'Customer service' is a misnomer. Serving customers is what companies do but the 'customer service department' is problem resolution. How companies deal with irate customers is an important part of their brand.
Remember in 2008 when Dave Carroll's guitar was broken on a United Airlines flight? They denied responsibility until, after nine months of employees showing 'complete indifference', Carroll released a song about it on YouTube which got millions of views. Only then did United Airlines apologise.
Before that, we had the hilarious video of a Comcast engineer falling asleep on a customer's sofa trying to get through to the Comcast call centre, which reinforced its reputation for terrible service.
Why don't companies try harder to solve customers' problems? Historically it was because individuals were not important enough to matter. Rather than solve problems, companies assume churn. (That the companies now outsource 'customer service' to call centres suggests their priorities.)
Since the 1980s, corporations have mostly been led by people from the financial side of the business. This has given rise to an overweighting of cost-cutting vs. growth, the side represented by marketing. Marketing is also the voice of the customer and that is largely ignored… unless one creates viral hits.
Let me relate an example. My wife and I flew from Florence to Las Vegas to judge the London International Awards. Despite booking with one airline, we were codeshared from Vueling to Iberia to British Airways. Our luggage didn't arrive, but we were told it would do so the next evening. When it didn't, the true comedy of errors began. We were told that our luggage could not be located and that we should just keeping calling back for updates. Days later, we were informed our luggage was still in Florence. BA said that Vueling had not loaded it on to the plane, but couldn't say why. First BA blamed Iberia, and then Vueling, despite them all being part of the same company.
While on Twitter, begging the brands for information, a community found us. Rather than losing a single piece of luggage, Vueling hadn't loaded any luggage on to the plane leaving Florence airport. Hundreds of angry people trying to find their luggage had created the hashtag #vuelinglostmybag. A few Googles later, we saw that this happens frequently and they never inform customers that their luggage is not being loaded.
The rumours suggest that the planes aren't appropriate for the airport, so in windy weather, in order to reduce weight, they don't load luggage. Vueling refused to comment on the scandal. It was reported on BBC Radio 4, and received coverage in The Guardian because a High Court judge, overseeing a BA case, asked, in court, 32 times about his missing luggage, and had to withdraw. You get a sense of how annoying dealing with this company is, when a judge risks his professional credibility just to try to get a straight answer.
Today, brand promises are too often shown to be hollow, whether by huge trust violations like VW's or 'little' ones like the firewall of call centres. Comcast's disconnection procedure is famously so aggressive that a startup called Airpower has launched that will cancel your cable for you for $5. That is, a service exists that deals with customer service for you because it's too painful to actually call them yourself.
But while Comcast was voted Worst Company in America in 2014, the stock has continued to rise, thanks to cost-cutting, aggressive practices and lobbying to prevent competition. Since stock prices are often how CEOs are incentivised, there's been little reason to care what customers think. Rather than invest profits in better service, Comcast spent more than $6bn dollars last year buying back their own shares and paying dividends, benefiting only the shareholder.
After two weeks, and promises of having our luggage delivered to us, we were informed that it was at an airport hours away and we would have to collect it. How is Vueling's disregard for its customers affecting its brand? Reviews online are exclusively terrible, the brand seems irredeemably tarnished, yet it has done nothing to address the problem.
Perhaps one would assume that the parent company would take action – and indeed it has, but not in the way one would think. Rather, the CEO of Vueling was recently promoted to chairman of British Airways, which suggests that their brand promise, 'To Fly, To Serve', refers only to shareholders. When CMOs start becoming CEOs, we will know that there are no costs left to cut, and businesses will return to their proper function – as Peter Drucker pointed out – of both acquiring and retaining customers.