MONEY Customer Service

Here Are the Customer Service Practices You Hate the Most

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Getty Images

Too often, customer service is indifferent, incompetent, or both.

The good news from the new Consumer Reports survey about customer service is that overall it seems to be getting … less bad. The survey’s findings, published in the September 2015 issue, indicate that consumers are less likely to be irritated by customer service than they were in 2011, when a similar poll was taken.

That doesn’t mean consumers are happy with the state of customer service. Far from it. “Many companies today are simply awful at resolving customer problems,” Scott Broetzmann, president of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, told Consumer Reports. “Customers spend valuable time and invest considerable effort—and get little in return.”

Here are the practices and behaviors that get customers most annoyed:

• 75% say they’re “highly annoyed” when they can’t get a live person on the phone to help with a problem; in 2011, meanwhile, 71% of those polled by CR said they were “tremendously annoyed” when they couldn’t reach a live customer service rep over the phone.

• 75% are highly annoyed by rude or condescending employees.

• 74% have been driven batty by disconnected phone calls placed to customer service lines.

• 70% are highly upset by being transferred to a different customer service agent—who also can’t help or is just plain wrong.

Nearly 7 in 10 (68%) are also aggravated by companies that don’t make it easy to find their customer service phone numbers, while two-thirds of consumers say they’re annoyed by long wait times, phone trees that require callers to press multiple buttons, and the need to repeat one’s personal information over and over.

MORE: 10 Funniest & Most Creative Consumer Complaints Ever
Customer Service Hell

MONEY Customer Service

10 Funniest & Most Creative Consumer Complaints Ever

Here's how to channel rage into laughs—and results.

airplane with banner flying behind it that reads "can you hear me now?"
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Getty Images(1)

When smacked in the face with inept, indifferent, or just plain bad customer service, some consumers dial up the company to complain and demand proper treatment, while others shoot off angry emails. Still others use their outrage and sense of injustice to get their creative juices flowing. They elevate their complaints to something approaching art in order to simultaneously embarrass the company or organization that did them wrong and shame customer service into rectifying the situation.

Music videos, epic poetry, publicly tattling on the CEO’s mom—these are some of the extraordinary, hilarious lengths consumers have gone to while seeking justice for poor treatment. The rest of us can’t help but chuckle and cheer them along.

  • Take Out a Full-Page Ad

    parking ticket under windshield wiper
    Christian Delbert—Shutterstock

    Eugene Mirman, a comedian and the voice of one of the characters on the Fox show “Bob’s Burgers,” does not take kindly to what he sees as unwarranted parking tickets—even if the fine is a measly $15. Instead of simply paying the fine to the city of Portsmouth, N.H., and going about his life, Mirman paid for a full-page ad in a local publication protesting the “horse$&it charge,” which he received because of an obscure (and pretty darn absurd) law prohibiting cars from backing into parking spots. The amusing screed was recently posted at Reddit with the headline “Best Full Page Ad Ever.” It should be noted that Mirman is well experienced with funny complaints; he previously incorporated the viral rant he wrote to Time Warner Cable into his comedy act.

  • Call the CEO’s Mom

    Comcast CEO Brian Roberts
    Rick Wilking—Reuters/Newscom Comcast CEO Brian Roberts

    Comcast’s customer service is famously cold and inept—the latest example being call-in center employees who refused to give promised senior discounts on cable because they didn’t know they existed. (This FunnyorDie provides a laugh for anyone who has ever had the thought Comcast that doesn’t care about them.) About the time that Comcast was in trouble because “customer service” agents were calling subscribers names like “A**hole” in print, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist decided to call the mother of CEO Brian Roberts and tattle on the horrible things his company was doing. The net result was that one would-be subscriber, who had previously been frustrated by 14 screwed-up Comcast appointments, wound up surrounded by Comcast trucks in a matter of hours. If only every Comcast customer had the phone number of executives’ moms on speed dial!

