WEST PALM BEACH — If you've ever walked out of a store because the service was poor, or hung up the phone on customer service without being helped, join the club.
You're in the majority, according to a Consumer Reports survey of almost 1,000 consumers. The survey covered not only retailers, but every type of company that deals with customers, including cable companies, phone companies and hotels.
Sixty-four percent of respondents said that in the past year they had left a store and 67 percent bailed out on the phone. The biggest gripe is not being able to reach a human on the phone, with 71 percent of respondents saying they are "tremendously annoyed" when that happens.
Consumer Reports crunched the numbers from its recent studies of 21 industries and identified the companies that were the best or worst for customer service.
The survey published in its July issue found Walmart and Sam's Club to be among the worst for customer service, with one or both ranked worst in eight categories from appliances to cell phones. Among those ranking best in customer service in their categories were Dillard's, U.S. Cellular and the Ritz-Carlton.
With Americans seeking the lowest prices on everything, are companies then forced to cut back on staff? Is that the problem?
Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group in Summerville, S.C., said that's not necessarily the case.
In fact, stores that offer good customer service might increase sales, as customers will enjoy shopping there and spend more money.
"Cheaper stores do not have to have cheaper customer service," Beemer said.
RadioShack, he said, is known for good customer service, as are such retailers as Ace Hardware and Nordstrom.
"I think about the fact if price were everything, there would not be drugstores. You have to weigh things in the whole scheme of things," Beemer said.
Service on the telephone is another issue, as Americans are increasingly frustrated by recorded messages that tell them, "Your call is important to us," yet send them on a number-pushing adventure that may or may not result in reaching a live person.
"Voice mail is the single worst thing ever done to American business," Beemer said. "A third of all Americans have quit doing business with companies because of a bad experience on the phone."
Before the Internet, the rule of thumb was that if a customer had a good experience, he or she would tell six people. But the customer would convey an unpleasant experience with a retailer to 41 people.
"That was before the Internet. Now they tell millions," Beemer said.
Retailers need to realize it's not just about this weekend's sale. The bigger picture is the company's long-term success, Beemer said.