Customer (Dis)Service: Inside the CNBC Documentary
Adam Toporek Keynote Speaker of Customers That Stick®

Customer (Dis)Service: Inside the CNBC Documentary


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 CNBC DocumentaryCustomer (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? 

About the Author Adam Toporek

By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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