  • Make a Music Video

    United Airways airplane on tarmac
    George Rose—Getty Images

    “United Breaks Guitars” is probably the most viral and creative complaint of all time, viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube. The song and accompanying video were created by musician Dave Carroll in 2009 after (of course) the guitar he checked as luggage on a United Airlines flight was broken. In the video, Carroll sings of the horror he felt watching airport employees toss around musical instruments on the tarmac, as well as the way United workers “showed complete indifference towards me.” He even managed to turn the experience into a book, subtitled The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media.

  • Publish E-mail Addresses of Company Executives

    Best Buy sign
    Mark Lennihan—AP

    After being stymied in his attempts to get his rewards account working properly, one Best Buy customer decided to go up the food chain to get some results. He found the email addresses and, in some cases, phone numbers of several Best Buy executives. In addition to using them to get some satisfaction for himself, he sent the contact list to the consumer advocacy site Consumerist, which published it in full.

  • Create a Website for Visual Complaining

    Southwest Airlines luggage handlers tossing bags
    JB Reed—Bloomberg News/Getty Images

    To literally illustrate his exasperation after his new suitcase was damaged on a flight, B.J. Schone not only wrote a complaint to Southwest Airlines, he created the website DearSWA.com. At the site, Schone rehashes his experience, only instead of simply using words, the tale is told by interlacing before-and-after photos of the bag in question with images of the Grinch and the best customer service standoff in movie history, Steve Martin at the rental car counter in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Altogether, it makes for a compelling—and quite funny—bit of visual storytelling.

  • Make a Music Video #2

    Bank of America
    Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

    To embarrass Bank of America, which was taking extraordinarily long to get their mortgage loan paperwork in order, Ken and Meredith Williams made a funny music video called “Close This Loan!” It’s set to the tune of a Flight of the Conchords song, with lyrics like “Why can’t a house go fast / When a buyer’s got cash / Preapproval and two cats.”

  • Create a Website for Video Evidence

    FedEx Ground deliverymen throwing a box onto a stack
    Mark Lennihan—AP

    This resource for consumer complaints is more shocking than ha-ha funny. The website DontThrowMyPackage.com consists mostly of surveillance videos showing UPS, FedEx, and USPS workers tossing and damaging the packages they’re delivering. It was inspired by the outrage-inducing viral video “FedEx Guy Throwing My Computer Monitor.”

  • Tweet Wittily (Helps if You’re Famous)

    Patrick Stewart in Star Trek and Time Warner Cable exterior
    Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection (left)—Andrew Burton/Getty Images (right)

    Ordinary consumers can and do Tweet when they have a beef with a company. But when someone famous Tweets about a bad experience with a brand, and when they do so in an acerbic way, the message (and damage) can spread incredibly quickly. Such was the case when Sir Patrick Stewart (a.k.a. Professor X from the X-Men films) spent 36 frustrating hours trying—and failing—to get Time Warner Cable service set up at his home in Brooklyn. “36hrs later I’ve lost the will to live,” Stewart wrote, in appropriately dramatic fashion. Similarly, actor-writer-director Kevin Smith received tons of attention while Tweeting about his embarrassing experience being asked to get off a Southwest Airlines flight because he was too fat. After Smith got to his destination, he joked on Twitter, “Don’t worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”

  • Write a Poem

    Comcast van
    iStock

    There’s bad customer service, and then there’s service so bad that it moves customers to write poetry—because regular prose just can’t do the situation justice. Such was apparently the case when Joel Walden conceived the 20-stanza “Ode to Comcast (Composed While Waiting for the Cable Guy),” with lines such as “Enraged, I call, complain, and whine, / As manly as I’m able. / But no pleas, demands, nor whimpering / Would avail me any cable.”

  • Pay to Promote Complaints on Social Media

    British Airways luggage tag
    Chris Pancewicz—Alamy

    Most complaints surface on Twitter or Facebook and are quickly lost in obscurity. A Chicago-based business owner named Hasan Syed wanted his complaint—about British Airways losing his father’s luggage—to have more impact and be more memorable. He achieved his goal by spending more than $1,000 to promote his messages on Twitter. The messages themselves weren’t particularly funny (“Don’t fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous.”), but the fact that he went to such extraordinary lengths to vent is pretty darn hilarious.

