Why Are Most Companies’ Support Staff So Dumb?

I don’t think there’s a normal functioning adult alive today that hasn’t experienced the painfully dumb customer support rep who knows less about the given service than they do, at at least one point in their lives.

You’d think with these companies that are making millions (maybe billions of dollars), that they would have figured it out by now. So, why does it happen? For sure, lots of reasons. But, I have a general theory of why it happens.

The formula is simple:

  • The bigger the company, the worse the support.
  • The smaller the company, the better the support.

Remember now, that I’m generalizing. Certainly, some big companies have amazing support and without a doubt some small companies have awful support.

Big Company Theory

The idea being that the bigger a company, the further the separation from customer support to CEO (and everyone in between) is. Now, lots of people could argue that even the CEOs of a lot of companies have become quite distant from what’s going on in the day-to-day of how the company actually functions.

But, speaking strictly for the customer service department, things become quite distant, very quickly. Originally, there’s a core team (or just one person or only two partners) that build out the brand, product, or service. They know all the ins and outs of how everything works like the back of their hand, likely providing customer support themselves.

However, as the company builds they have less and less time to deal with the influx of customers they now have. They have to bring in dedicated customer support. This could be hiring people in-house (the best choice for companies who actually care about their customers) or outsourcing. Outsourcing causes a huge separation from first-hand knowledge to second-hand knowledge to really, implied knowledge based on emails and scripts, canned responses, etc.

We just went from the people who actually built the thing to people that have no personal interest in the company whatsoever (except for their paycheck) and are likely reading from a script that includes the bullet points, but none of the subtle details and nuances, quirks, etc., that can make all the difference in the world of actually solving a problem.

When companies become huge, customer support becomes a buffer zone. You’ll get filtered through a whole bunch of mazes, jumping through hoops, getting misinformation and the run-around. It becomes a juggling act of wait time versus quality support. At least in my experience, it seems most companies are more keen towards having you wait less, but get maybe fair support than wait a day for someone to actually look into the issue properly and get you an intelligent answer that’s actually related to your question.

It comes down to money. It’s more expensive to hire say 100 people in-house that speak the native language of the products primary demographic and that are properly trained than to hire 1000 people offshore and hand them scripts. I’ve outsourced myself in the past, the reason it works monetary-wise is because of the conversion rate. I was paying a guy in China $10/hour and he told me that where he was living it was more like $40/hour to him.

Sounds amazing right? Well, it’s not good for our economy, the time difference is often murder, and the bottom line is that quality suffers. If someone that’s not even in the same country, let alone the same continent, is handling all your customer support, the end-user suffers. They feel that separation and the difficulties it causes.

Bottom Line

Big companies have too many customers to keep up with, so instead of hiring more qualified people they resort to all sorts of gimmicks and cheap workarounds to save a buck.

Small Company Theory

The idea being that the smaller a company, the closer the separation from customer support to CEO (and everyone in between) is. In fact, you might be talking directly to the CEO over the phone or email at times.

Small companies aim to please, because after all, most small, new businesses are trying to make a very good and strong impression. Besides that enthusiasm, most small businesses can handle support themselves, which means you’ll get people that actually know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about.

You’re far more likely to find a human tone of understanding and down-to-earth communications and less formality and red tape. Because for the most part, small companies are making up the rules as they go along and they’re no different than you trying to make ends meet, their not a corporate money machine just yet.

Bottom Line

Small companies have time! Time to give you the 5-star treatment. Because A., it’s practice for them and B., because (gasp) they might actually care about your happiness and success, not just for monetary reasons, but also at a real human level.

The Chameleon Effect

When small companies are pretentious, trying to appear like corporate giants when the truth is, the CEO eats their lunch in their underwear while at work, which is their apartment.

When large companies try to act down-to-earth, “relating” to you, when the truth is, there’s some marketing rep over-thinking things to try and make customer support go more “smoothly”.

A good/awful example of this is Comcast’s recent customer-relations marketing ploy which is painfully transparent. Now, I want to say upfront I love Comcast, awesome service, awesome internet, great company overall (in my experience), I’m just very annoyed by their recent attempts to “relate” to me.

