Consumer IQ

Complaint Nation: Your Grievances By The Numbers and What to Do About It

(photo: iStockphoto)

We’re living in an era of “the customer is never right” and infinite phone trees and impersonal form denials by e-mail. Hundreds of thousands of grievances are lodged against American corporations every day. Some of them are successful; many aren’t.

Given all that, wouldn’t it be helpful to know how many people complain about your clothing store, Internet service provider, bank or cellular phone company? If you had that information, couldn’t you make a more informed purchasing decision?

Most companies count the number of complaints they receive at some level. They don’t share it with anyone, unless the law forces them to.

For example, airlines keep close tabs on the number of grievances, but the only ones that ever get reported are the emails and letters sent to the Department of Transportation. Those are aggregated and disclosed monthly, but the information isn’t easy to find or interpret. See for yourself.

The Federal Trade Commission releases some complaint data, but it’s by category, not company. Here are the 2009 figures. Not terribly helpful for someone trying to make an informed buying decision.

Several independent organizations track consumer sentiment, which can offer a clue to how many complaints businesses receive. The Customer Service Hall of Shame, for instance, is a yearly study of customer service done by MSN Money and Zogby International. I recently aggregated the last four years of the survey on my blog.

For 2010, the most complained-about companies were:

1. AOL (AOL)

2. Bank of America (BAC)

3. Comcast (CMCSA) (CMCSK)

4. Sprint Nextel (S)

5. Capital One (COF)

6. Dish Network (DISH)

7. Time Warner Cable (TWC)

8. Wells Fargo (WFC)

9. Citigroup‘s (C) Citibank

10. HSBC (HBC)

Another reliable resource is the University of Michigan’s American Customer Service Index, which assigns industries and individual businesses a grade of 1-100, based on customer feedback and offers a quick, clear picture of how customers feel.

A third source for complaint statistics is the Internet, but it’s probably the least reliable. Checking a site like My3Cents or Consumer Affairs can only verify a hunch you may have when it comes to the number of complaints, but it is not precise.

You can get a more accurate picture of service quality by triangulating all three numbers, which is to say, querying government data, third-party reviews and Internet ratings. No one number is entirely accurate — unless, of course, you have raw complaint numbers from a company — but these three sources will put you in the ballpark. In other words, you’ll probably know if you’re dealing with a company that delivers inferior service.

And then what? If you happen to be dealing with a company everyone loves to hate, your next step isn’t necessarily to fire it. A fourth, and most important, measure of a company’s customer service performance is how it serves you.

If your grievance is a one-off, and the company has provided excellent service over many years, then all the aggregated numbers in the world don’t matter.

If, however, this is just the latest screw-up, and the data tells you that you’re in good company, you might want to give some thought to moving your business elsewhere. More on how to give your company the pink slip in a future post.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.