MONEY Spending

9 Times to Demand a Refund

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Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

Get ready to stand your ground.

When you spend your hard-earned money on a product or service, you expect a certain level of quality — and when that quality falls short of expectations, it’s not unreasonable to think you’re entitled to a refund. But not every situation qualifies. So when should you stand your ground for your money back, and when should cut your losses? Take a look at these nine times you should demand a refund — ever so politely, of course.

1. Departure Taxes on an Unused Flight

I once booked a European vacation around the holidays that was supposed to stop in London, Dublin, and Paris, but the last leg of the trip was cancelled due to “weather conditions” according to the evil discount airline that shall remain nameless. The airline offered to fly my friends and I to Rome as penance — which was a nice offer in theory, except we couldn’t fly on the dates they suggested — so my flight was essentially a loss since the airline wasn’t responsible for acts of God, which, in this case, was fog. I was young and dumb and just accepted the decision.

Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if I were friendly with Kyle Stewart, travel editor at UPGRD, at the time. He experienced a similar situation, but walked away a little less broke than I did.

“We had found a very cheap flight to and from London, but once we were abroad we had to make a change and book an alternative separate flight home,” he says about his one-time travel plans. “Our tickets were non-refundable, but it is unlawful for the carrier to keep revenue they collect for ‘taxes’ if you do not actually fly the route. The U.K. has a steep departure tax of nearly $250 each on flights leaving the United Kingdom. Because we did not fly those routes but had paid for the taxes, even on a non-refundable ticket we were able to get the departure tax refunded which nearly paid for our alternative transportation home.”

2. Anything Unsanitary or Unsavory in Your Food

There are a lot of gross things I can deal with — my friends would love to tell you the story about the time I ate an ancient corn chip off the carpet in high school for a dollar — but as I’ve evolved out of being an idiot, hair or other yuck in my food isn’t one of them. It’s hard enough to eat out these days just thinking about the various “things” in my food that I can’t see, so you better believe if there’s visible, physical evidence of my gag reflex, I’d like my money back, please. And another, fresh meal. I’m willing to give it another go since I understand that accidents happen and I’m usually too hungry to have to start the restaurant search all over again.

3. Items That Break Too Soon

If you’ve recently purchased an item and it breaks unreasonably soon under normal use — I’d say less than 90 days, for most things — take it back to the store for a replacement or a refund. I tend not to buy the same junk twice in a row, so typically I’d just like my money back so I can avoid this problem a second time. This is a situation where store associates and managers like to give you a hard time — “How do I know how it broke?” — but don’t let them beat you. Stay strong and stage a sit-in to get what you’re owed if you have to.

4. Groceries That Are Spoiled, Rotten, or Stale

I think this is a situation where Americans as a collective lose tons of money, but one that is considered perfectly valid refund territory. I would be willing to bet than more times than not when the average supermarket shopper realizes they have a spoiled, rotten, or stale item when they’re already home, they just throw it out. What’s a few bucks, they think. Plus, they’d have to get back in the car, go back to the store, speak to the manager, blahblahblah. All worth it in my book. Food isn’t cheap, and this is America; we shouldn’t expect anything less than the highest quality food for which we’re paying.

5. Goods That Aren’t as Advertised

False advertising is against the law for a reason: You can’t trick people into thinking they’re getting one thing and then sell them something else. This goes for anything: from kids’ toys to electronics to power tools. If the item said it was going to perform a certain way and it fell short of that promise, you deserve a refund.

6. Services That Aren’t Performed as Promised

It’s not just tangible goods that can fall short of expectations; services, like hair and nail salons, auto body shops, and dog grooming facilities can too. I take services that aren’t performed as promised seriously because it’s an active-engagement situation, and as an entrepreneur myself I recognize the importance of providing the very best service possible — and when that’s not possible, apologizing and doing whatever I can to make amends. Good costumer service is key, and I expect you to recognize that without putting up a fight if I’m being perfectly reasonable.

