Are Consumers Paying More Attention to Customer Service?

Airline passenger complaints rose by 25% in 2010 compared to 2009 figures according to new statistics released this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The top two complaint categories were the old favorites, Flight Problems (such as delays and cancellations) and Lost Luggage. But this year saw a new arrival in the number 3 spot on airline passenger’s greatest complaints hit list—Customer Service! Airline customer service complaints rose 20% in 2010 from those filed in 2009. The Department of Transportation defines customer service as: “Rude or unhelpful employees, inadequate meals or cabin service, treatment of delayed passengers.” The question is, has airline customer service deteriorated significantly from 2009 or are passengers simply speaking up more?

Most air travelers are aware there has been a continued decline in the inflight services offered to passengers over the last years. Blankets and cushions have all but disappeared, free soft-drinks have gone the way of the Dodo, and the pretzels are MIA. However, the majority of such changes occurred before 2010. Therefore, it seems to me as though passengers are speaking up more than they had before.

Filing a report with the Department of Transportation involves forms, flight numbers, names, dates  and other kinds of documentation—exactly the kind of bureaucratic paperwork that deters the vast majority of us from complaining in any circumstance. As far as I know, the Department of Transportation does not include tweets or Facebook complaints in their statistics, but if they did, the numbers would be substantially higher.

This week also saw the Apple App store release Tello, a new consumer App and website that focuses solely on customer service and the customer experience. Tello is not interested in the company’s products or services but in how companies treat their customers—pure customer service.

These trends speak to greater awareness of the importance of customer service and the customer experience in the consumer public. Such increases in attention to customer service represent a substantial shift in consumer psychology as it implies that consumer expectations of customer service are rising. Customers are expecting to be treated according to certain standards and they are willing to speak up and complain if those standards are not met.

To be sure there is still a long way to go, both for customers and especially for businesses and corporations. Many companies do not yet realize the importance of customer service and the customer experience, or how consumer expectations are shifting in this regard.

Perhaps the airlines—like their flying brethren the yellow canary—represent an early warning system. Perhaps these latest statistics are a warning to companies and especially airlines, to pay more attention to their customer service. Delta recently announced it was sending its employees to ‘charm school’ to improve their customer service. Hopefully other airlines will act swiftly as well. After all, we all know what happened to the yellow canary…

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch