Europe has customer service problems

And automated telephone systems were rated the worst, according to a survey by EasyNet.

Despite the fact that businesses say they have put customer service right at the top of the agenda, the vast majority (83 per cent) of customers in a pan-European survey say they have had a major problem in the past 12 months.

There is clearly a mismatch here, as the same survey shows European business employees think they are putting customer service at the top of their list of priorities, even before achievement of profit. In the UK 46 per cent of employees put 'customer service' as their company's main focus, well over profit (21 per cent).

Nonetheless the survey found that the average time for a customer service call to be answered is just under five minutes - and 75 per cent of such calls got answered by an automated response.

"Our research found that 58 per cent of respondents found automated telephone systems to be the most annoying factor in poor customer service," said Martin Molloy, customer operations director of networking firm EasyNet, which commissioned the survey. "Too often customers go through endless stages of a phone system only to be kept waiting for five minutes before they speak to a person, who then informs them that they can't help and will need to transfer the call anyway. It's not the technology at fault but the business processes and performance built around it that fail the customer."

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Molloy pointed out that the survey results imply that not enough organizations have implemented truly multi-channel customer services, despite a lot of lip-service paid to the idea. "It's surprising how often companies still only give consumers one option for how they interact with a company. As well as offering different technology channels it is also important to offer different 'people' channels. This is particularly important in business-to-business markets."

Molloy added that good customer service is the same whether delivered via automated solution (phone or internet), via a live telephone call or in person: it is consistently well delivered, customer expectations are met or exceeded, and when something goes wrong it is dealt with swiftly and decisively the first time the customer raises the issue.

The survey covered eight European countries and collated responses from over 4,500 respondents, and was carried out by TNS.

"Many customers have experienced significant problems with a service and most companies greet these complaints with a substandard response," said John Kemp, from the European Customer Care Alliance. "They pass customers from high-cost communication channels, such as phone or face-to-face, to low-cost channels such as automated phone responses, call centres or the web. Customers just end up getting angrier and angrier."

"If customers don't trust you, they will find a reason not to buy," added Hugh Wilson, professor of strategic marketing at the Cranfield School of Management.

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