7. Erroneous Charges on Your Bill

Mark my words here: This happens ALL the time. From your cell phone bill to you Internet bill to your doctor’s bill, there are sometimes strange charges that shouldn’t be there. Most of the time they’re mistakes, but I’m also not naïve enough to think that the provider isn’t sometimes trying to get one over on you, thinking you won’t read the bill closely enough or that the fee they’re overcharging is so low you won’t waste your time fighting it. Read your bills closely and make sure every charge is accounted for.

8. One-Time Late Fees if You’re a Loyal Customer

Just hours before I started writing this post, I called J. Crew to dispute a late fee on my bill. I didn’t receive the bill in time as it arrived at my other home, so I missed the payment due date. Because I’m a very loyal customer to J. Crew, and I always pay my bill in full each cycle, I called to kindly request that the late fees be waived for this circumstance. The customer service agent was perfectly willing to do it, and it saved me $50.

9. Hotel Rooms That Aren’t Sufficiently Clean

I stayed in a Red Roof Inn once that had not one but two bugs in it (not the bed variety, thank God); a hair on the towel; and no cold water in the sink, only boiling hot. I sent a message through the customer service portal on the hotel’s website asking for a refund but my claim was dismissed. I stayed at the same hotel a week later and coincidentally they gave me the exact same room with the exact same issues, just no bugs this time. Again I requested a refund. I got a credit for a free night’s stay – which is sort of moot, because why would I go back there after they failed me twice? – but it’s better than nothing from a company that obviously doesn’t put much stock in customer service.

More From Wise Bread:

 

TIME viral

This Guy’s Lightbulb Is Really Broken and He Has the Video to Prove It

And a potential film career to fall back on

It’s a sad tale: A man bought a lightbulb, only to have it break. He notified the manufacturer’s customer service department and that’s when things went downhill. According to YouTube user Eran C. Galili, “My LIFX bulb stopped working, and as part of customer support, LIFX suggested that I send a ‘video that confirms the issue.'”

While most consumers faced with this Kafkaesque task would likely give up and buy something else, Galili went big in the hopes of getting compensated. He created a compelling video of lightbulb-fueled drama complete with spaghetti western soundtrack and post-film credits. No word on whether Galili was able to get his money back for the bulb, but at least he has a film career to fall back on.

**An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the YouTube channel. It’s Eran C. Galili, not Eric C. Galili

TIME Social Media

Customer Service as a Spectator Sport Is About to End

Social Media Site Twitter Debuts On The New York Stock Exchange
Bethany Clarke—Getty Images

Changes at Twitter and Facebook could spell the end of public shaming

The battles are as ferocious as they are frequent: companies and customers squaring off in the public spotlight on social media. Among the more high-profile of recent tiffs: actor Seth Rogen going toe-to-toe with Cathay Pacific airline, which had barred his pet Cavalier King Charles Spaniel from boarding a flight.

“I advise everyone to never fly @cathaypacific if possible. They are bad people,” tweeted Rogen to nearly 3 million followers late one night last winter. Though the airline responded quickly and respectfully (“Regret to hear about the disappointment, @Sethrogen …”), a full-scale Twitter rant ensued. Before it was over, Rogen’s tweets were shared thousands of times, ultimately attracting notice from the Washington Post and news sites around the world.

Nor, of course, is this social vitriol limited to celebrities with flying troubles. Customer service in the age of social media has largely become a spectator sport—conducted in public for the delight and disdain of friends and followers. But that may be about to change. New features at both Twitter and Facebook are quietly nudging customer service back behind closed doors. But while companies may be breathing a sigh of relief, the changes pose a new set of challenges all their own.

The rise (and fall) of public customer service

An estimated 67 percent of consumers now tap networks like Twitter and Facebook for customer service. For the socially savvy, the appeal is obvious: Rather than suffering through interminable help lines or waiting patiently for a response via email, users can Tweet instead, in some cases getting instant, personalized attention.

But while taking a company to task in public may feel empowering, the strategy’s effectiveness appears to be waning. Many companies have been numbed into indifference by the sheer volume of messages: It’s not uncommon for major airlines, for example, to receive upward of 10,000 Tweets per day. Unless users have large social followings, or their messages manage to go viral, their complaints may not see prompt redress.

