The three things New Zealanders hate the most about bad customer service are inefficient telephone systems, retail staff who are more interested in chatting amongst themselves and no one taking responsibility for following up on inquiries.

The second annual KiwiHost/JRA Customer Service Pulse debunks many common myths about customer service, including the fact that Kiwis are too tolerant of poor service – 75 per cent of respondents said they would give a company only one or two chances before taking their business elsewhere.

The Customer Service Pulse also found that New Zealanders tell between 4 and 6 people about a bad customer service experience, but only between one and three people get to hear about their good experiences.

Approximately 80 per cent of respondents said they only complain 'occasionally' or even less frequently than that, while Gen Y staff copped the most gripes about poor service – however, Gen Y were also the most tolerant of poor service.

Managing director of customer service training experts KiwiHost New Zealand, Jared Brixton, said the survey was of particular interest because it was conducted as New Zealand moved into the economic downturn and demonstrated that Kiwis would be less tolerant of bad service in tough times.

"More New Zealanders, 58.7 per cent in total, were either 'neutral', 'dissatisfied' or 'very dissatisfied' with levels of customer service – that's virtually two out of three people who are not impressed. If companies want to prosper or even survive during the downturn, they must look to how they treat people. Imagine how much more business they would do if three out of three people were happy.

"Relationships during and post recession will be critical. Up-skilling has never been more important, because at the moment it all boils down to the relationship you have with the customer and whether your staff are skilled enough to form those relationships and if they have the right attitude.

"Staff would do well to take personal responsibility for delivering good service if they want to hold on to their jobs at this time.

"Demand is down. If a company loses business now, it's going to get much harder to get new customers – especially at a time when businesses can least afford to spend the money and time on developing new opportunities. It is always going to be easier to sell to somebody who has already bought from you."

Managing director of workplace survey analysts JRA, John Robertson, said the survey demonstrated that engaged staff were key to good customer service.

"If you create a positive work environment and a great place to work, you are repaid with high levels of engagement from your people. And people who are engaged in their work stay longer, work harder and more productively - and of course are much more inclined to engage with your customers and deliver a higher level of service.

"Indeed our research over the past three years has shown that organisations with an engaged workforce have enjoyed a return on assets 95 per cent higher than those with low levels of engagement, while sales per employee was 68 per cent higher. This really should make the strategy of building a great workplace a no-brainer, especially in the current economic," said Mr Robertson.

"Right now, customers are more reluctant than ever to put their hands in their pockets. Companies are using massive discounts on prices as a strategy to retain and attract business, but there's plenty of evidence that the best way to retain, and attract new customers, are practices that engender customer loyalty – price reduction doesn't do that."

KiwiHost's Brixton said that comments from respondents made it very clear that price and product are of secondary importance to how a customer is made to feel during the shopping experience.

For the second year running, the top three factors that defined good customer service from the customer's perspective were:

1. Show a willingness to help me;
2. Listen to me and understand what my needs are;
3. Take responsibility to ensure my needs are met.

Between August and November 2008 more than 600 New Zealanders were surveyed on their perceptions of customer service. They were encouraged to tell their stories and name names.

More than 400 companies were named by respondents, and of those ASB was tops with 26 positive mentions, followed by Westpac with 22, National Bank 14, ANZ 14 and Harvey Norman in fifth, followed by AMI.

The telecommunications industry continues to offer the poorest customer service.

* Colin Kennedy is a freelance journalist, and a former duty editor at nzherald.co.nz