Customer (Dis)Service: Inside the CNBC Documentary

January 14, 2012

On Thursday, January 5th, CNBC aired a documentary entitled Customer (Dis)Service. I had hoped to blog about the documentary as it ran, but alas, the hotel I was staying in did not carry CNBC. Fortunately, inbound marketing consultant Ken Mueller gave me a real-time play by play of the show. He also did a brief write up of the documentary.

After reading Ken’s thoughts, I was ready to return to the warm embrace of my DVR to watch the documentary for myself.

Before we delve inside, let’s look at CNBC’s overview of the documentary from its press release:

Customer (Dis)Service takes viewers right to the heart of the new global battlefield, where the customer and the corporation are at war. Mass consumption is at an all-time high and customers have more options than ever before, raising consumer expectations to new heights. At the same time, rapidly expanding corporations are looking to cut labor costs, outsourcing their customer service departments to the other side of the world. Face-to-face time between business and consumer is practically non-existent, and customer satisfaction has declined dramatically.

Are the corporations at fault for putting their bottom line ahead of customer satisfaction, or are consumers demanding too much from the corporations?

Whatever happened to good customer service? 

That’s some fiery stuff: battlefield, war, declined dramatically… Fortunately, the actual documentary was a little more balanced than CNBC’s marketing copy.

The bigger issue with Customer (Dis)Service was not that it was a fire-breathing polemic but that it suffered from a lack of defined scope. If it was attempting to cover the “state of customer service” in under an hour, it did not accomplish that task very well. The end product was a quick look at some hot button topics in modern customer service, not a comprehensive overview.

Yet, the show still managed to strike on some golden nuggets. Here are three of the best…

Customer (Dis)Service: The Takeaways

Offshore Call Centers Are Not Going Away

Much of the show’s focus was on outsourced, offshore call centers. While the behind-the-scenes look at how an overseas call center operates was interesting — Westernizing names, removing “Indianisms” from speech, sticking to scripted responses only — the larger point was fairly obvious to anyone who has ever owned an electronic device — overseas call centers generally suck for consumers.

The Power of The Social Media Consumer (It’s Less Than You Think)

The documentary makes the point that social media has empowered consumers, giving them the ability to fight back against “abusive” companies like never before. While true, this idea is greatly overstated throughout the documentary and, quite frankly, throughout the blogosphere and business press.

To prove the point, the director points to some famous examples of viral videos — such as United Breaks Guitars — that created huge public relations issues for companies.

However, this is the Hasty Generalization fallacy in action. Viral videos (in almost any context) are the exception, not the rule. Go to YouTube and search “I hate <large company>” or “<large company> sucks.” In most cases, you’ll find a handful of videos with hundreds maybe low thousands of views. Not even a blip on the radar of a national brand. Stay tuned for more on this topic — it deserves its own blog post.

The Customer Has Changed A Lot Too

Not only am I a customer, but if you’ve read this blog, then you know I also put a lot of time and thought into how to make customers happy. Yet, the truth that those of us in the retail trenches understand is that customers have changed a great deal in the past few decades.

As Shelle Rose-Charvet, one of the consistently wisest interviewees in the film, said: “I think the problem is the customer has changed. Customers are fed up and want off the merry go round. They have no time anymore. They are under a lot of pressure.”

This observation, which the filmmakers fleshed out fairly well, was one of the high points of the film because it balanced out a tendency to shape a storyline of embattled consumers and heartless corporations. As the narrator said, “We may be nostalgic for a certain customer service, but we want it fast and cheap.”

The Big Miss: Customer Service In The Context of Market Economics

Besides an occasional bout of polemicism (the one-sided and heartrending interview with the Indian call center operator who was fired because “one customer” complained), the biggest miss in Customer (Dis)Service was the question of why?

  • Why do call centers still manage to thrive if consumers hate them and the companies that use them?
  • If social media consumers are so powerful, why haven’t they changed so many large companies?
  • If customer satisfaction does not improve a company’s bottom line, why should it care? (Yes, I did just ask that.)

The reality is that many large companies, particularly public companies, view customer service as a short term cost, not a long term investment. Add market conditions such as high regulation and oligopolistic competition, and you’ll see customer service a distant priority in many cases. Name three industries where almost everyone you know routinely complains about their service regardless of what company they are with, and you will generally find these characteristics. (Did you name banking, airlines, and wireless providers?)

This assertion, of course, is a blanket one. Bad service can be found across industries, as can excellent service. But when looking at the broader trends in customer service on a societal level, market economics and economic factors such as availability of substitutes and barriers to switching cannot be ignored.

A CNBC Documentary Worth Watching

Customer (Dis)Service is well worth the hour investment. The interviewees included in the film added strong perspectives and often illuminating commentary. Blogger B.L. Ochman, Steve Dublanica of, and the others brought insights that were well worth the time on their own.

While I’m still unclear on the filmmaker’s overarching purpose with Customer (Dis)Service, the show does accomplish the most important objective of any documentary: making the viewer think about the topic. And for that, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Have you seen Customer (Dis)Service? Are you planning to? 

