertheless, 62% still placed the dreaded tech-support phone call, the survey found.
The report minced no words on what’s behind poor customer service.

“Current computer vendor support solutions and models are aimed at minimizing support costs and aftermarket customer handling,” the study said. “While the threats and complications with computers are on the rise, customer technical support has not kept pace to address the needs of a growing population of computer users that are highly dependent upon their device as part of their daily lives.”

Product BluesAnd that’s just regarding service. Frustration prevails with the products themselves. According to the report, PC problems have led to increased stress levels (42% of respondents), interrupted valuable work or play time (39%), and resulted in loss of valuable data (21%), the survey found. And as 94% of respondents described themselves as computer-dependent, the problem is nearly universal.

“The reality is that numerous, persistent problems are troubling more computer users, creating unnecessary anguish and anxiety,” the report stated. “Digitally dependent users are getting fed up and frustrated with the current state of computer-related stress.”

Addressing Frustration

While the PC and device industry has a lot of room for improvement, it is also a unique industry, dominated by a handful of major players and producing products that are inherently complex. Nevertheless, the CMO Council’s report offers some red flags and lessons relevant to companies in all industries.

  • Balance service cost efficiency against customer satisfaction. Be sure service pricing is in line with customer expectations. Survey respondents cited cost of service (either contract or per-incident) as their #1 consideration for tech support. High cost for those services was the #2 complaint.  While providing customer service can be expensive, it can also yield high returns. If your customers are reaching out to support, chances are they are already frustrated—you can’t afford to make matters worse with costly support that generates resentment. Affordable and easy support is essential to building customer confidence and loyalty.
  • Keep a finger on the pulse of your customers. How would your customers rate the quality of your products and service? Use tools like web surveys and forums to better understand changing perceptions and areas of weakness, then adapt strategies accordingly. Monitoring brand sentiment on social media is another must-do for keeping your finger on the pulse of your customers.
  • Don’t push products to market before they’re ready. The computer industry is littered with horror stories of incompatibility resulting from rushing products to market. For instance, many Windows users who upgraded to Vista a few years back found that their peripherals would no longer work. Another few weeks or months in product development usually pays off with higher long-term customer satisfaction and can minimize negative feedback on social media.

Most companies simply cannot afford the poor grades on products and services that consumers gave to the PC industry—especially in an age when discriminating consumers broadcast their experience on social media with product reviews, blogs, tweets, and videos and help drive sales and brand reputation.

Case Study: Comcast

The CMO Council’s report concluded with case studies on how such companies as Comcast, Sony Ericsson, Sprint, McAfee, and Adobe (but interestingly, no PC makers) are handling customer support. For Comcast’s ISP unit, one of the priorities is customer education and self-service to help deal with calls from users who can’t connect to the internet. Of course, connectivity problems may not be Comcast’s fault.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is sorting through exactly what is the problem,” said Rick Germano, senior vice president of customer operations. “Is it our problem, or is it the computer manufacturer’s problem?”

Comcast’s approach includes better tools for agents to diagnose problems, and making web-based and IVR troubleshooting tools available to customers. It also involves more internal training and agent specialization (for instance, in routers or email clients), Germano said. Other initiatives include:

  • Recording all calls to assess agent performance and call disposition
  • Establishing and tracking key customer service resolution metrics
  • Using customer satisfaction surveys after call center or in-home support
  • Using results of those surveys to improve agent and technician performance
  • Using social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter for monitoring and communication

Araceli Gavilanes, head of consumer experience management at Sony Ericsson, summed up the principal challenge nicely: “We increasingly see that customers and consumers are more and more demanding every day. They have higher expectations that we need to fulfill because otherwise they will go somewhere else.”

The CMO Council’s report is available for free download (with registration) at http://www.customerexperienceboard.org/report-variance.php