10 Industries with the Worst Customer Service

Last Updated Jun 27, 2011 1:36 PM EDT

When it comes to bad service, you won't believe how competitive the field is.

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to vote on the four worst businesses for service, which had been pre-selected courtesy of the latest MSN/Zogby poll.

The result: Cable TV edged out banks by a few votes.

1. Cable TV
2. Banks
3. Telecoms
4. Insurance

You can see the poll at the bottom of this post.

Then we learned airlines actually had the worst customer service, at least according to the authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

Confused? Don't be. It seems that when it comes to the worst industries, companies are just falling all over themselves to underperform each other.

So I thought it would be instructive to look at the bottom-feeding businesses. Here's how ACSI rates them. I've added a letter grade next to each score to illuminate the results.

1. Airlines â€" 65/D
1. Newspapers â€" 65/D (tie)
2. Subscription television service â€" 66/D
3. Wireless telephone service â€" 71/D
4. Motion pictures â€" 73/D
5. Fixed-line phone service â€" 73/D
6. Cellular telephones â€" 75/C
7. Hospitals â€" 77/C
8. Network cable TV news â€" 77/C
9. Computer software â€" 78/C
10. Limited service restaurants â€" 79/C

The results explained
What does this list mean? Airlines and newspapers are, as industries, just one point away from a failing grade â€" and some companies within those categories actually get an "F" for customer service.

These are industries with distinguished track records of taking their customers for granted.

Airlines, with their de-facto monopolies and powerful lobbies, don't have much incentive to serve all but their best customers (and even then, they often do so grudgingly). Newspapers have been slow to innovate and meet the expectations of their customers, allowing online sites like this one to claim their once-loyal readers.

The next-worst category is entertainment, with subscription TV, motion pictures and wireless phone services. I include wireless phone services in the group because a lot of smartphones are as much entertainment platforms as they are communication devices.

No need for me to go on a rant about the quality of movies and TV in 2011. Suffice it to say, there's plenty to be critical of.

Further down, you have communication services (fixed line and wireless phones). Again, those are industries with high fees and historically bad service. I mean, can you remember the last time you call was dropped? Or when you saw a suspicious fee on your bill? (Answer: Yesterday and today.) Telecoms also have a strong lobbying presence in Washington to ensure they can continue to have their way with their customers.

How about hospitals? Have you been following the healthcare debate? When hospitals overbill patients by $40,000 for surgery, you're bound to have problems with your service ratings.

I'm almost willing to write off the grades of network cable TV news, computer software and limited service restaurants as gentleman's "C"s, but I just can't. There's just no good reason for these substandard scores.

What's unbelievable is that customers continue to tolerate such mediocrity. But that's a topic for another time.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: TerryJohnston/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.

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