Being a web guy, I tend to prefer handling things over email or chat. So, a few months ago was the first time I used their customer support chat. It became an instant “face-palm” moment when their “technique” became annoyingly apparent to me. I asked a really basic question, verifying something about my bill or something to that effect and was instantly suffocated by phoniness to the effect of:

Hey Bryan! Oh no. I’m so sorry to hear that you’re having troubles. We really do our best to solve every issue. And I can tell you personally that I just hate when that happens. I totally get your frustration and I too, would also want to verify that. So let’s get this figured out.

Followed by an upsell attempt and more of this fake “pat on the back“, “we feel your pain” language which is just embarrassing (for Comcast) and annoying and weird, a waste of time, and frankly mocking and insulting of my intelligence.

All I was thinking is “What the hell, can you just answer my question?” and just to confirm, it’s been the same routine every other time I contacted support thereafter. So, it wasn’t just one weirdo support rep, it’s clearly a case of there being some marketing rep in a board room with a fancy degree feeding ideas to Comcast about how to better make customers feel like they’re actually cared about. Though clearly, this person is completely disconnected from the actual customers.

These techniques might have worked, say in the 40s or 50s, but consumers are much smarter today, they know the difference between real empathy and relatability and this phony marketing language. It’s times like this that really irk me, to know some marketing hack is making bank (only to in fact make things worse) when they really don’t know what they’re doing, but they have a degree that says they do.

I love you Comcast, but you’re suffering from “Big-Company-Tinnitus”. The effort should be to actually be real with customers, not make customers “feel” like you’re being real with them.

The Know-it-alls

Who are the most knowledgeable people at a company? If customer support and the CEO keep getting pushed farther and farther away from the tangible day-to-day, who knows what’s going on? I think it’s the people in the middle. The technicians, developers, factory workers, delivery drivers, etc. If you can talk to one of them, you’ll get the best information in straightforward language. That’s always been my experience.

What is the Key to Successful Support?

  • Don’t use psychology and marketing against people who are already your customers. It’s insulting. Save that for people that aren’t yet customers.
  • Don’t try to upsell people who are already customers. At least not during customer support at the very least.
  • Don’t be fake with customers. Be real, honest, and straightforward. Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong, made a mistake, or don’t know the answer and instead refer to someone who can. Most customers will appreciate this instead of all the double-talk and run-around to avoid ever admitting that you’re wrong. This fear that most companies have wastes a lot of time and only creates frustration with customers. This honesty will also help to control expectations.
  • Don’t outsource. Train people in-house and have them actually get hands-on with the product, whether that be a camping tent, car, software, or whatever. They need to actually learn first-hand, not from a directory of canned responses or from a script. Customer support should learn the product top to bottom, inside and out and be confident in answering anything from basic to advanced questions. I realize that this may seem impractical for a company with millions of products. That’s why you break up the departments and have them learn the most popular products and refer to the computer for the rest (hopefully gaining knowledge along the way). Otherwise, customer support is basically equivalent to say calling someone up with a question who doesn’t have the answer either and then they just Google your question and supply you with useless knowledge you probably already knew or could have just looked up yourself.

The Final Product

Considering of course that you hire competent people in-house that already have some knowledge of the industry (that generally means not teenagers — sorry) and that there’s consistency in the training (which involves hands-on learning), your response time will slow, it will cost more money, but your quality of support should skyrocket and with that, your reputation. You should gain more customers and lose less to refunds.

So, did I hit the nail on the head? Am I way off? What’s your experience with customer support? Either dealing with it or providing it.

  • AndrewLynch1

    I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you wrote this piece not long after a particularly irritating customer-service experience. ;)

    In my experience, there are other axes with which to measure the success or failure of service.

