By Max Clarke

ORC International, an Infogroup company, today announced new research findings that show half of UK consumers are likely to encounter poor customer service in an average month.

The worst culprit for poor service was the retail sector, with 17% of respondents unimpressed with their experiences. Closely following, however, were broadband suppliers and banks, with 16% and 15% respectively.

The results were published in ORC International’s first Customer Service in the UK survey, which includes information from over 1000 respondents across the UK. Respondents were asked questions about both their perceptions of customer service reputation and their particular experiences of dealing with a range of different organisations.

Although retailers ranked alongside hotels, theatres, restaurants and supermarkets as having the best reputations for looking after their customers, they are not always living up to the promise, as a large proportion of respondents said their last experience of poor customer service had been with a retail organisation.

Other organisations singled out for having poor customer service reputations included banks, train operators and local councils.

Keith McGowan, Associate Director of Customer Strategy at ORC International, says, “Although we found people’s general perceptions of retailers were broadly positive, when it came to recalling specific negative experiences, this sector rated rather poorly. This reflects the high volume of interaction that consumers have with these companies, meaning there is greater potential for something to go wrong. This highlights the importance of making every customer experience a good one — a great new year’s resolution for retailers.”

“On the other hand, we found banks scored badly in both people’s perceptions and in their actual experience, showing this sector still has much to do to improve its customer service image.”

ORC International’s Customer Service Survey also looked at the age ranges of people most likely to make a complaint about customer service. It showed that it is the outspoken younger generation of consumers that is most likely to find fault.

In addition, although the British might have a reputation for being reticent when it comes to complaining, today’s 24-34-year-olds are not holding back. Fewer than half of them agree with the perception that Britons do not like to make a fuss.

“Today’s younger consumers have grown up at a time when companies are starting to focus more on customer service,” says McGowan. “Consequently they have higher expectations in this area and are more difficult to impress. Furthermore they have fewer inhibitions about voicing their opinions.”

And where do people encounter the worst customer service experiences? ORC International’s survey showed that London and the Midlands are the poorest at delivering good customer service. In London, 58% of consumers report having experienced bad customer service in the past month, while in the South East it was 54%. In the West Midlands and the East Midlands 55% and 52% respectively reported disappointing experiences.

Meanwhile consumers in Wales and Scotland were most likely to be happy with the service they receive, with residents in Wales also reporting the biggest improvement in standards over the past five years and feeling most strongly that companies are recognising the value of good customer service.

Consistently failing to provide good customer experience could be a costly mistake. Nearly three quarters of us are likely to switch suppliers after encountering poor customer service. Equally importantly, we are very likely to discuss our experiences — both good and bad — with friends and colleagues: 85% of us will discuss bad customer service with friends, while 78% discuss good service.

“Organisations that deal with consumers need to pay greater attention to the feedback they are getting,” says McGowan. “After getting bad service half of us will make a complaint and switch our supplier, but another 20% will stop using that supplier and not voice their criticisms. It is clear that suppliers really need to value customer feedback and act on it.”

ORC International’s research shows that key elements of great customer service include on-time delivery and a robust complaints procedure. Customers are far more likely to focus on the customer service essentials than on other benefits such as a personalised service or multi-channel shopping environment.

“As consumers’ discretionary spending decreases businesses are going to need to raise their game and focus even more on getting the basic elements of customer service right if they are to avoid losing out to competitors,” concludes McGowan.