sealPurdue News

October 29, 1993

Study finds industry lacks standard for customer service

WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. -- Standards for customer service vary widely among U.S. corporations, a Purdue University study shows.

At the same time, more companies are focusing on customer satisfaction, says researcher Jon Anton, professor in the School of Consumer and Family Sciences and executive director of the Center for Customer Driven Quality.

"We are seeing corporate officials with the job title, 'Vice President for Customer Satisfaction.' This was virtually unheard of five years ago," Anton says. "In the '80s, the buzz words were 'total quality management.' This was more of an inward-looking type of philosophy. In the '90s, it's 'total customer satisfaction.'

"What we're finding, however, is that standards for customer service often are made without a clear plan. In the area of customer satisfaction, no published standards exist. This study is really the first step in setting an industrywide standard in this area."

The study looked at current performance standards for customer satisfaction in more than 200 major corporations. Purdue's Center for Customer Driven Quality surveyed all members of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals who are managers of customer assistance call-centers throughout the United States. The study will be published in the January issue of Mobius, the society's official publication.

Three categories of industry were studied: service, durable products and nondurable products.

"From the company's viewpoint, there were two main questions," Anton says. "Is the company spending more than necessary to meet low customer expectations, or is more investment needed to meet higher expectations?"

Some of the results were surprising, he says.

"I find it fascinating to look at the wide range in values between the highs and the lows of almost every category," Anton says. "For example, in the nondurable products category, a customer may wait a minute and a half on hold while a representative searches for information. In the service industry, he or she may be on hold nine minutes.

"However, nondurable products report that almost 53 percent of their calls require a response letter. Service industries require a response letter only 7 percent of the time. So, even though it's taking longer on the phone, that industry is taking care of the problem right then and there."

Customer service representatives are kept busy, sometimes too busy, he says.

"The average number of calls per day that a representative handles for all three groups is 66," he says. "This can be considered a typical number, but one company reported representatives taking 163 calls in a single day."

Hectic schedules such as this produce high levels of burnout in customer service representatives, Anton says. Representatives remain in the service industry call centers the longest -- 5.35 years on average-- while nondurable products reps last an average of 2.2 years.

What are customers calling for? Anton says everyone assumes that they are calling to complain. That's not the case, he says.

"A majority of calls are inquiries about company services or products. Complaints are second in terms of percentage."

Problems with handling letters are similar to those with telephone calls.

"Look at the average for all groups in the time it takes before a letter is read," he says. "Four days doesn't seem too bad, but the high was 40 days. Some companies stated that they simply have too much mail. Others said that many letters were difficult to read or were unclear."

That's why so many companies have set up 800 phone numbers, Anton says. "Companies would prefer that customers call them rather than write a letter," he says.

Now that data have been collected from the company's viewpoint, the next step in the study will be to look at the customer's experiences with service departments, Anton says.

"The second half of our study will look at customer expectations and their interactions with customer service representatives," he says. "Then we'll see how the two match up."

Anton says that since an increasing number of companies are opening customer service centers to handle customer inquiries, more training is needed to prepare individuals for careers in the field.

"The concept of fully staffed centers with trained individuals is relatively new," he says. "Our center prepares students to take full advantage of a growing market."

The Purdue Center for Customer Driven Quality was formed in response to the booming customer service industry, he says. It has three areas of specialization: education, research and service.

It serves as a training center, where students and business professionals can become certified in skills necessary to become customer service representatives and call-center managers. Purdue is the only university in the nation providing students with training in this area.

The center also conducts research for companies interested in developing practical and cost-effective strategies for improving customer satisfaction.

As a service organization, it performs tasks that would be expensive for companies to do in-house, such as processing customer data, measuring customer satisfaction and screening applicants for customer service representative positions.

Writer: Victor B. Herr, 765-494-2077
Source: Jon Anton, 765-494-8314
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page