8 thoughts on “Customer (Dis)Service: Inside the CNBC Documentary”

  1. First of all, stay out of the hotels on the OBT; I don’t think they are known for TV channel options……..

    It seems that crappy or marginal service is becoming the norm and is almost expected. Especially in industries where there are limited options. However, what a huge opportunity to stand out from the rest and you only need to provide ‘ok’ but consistent service. Just think if it was outstanding………

    Yes, everything is so fast paced, instant gratification oriented; does that promote just accepting what is given to you? It’s just bad/good enough to still be acceptable which probably won’t inspire the masses to revolt.

    I will definitely check it out………at home.

    Well done my friend; thanks for sharing.

    1. Now Bill, how do you know about the OBT… that’s the real question. 🙂

      I completely agree with you Bill. When you look at these industries where customer service is lacking across the spectrum, there is a tremendous opportunity for the company that does deliver great service to gain incredible competitive advantage. The problem is they almost always have to make less money in the short term to do so, and for large public companies, that does not sit well with quarterly earnings and investors.

      And you’re point about acceptance comes down to barriers to switching. Why haven’t credit unions been crushing the big banks with service since the crash? It wasn’t until the majors overreached with fees (and had to back down quickly) that the credit unions started making a dent. Before that, people just accepted poor service because the barriers to switching a bank account nowadays are fairly high and all of the big banks seem the same anyway.

      Actually, I think you just gave me an idea for another blog post… Hmmn. Thanks for that — and for stopping by!!!

  2. I saw the show. I’m a business owner and provide both services and products.

    My first thought was to consider places like Neiman Marcus and Land’s End. These companies provide amazing customer service but at a price. My thought was, great customer service costs money and consumers would honestly rather have low prices than high customer service. How often do you need good customer service anyway? Only when something goes wrong.

    But then I got to thinking of some other companies. Southwest. While not everyone likes their “cheap” style, they are very good at customer service (though there are exceptions to every rule). Kohl’s has built a reputation for their lenient return policy that has almost gone the way of the Commodore 64. That’s good customer service. And their prices are very affordable (as long as you make the most of their sales). And what about sites like Amazon or Zappos. They are definitely built on both affordability and customer service.

    I think what it ultimately comes down to is that customer service is being forced into a system. Consumers are no longer treated as human beings. The customer service workers are just following a set of rules that really doesn’t allow them to think, problem solve or empathize with the customer.

    I’m not sure if big businesses do this simply because of cost or lack of foresight or some other reason. It’s kind of a chicken or egg problem and everyone is blindly accepting it as something that just is.

    What’s the best way to get great customer service? Shop small business. You may pay a little more but you’ll be more than a customer code.

    1. Hi Nicole,

      I’ve been away from the blog for a few days… what an excellent comment to come back to!!! I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

      You hit on a really important point with price. I do think all organizations can deliver great service even at low price points, the service will always be capped by the limitations of the business model and the margins. Chik-Fil-A is known for its service, but it will never achieve the level of attention that will be achieved by a 5 Diamond restaurant. It delivers great service within the context of its industry.

      You are spot-on with the fact that CS is being forced into a system. I think how I would qualify that thought is to say that cust serv is being forced into a system where customer service is not the priority, minimal customer service that produces maximum short term profits is the priority. I think that’s what we saw a lot of with the call centers in the show.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for the great comment Nicole! Look forward to seeing you back in the future.

  3. Pingback: Monthly Mash: Customer Experience Tools and Customer Loyalty

  4. The Financial Times is a worst-case nightmare scenario for the Offshoring of their “Worldwide Customer Service” to the Phillipines last year. Not only did the FT replicate the issues it was already experiencing in their DISSERVICE in their Corporate Support/Sales Deprtment (which had been in Manilla for some time, quite disfunctionally) directly into their General Audience Customer Service, but their recurrent billing department (customer retention) was moved as well—-and this is seriously effecting their bottom line.

    The FT has lost almost the entirety of it’s reputation (what it was in any case) in the USA due to the dramatic cut in print sites for the physical newspaper, the glaring (and completely unaddressed) editorial lag experienced on their multimedia platform (literally a US centric headline, example, “Michael Dell attempts Private Buyout”, appears as the headline on their iPad app a full 36 hours after the news is announced in the USA by BLOOMBERG). SO THE FT is killing itself in the eyes of both the print subscribers (who they are trying to push to multimedia) and multimedia subscribers who know there is much better, cheaper, more relevant content. And most importantly–FASTER. The US FT editorial staff should not have to wait for someone to wake up in San Francisco to call the UK in 12 hours to get the go ahead to run a headline from some guy in the UK who is sleeping when the news breaks.

    That is all organisational background. The TRAVESTY that has become FT Global Customer Service, under the auspices of Katheryn Roberts, could only happen in an organisation whose moving components spend all day pushing things off onto other people under the guise of “this is not my area of responsibility”. IN fact, everyone at the FT knows just enough of their area of responsibility to NOT BE responsible for anything at all. That’s why they all have to change their extension numbers every two weeks. Maybe also why half the good talent and staff have left for competitors in the last year. Only Martin Wolfe and John Authers seem to be bound with going down with the boat.

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