In other cases, an angry post can do more to inflame a situation – or harden a company’s indifference – than resolve the problem. “Threatening, insulting, demeaning are things that will never work,” notes social media consultant Aalap Shah in an interview for CBS. Meanwhile, too much public griping can easily backfire on users. When the Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am erupted on Twitter (not for the first time) after being bumped from an international flight, as many followers panned him as commiserated.

At the same time, not every customer complaint or issue lends itself to being resolved out in the open. “As communications are public by default, asking customers to hand over account numbers and bank details is an obvious no-no,” notes James O’Malley for TechDigest. While Twitter has long had a private channel, known as Direct Messages (or DM), using it hasn’t been easy. Both parties, say an unhappy customer and a company, have needed to mutually follow one another before taking the conversation private. This awkward extra step has meant most customer service has been conducted out in the open.

Small Changes, Big Consequences

Earlier this spring, however, Twitter quietly announced a shakeup. “Communicating with people you may or may not know in real life just got easier,” noted an official blog post. Users can now opt in to receive Direct Messages from anyone, not just people they’ve previously chosen to follow. For businesses, this means more of those complaints about delayed flights, spotty Internet and unexplained bank fees can now be shuffled behind the “DM curtain” – handled privately rather than out in the open for all to see.

Meanwhile, Facebook has opened up its popular Messenger app to businesses, as well. Instead of venting on a brand’s Facebook Page, users can now interact one-on-one with customer service agents from participating companies via the instant messaging app. Announced this spring at Facebook’s f8 developer conference, Messenger Business is still in its early phases, with just a handful of companies participating, including online retailers Zulily and Everland. But Facebook is marketing the tool as a much broader solution for companies seeking to “have personal, real-time conversations” with customers.

The question remains, however: Are consumers – used to leveraging the social shaming power of Twitter and Facebook – willing to take their issues back behind closed doors? The answer will depend largely on how attentive companies show themselves to be. If private social channels end up being another graveyard for customer complaints – with issues shunted into long queues or ignored altogether – they’re unlikely to catch on. On the other hand, if consumers can find quick satisfaction, the days of customer service as a spectator sport may be numbered.

For the moment, however, the fast-shifting social landscape has left many companies scrambling … again. “[It] makes it even easier for consumers to reach out to brands via social,” notes digital media executive Kevin Purcer in Adweek, “[and] customer support teams will need to adjust …” Whereas before social media complaints may have been dispatched on a one-off basis, expectations of heavier volume on new channels have businesses turning to more formal approaches. Trained reps, not to mention specialized software to triage social messages and route issues to proper staff, are in growing demand. (This I can attest to personally: I get more executives reaching out to me at Hootsuite looking for tools to handle social media customer service than for any other request.)

Opting out of the latest customer service craze altogether, meanwhile, is hardly a viable option. Brands that decide not to enable Twitter’s Direct Messages functionality or eschew Facebook Messenger risk alienating customers – giving them more reason than ever to grumble out loud and in public on social media. Commenting in Adweek, marketing executive Dan Swartz of Chicago’s Upshot Agency sums up the predicament: “If a brand decides not to activate their private DM functionality, it sends a bad signal to consumers that they’re not interested in what they have to say.”

Ryan Holmes is CEO of Hootsuite. Follow him @invoker

TIME Comcast

How Comcast is Trying to Make Nice Over Latest Internet Outage

comcast van
Robert Galbraith—Reuters

The company is making a small peace offering to customers impacted across the West

Comcast is making a peace offering to subscribers across the West who lost Internet access for around three hours Monday night — $5.

“We know that having a fast, reliable connection to the Internet is vital and that interruptions of this sort are unacceptable,” the company wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “We’re sorry that we didn’t live up to that last night. We are giving a credit to customers who were impacted.”

Comcast blamed the outage on an equipment failure compounded by problems with the backup system that automatically reroutes Internet traffic. An overload disrupted service for many customers.

Comcast has a reputation for customer troubles. Various snafus and repeated promises by top executives to improve service has made the company a dart board for criticism.