    PRIVATE vs. PUBLIC companies

    Hands down, private companies usually invest more time and care in their service than public companies. This is probably due to the fact that service is clearly marked as one or more operational line items in a public company’s ledger and that ledger has to be rationalized to shareholders. It’s probably safe to assume that shareholders like to see an itty bitty number associated with service, as it is an intangible (real or perceived) that eats into operating cost and ultimately share price. Private companies, on the other hand, recognize that the losses incurred in service time translate into customer loyalty, which turns into repeat business and good word of mouth. Comcast has a massive marketing budget, so their reliance on customer satisfaction and word of mouth is ceremonial at best. A private company often lives or dies by word of mouth: when you tell friends that your experience returning a pair of shoes to Cool Shoes, Inc. was stellar, that means future business for Cool Shoes. Cool Shoes didn’t have to buy Superbowl airtime to convince you how great they are…they just had to make you feel special, in real time.

    LIFESTYLE vs. NECESSITY companies

    We can argue about the differences between lifestyle goods and necessity goods, but to keep it simple, lifestyle are things you can live without, but which would be pretty cool to own. Necessities you can also pretty much live without, but chances are you — and few others — don’t. Lifestyle goods might be nice shoes (rather than shoes that simply cover your feet) or Pandora’s music service. Necessities will be things like cars, internet, and plumbing service.

    I find that players in the lifestyle camp usually have much, much better customer service than those associated with necessities. There are exceptions. Honda is famous for its Hondacare service, but try getting the same satisfaction from GM. AT&T and Verizon are going to score far lower in customer-service measures than Zappos or boutique-y online retailers.

    Is KNOWLEDGE or RESOLUTION the end goal?

    Resolution is pretty straightforward. I have a utilitarian problem and I need company X to resolve it. That may require no knowledge or expertise…just the authority to fix a problem (overcharges, late items, incorrect items). Knowledge service is really where the pain is; i.e., I need company X to UNDERSTAND what I am talking about and to UNDERSTAND how their products or service works. Nothing is more frustrating than having a much deeper understanding of the product I bought than the idiot I’m talking to on the phone or in the store.

    Anyway, these are just additional ways of looking at the problem. Thanks for your writing your post. Good stuff.

  • Absolutely, it was the experience with Comcast chat that sparked this article. That’s generally how my writing ideas occur. Something current, or a “last straw” situation happening to me that gets me thinking about an overall problem that I’m aware of (but, that has become more poignant). But it also should be backed up by years of experience for substance and credibility (write what you know) and have a broad appeal.

    So, I wouldn’t want to just write specifically about Comcast currently annoying me when there’s a bigger picture/story there to be discussed (and because I genuinely think Comcast is an excellent service in general, I don’t feel like singling them out in a dedicated article). Except for in rare occasions where something is extremely atrocious and I feel I have to warn others (example: https://bryanhadaway.com/frontier-the-most-incompetent-company-ever/).

    Anyways, I especially like your point about:


    For instance, I just got a new account with the electric company in my current city of residence. (Being extreme of course for the purpose of making a clear point), why should the electric company care at all about customer service?

    They could literally treat me like a dog if they wanted, they’re not going to lose a customer because I certainly need to stay connected to the internet, and I’m not about to start stocking up on generators and fuel.

    That makes me think of supply and demand. Say you were a gas station in the middle of the desert with 100 miles in every direction. You could charge $10/gallon and people are going to pay it, we’re almost talking extortion.

    Also, your input brings me to a new conclusion based on your points (basically I’m agreeing with the ideas you’ve laid out, but in my own words/interpretation). That whether a company cares about it’s customers genuinely (other than faceless little money machines) or not, doesn’t really matter in way of how good the support is going to be.

    What really determines the quality of customer support is how it impacts the company. If it’s beneficial to a companies bottom line (profit) to have amazing customer support, it’s going to make it happen. If it really doesn’t matter, than support will be awful, though probably still existent because it might be important to do just enough to avoid chaos, lawsuits etc.

    Though, I have dealt with companies that straight up don’t even respond at all. I like their services enough to neglect that and move on, and they probably realize that.

    Anyways, good discussion. I wish I could get this out of all my articles, but they can’t all be zingers!

    Do you write yourself, have a blog or website perhaps?

    Thanks, Bryan