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Is Much of What You Believe About Customer Service Wrong? - Could Be.

Part 1 By Robert Bacal

As is probably the case with you, I'm someone who makes a living by being interested in customer service, and helping organizations improve it. I monitor a lot of conversations on the Internet (blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, CustomerThink) on the topic.

I'd guess that over 99.5% of the content I read presents the same central theme; that companies MUST improve their customer service or die.

The details often vary. Here's a few of the admonitions and advice.

  • You MUST monitor social media because your customers are talking about you there.
  • You MUST "go where the customers" are (Twitter, Facebook), or die as a result of poor customer service.
  • You MUST WOW, Love, and otherwise dazzle your customers, or they will go elsewhere.
  • Customers control interactions with you now, so you need to change your way of doing things, since the power has shifted.
  • Employees MUST be empowered to meet the needs of the customers.
  • The "Voice of the Customer" is all over the place.

Allowing for the fact that all generalizations (except this one) are easy to falsify, you probably believe most of these things. But HOW do you know these are true? We'll come back to that in additional installments of this series, where I will explain the social, brain functioning, and informational source factors that push us to believe things that ARE wrong, or at least significantly wrong.

Two Disconcerting Experiences This Week Among Many Related To Customer Service

This week has been relatively typical in the customer service discussion world. Most weeks are quite similar in terms of what I see, but let me share three experiences that are disconcerting.

The Case of the Damaged Research

Earlier this week the founder of the most used customer service chat on Twitter retweeted a link to some "research" that purported to present data to show that companies MUST listen to social media and customer comments made on social media sites. The piece she linked to was a PRESS RELEASE and contained the following:

TOA Technologies, the only on-demand provider of enterprise-class mobile workforce management software solutions today released the results of its study on customer behavior and the use of Twitter in customer service. The survey found that more than 1 million people per week view Tweets related to customer service experiences with a variety of service providers and that more than 80% of those Tweets reflect a critical or negative customer experience.

In this case, the individual, who bills herself an "E-commerce Expert, Author, Online Customer Service), has over 50,000 Twitter followers.

So far so good. Except for a number of things. The sample was biased. The tweets looked at were drawn from a keyword pool that almost guaranteed the "researchers" would get this result. Take a look, again from the press release:

The statistical sampling of more than 2,000 Tweets was collected during the period of February 25 to May 2, 2011 and focused on terms that included "the Cable Guy" and "installation appointments.

Not only was the sample biased and had no relevance to the conclusions that were drawn IN the press release BY the "research company", but the sample size was way to small to draw any conclusions whatsoever.

The final problem here is that the findings and illogical conclusions directly contradicted almost all other research on this topic. A 2009 study by Penn State University found that about half of all tweets that mentioned brands were informational. That is they did not offer any judgment about the brand. Of the tweets that did include some reference to quality, service, etc (i.e. expressing a judgment), they found:

  • 52.4% were positive
  • 14.2% were somewhat indifferent
  • 33.5% were negative

In other words, WHEN tweets included some judgment, only about a third were negative. Their sample size was close to ONE HUNDRED times the size of the faulty study we're talking about, AND it appears sampling was appropriate.

Of course, one could argue things have changed since them, except that there are also other studies, apparently well executed that replicate the Penn State findings.

The TOA study doesn't appear to mention this previous robust research on the same topic, and of course, it didn't try to explain these discrepancies.

When the problems were pointed out by myself and another savvy customer service person, the tweeters response was: "Well, I guess people can make up their own minds", presumably ending up with the same false conclusions presented in the press release, and echoed in hundreds of tweets, and many more reads. There's a lot of scary stuff in this example, so you might want to think about it for a minute before continuing.

The Voice of the Customer "Interaction"

A Twitter member from England read one of my articles challenging some orthodox thinking about customer service and social media, more specifically, that customers only APPEAR to be empowered, rather than have power. There are two major reasons: One is that people misconstrue the nature of power and groups. The only way a group has power if it ACTS (not talks) in concert. The second is that while, as the reader tried to suggest, the "voice of the customer" is everywhere, my response was: being loud doesn't equate to power or influence if nobody is listening or taking action.

The disconcerting part, apart from the fact that VOC has a specific definition with which the reader is not acquainted, has to do with the complete lack of effort to address any of the points in the original article. His tweet had the characteristic of comments made by those with deep religious faith. Often they repeat the same phrases, and their ability to argue their position is limited. Come to think of it, like politics. There is a place for faith in this world, and I'm not disparaging the religious, who are in some ways admirable in their ability to find meaning in their lives based on faith.

In essence the individual repeated something that, in all likelihood, he'd seen repeated. That's a concern, and certainly something that's rampant in social media. What is repeated, and what is popular seem to become "truth".

The Strange Case of The Wrong Channel

Another conversation popped up, again in response to one of my customer service articles. I suggested that by spreading existing resources more thinly to provide more channels to customers (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Blog, Support Groups, Email, Telephone, In person), companies were providing WORSE customer service. There's data to support the idea that customers believe that service quality is worse now than before. Each year the numbers tend to get worse, in spite of or because of social media.

The person who responded offered up a reasonable argument (rare on Twitter) contending that CONVENIENCE is critical, and that companies need to serve customers the way the customer wanted. I agree completely on "convenience". It's huge. I disagreed. suggesting that Twitter is NOT more convenient when most interactions will have to be switched to email or phone for resolution. That's worse, not better.

His response suggested that if it cost more to cover all the possible channels (something that is absolutely impossible to do) companies had to do it or customers would leave.

Now here's the interesting thing. He makes an assumption that customers WILL leave if they can't contact a company on Twitter. Or Facebook. Or whatever. Is that true? There's actually good evidence that it takes much more to lose a customer than is commonly thought, but it varies by sector. In any event, he's assuming the truth of that.

But here's the kicker howler: He tweeted that Twitter as the wrong channel for our discussion and suggested he'd comment on my site. Which of course is true. It is equally true of customer service on Twitter. It is the WRONG channel. If it's the wrong channel, it's NOT convenient. It only increases customer hassle.

I don't think he got my comment.

So, The Point

First, where do you get your information about customer service? Are you getting it from people who read primary source research, understand enough to separate the wheat from the chaff? Or are you getting most of your information from the Internet, where there's no quality control or oversight, so anyone can repeat anything? Do you question what you see repeated, whether it's something you already agree with, or only when you disagree?

Do you apply cognitive biases of various sorts to ensure that your beliefs and assumptions aren't challenged? Do you seek out advice to support your position, rather than seek out information to disconfirm your beliefs?

We have a "perfect storm" situation, which I'll explain in further installments, where a number of forces operate on us to "push" us to believe things that are simply wrong about customer service and customer behavior. Many of those forces have to do with how the brain works and process information. Some have to do with the social context of learning.

I'm interested to see if people can take THIS article, and figure out some of these factors BEFORE I continue to explain them. And of course, I'm as interested in positive comment as I am in negative ones, because that's how we learn.

Your thought question: If I (in other words you, the reader) use ways of thinking that distort information (you do, all of us do), do I believe in things about customer service that may be wrong, BECAUSE OF THE DISTORTIONS?

Stay tuned.


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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