Customers impacted by the recent service interruption will receive a credit in their regular bills. Anyone the company misses can apply for the credit online (the company plans to publish a link online for those customers to do so).

(This story was updated with additional information from Comcast)

MONEY Customer Service

Hate Comcast? Company Says It’s Working on That

Comcast has revealed a multi-year plan to fix its customer service problems, including a credit to your account if a technician shows up late.

MONEY Airlines

JetBlue’s Surprising Upscale Gambit Is Working

JetBlue Mint suites
JetBlue

JetBlue's Mint premium seats are getting more expensive -- and they're still in high demand.

Last June, JetBlue JETBLUE AIRWAYS JBLU 2.65% began a new chapter of its history with the introduction of its Mint premium service. Instead of using its standard all-coach configuration, JetBlue added a 16-seat premium cabin with full flat-bed seats for some of its new A321s. (Four of the seats even come as private mini-suites!)

JetBlue opted to make this change in order to boost its profitability on the ultra-competitive New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes. Less than a year in, it’s pretty clear that this move is paying off even more handsomely than originally expected.

Mint ramps up

The routes from New York’s JFK Airport to Los Angeles and San Francisco are highly contested — JetBlue competes with all three legacy carriers as well as Virgin America VIRGIN AMERICA INC VA 0.87% . Until last June, JetBlue had been the only one not offering a swanky premium section on these flights. Not surprisingly, this took it out of the running for attracting the most lucrative travelers.

JetBlue created Mint in order to narrow the revenue gap with its rivals. The idea was to offer a lie-flat seat at a much lower price than the prevailing fares in order to court the small/medium business and upscale leisure markets: i.e., people who were priced out of the premium cabin on other airlines.

JetBlue has been phasing in Mint flights since last June as the specially configured Airbus A321 planes have arrived. It is finally reaching a full schedule of eight daily round-trips to Los Angeles and five daily round-trips to San Francisco this spring.

Strong demand across the board

Ever since JetBlue launched its Mint service, company executives have noted that they were pleasantly surprised by the level of demand for its premium seats. As expected, Mint has been popular with small/medium businesses and well-to-do leisure travelers.

More surprisingly, Mint has also generated strong interest among large corporations. JetBlue had assumed that its rivals — mainly the legacy carriers, but also Virgin America to some extent — had that business locked up. Instead, JetBlue’s entry into the market has disrupted the status quo.

Virgin America CEO David Cush noted in February that JetBlue’s entry into the market had driven average premium fares down by 30%-40% on the Mint routes. This indicates competitors have had to at least meet JetBlue halfway in terms of pricing in order to prevent customers from bolting.

Fares strengthen

In the first few months of Mint’s existence, JetBlue was offering a starting non-refundable fare of $599 one-way. There were two higher fare “buckets”: $799 and $999. Depending on the level of demand for a particular flight, JetBlue’s revenue management system would determine how many seats to sell at each price point in order to maximize revenue.

Because of the strength of demand, JetBlue’s Mint cabin was frequently sold out last summer. As a result, in the fall, the company revised its Mint pricing tiers. In October, JetBlue’s then-president — and current CEO — Robin Hayes explained that JetBlue had moved the refundable fare up to $1,199 and then to $1,209. Meanwhile, it had made the $999 price point a third non-refundable fare.

More recently, JetBlue has apparently determined that the market can support even higher fares. There’s still an introductory fare of $599, but there seem to be fewer of these tickets available, especially on busy travel days.

Furthermore, on the San Francisco route, the refundable fare has moved up to $1,249, while the intermediate non-refundable fares have risen to $809 and $1,049. Fares are even higher for New York-Los Angeles flights. The refundable fare there is now set at $1,299, with the intermediate non-refundable fares at $899 and $1,149.

A big profit tailwind

JetBlue has been posting by far the best unit revenue growth in the industry recently. It would be naive to attribute this performance to a single factor, but the strong reception of its Mint premium offering is clearly having a big impact. JetBlue is regularly pulling in one-way fares of more than $800 — and, increasingly, more than $1,000 — on routes where just two years ago, its average one-way fares were less than $250.

Late last year, JetBlue told investors that for the month of September, its profit margin on the Mint route to Los Angeles had risen by 17 percentage points year over year. Given that it has raised prices several times since then, its Mint routes are surely even more profitable now.

For competitors like Virgin America, this is mixed news. In the short run, it’s better if JetBlue is commanding higher prices, because it limits the need for other airlines to discount their fares to match JetBlue. But in the long run, JetBlue’s massive success on the New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes could encourage it to add flights, putting even more pressure on the competition.

MONEY Customer Service

Comcast’s New Customer Service Strategy: More Tweets

Comcast skyscraper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Alamy Comcast skyscraper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The company is adding 40 new social media experts to help it respond to customers faster.

Comcast COMCAST CORP. CMCSA 1.28% seems to be following through on promises made by its CEO Neil Smit to make fixing its customer service woes a priority for 2015.

“The way we interact with our customers — on the phone, online, in their homes — is as important to our success as the technology we provide,” Smit wrote on a company blog. “Put simply, customer service should be our best product.”

The company has already put a respected company veteran, Charlie Herrin, in charge of repairing its broken method of interacting with customers. It has also created an app which lets people know when a technician is en route to their home, ending the previous practice of subscribers having to wait around during a four-hour appointment window.

Now Comcast is taking its efforts to fix its customer relations a step further by hiring 40 workers for its social media team. These new hires will join an existing 20-person group in providing “help with everything from scheduling appointments to troubleshooting Internet problems and setting up DVRs, CNN Money reported.

Why is Comcast doing this?

“We have thousands of people answering service calls on the phone, and for many customers that’s great. But some people would rather go online, and we want to make sure to give them that choice,” Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury told CNN Money.

The company explained in a press announcement about the hiring effort that it has been using social media since 2007, but the use of platforms including Twitter TWITTER INC. TWTR -5.61% and Facebook FACEBOOK INC. FB 0.14% has increased over the years. This has shifted some customer support needs from traditional call centers to the social media team.

With a much bigger team, we’ll be able to support customers across more platforms. And we’ll be able to get to them faster. A larger team also means that we’ll be able to increase bicoastal and bilingual coverage to make sure we are available 24/7 to customers who speak either English or Spanish.

The social care team has access to all the same advanced tools and training as our call center agents do, which means they can quickly jump in to solve problems. They also have a direct line to our tech teams so they can schedule appointments.

While this effort won’t solve all of Comcast’s problems, it will bring some customers immediate help. It’s not a complete solution to a customer service culture which has been built around retention at any cost, but it’s a solid incremental step that should take pressure off the system.

Adding 40 people to the @comcastcares social media team shows that Smit’s vows to revamp customer service have actual money behind them. This isn’t a token hire or a PR move; it’s likely a multimillion-dollar commitment to delivering actual improvement.

Comcast deserves credit

The media, myself included, has spent the past year shining light on Comcast’s customer service failures. Those woes went viral when a recording made by former Engadget editor Ryan Block where a “retention specialist” essentially refused to allow him to cancel his service. That debacle led to a flood of embarrassing customer service issues being made public — everything from bad service to names on bills being changed to derogatory terms.

Comcast probably deserved the scorn it got from the legitimate media and on social media. Now, however, the company deserves praise for not just saying it’s going to fix the problem but actually doing the hard work to turn around its culture, while backing those efforts with financial resources.

This is good business for the cable and Internet giant. A company can’t treat its customers poorly when they can easily leave for other alternatives. But, aside from the long-term business gains the company should make, Comcast deserves credit for publicly tackling what is a thankless problem.

Bringing the customer service battle to social media is a smart move. Twitter and Facebook allow for quick problem resolution. That should result in happy customers and less stress on traditional phone-based customer service.

There are almost certain to be more problems and humiliating gaffes before Herrin and Smit completely change the company’s culture. Still, adding 40 social media customer care reps is a win for customers, which is ultimately a win for the company’s bottom line.

MONEY Shopping

Why Target Just Gave You a Year to Return Stuff

Exterior of Target store
Richard Clement—ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Humming again.

Target's newly generous return policy goes against industry trends, and it's inevitable that some shoppers will go overboard and abuse it. What is the company thinking?

Last week, Target announced it was extending the return policy on a wide range of merchandise to 365 days, a huge increase compared with the old 90-day return allowance.

The new policy doesn’t apply to all goods purchased at Target. Instead, the one-year window is valid on all 32 Target “owned and exclusive brands”—the stuff you can buy only at Target—including merchandise sold under names such as Archer Foods, C9 Champion, Cherokee, Liz Lange, Mossimo, Nate Berkus, Shaun White, and Wine Cube. The return policy for all items purchased as part of a Target gift registry (for babies, weddings, and such) has also been extended from 90 days to 365 days. And the liberal return period allowance for registry items commences on the day of the event, not the date of purchase.

While certainly more generous compared with most of its competitors, Target’s new return policy is not completely unheard of. “It’s a bit reminiscent of Costco’s liberal return policy,” Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate and the founder of Consumerworld.org, which publishes an annual retailer return policy report, said to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “It certainly is an unusual move.”

Unusual indeed. During the same week that Target was rolling out its easier-than-ever return policy, Bed Bath & Beyond was following industry trends by making its policy less customer-friendly. As Consumerist.com noted, in the past Bed Bath & Beyond allowed all items purchased at the store to be returned for store credit or a direct exchange indefinitely, with or without a receipt—a “policy that most customers enjoyed and a few abused.” Now, however, when customers bring back items without a receipt, they’ll still be able to get store credit, but there will be a 20% deduction on the amount they receive.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: Bed Bath & Beyond reached out to us to clarify that its new return policy takes effect on April 20, 2015, and that it “will only affect customers whose purchase cannot be located to process a return, either because the receipt was not provided or because we could not identify the purchase through a query of our transaction records.”]

In recent years, other retailers once renowned for incredibly generous return policies have felt forced to tighten up restrictions due to the abuse by a small percentage of customers. For instance, Bloomingdale’s and REI have ratcheted up return policies, partly because of the extreme behavior of a few rotten shoppers. Some people had the gall to return counterfeit goods purchased on the black market overseas to REI, while others referred to the retailer as “Rental Equipment Inc.” because they used backpacks, tents, and other gear for years and turned them in for new models once they were worn out.

Retailers say they’ve also been compelled to tweak return policies because of a certain subspecies of “returnaholic” shoppers known for engaging in the practice of “wardrobing.” This is the name when you buy something—typically clothing or accessories—wear it to some special event while hiding the fact that the price tag is still attached, and then return it afterward.

At a discussion of Target’s new return policy over at the industry publication Retail Wire, one retail insider noted that the company was all but asking for “wardrobing” and other kinds of abuse to take place:

I expect Target will get flooded with returns as a result of this policy—especially by Millennials who want to rent rather than own. Upscale retailers have had to limit the returns of expensive dresses because women would wear them for one night and return them using the store’s liberal return policy.

So what’s behind Target’s change to a more flexible, potentially abused return policy? The short answer is that shoppers buy more stuff when they know returns are easy.

“People are more likely to purchase impulsively with the assurance of a liberal return policy,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind and a frequent contributor to Money.com. “In stores like Target, impulse purchases are essential to their financial health.”

In the past, Yarrow has explained that a good return policy is critical when a retailer is trying to foster a long-lasting, trusting relationship with the customer. “Psychologically, a liberal return policy unconsciously communicates confidence in the products being sold,” she says. “With trust in businesses at abysmal levels, this is key.”

It’s been a long time since Target was known as “Tarjhay,” the “cheap chic” darling of the industry. By pushing the return policy to new levels of flexibility and generosity, Target is also pushing its reputation upscale. “Better return policies will help to elevate and classy-up the brand image–which is now more on par with Walmart whereas once it was edging up toward Macy’s,” says Yarrow.

Yarrow also points out that the retail experience today is riddled with potential headaches, so one easy way to set your company apart from the pack is by removing annoyances. “Retailers are typically focused on adding positives–what consumers really want is fewer negatives,” she says. “Hassle reduction is the new route to consumer happiness.”

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