Under­standing their dis­sat­is­fied cus­tomers and acting on the knowl­edge will help com­pa­nies save money and reshape the way they con­duct busi­ness, according to research by Heidi Kevoe Feldman, an assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies at Northeastern.

Over a six-​​month period, Kevoe Feldman recorded—and sub­se­quently analyzed—more than 60 hours of phone calls between roughly 500 cus­tomers and ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives for a camera repair com­pany in the North­east. She hoped to deter­mine how rep­re­sen­ta­tives han­dled cus­tomer com­plaints from a com­mu­ni­ca­tions point of view in order to develop a strategy for making cus­tomer ser­vice calls more efficient.

Society is built largely through talk—that’s how we under­stand each other. And one way to under­stand what’s going on in the day-​​to-​​day lives of people at work is to examine social inter­ac­tion through dis­course, including talk,” said Kevoe Feldman, a con­ver­sa­tion ana­lyst whose research focuses on how orga­ni­za­tional processes are built through verbal communication.

Before joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Kevoe Feldman was a lec­turer at Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity, where she earned her PhD in lan­guage and social inter­ac­tion. She earned her Bach­elor of Sci­ence degree from North­eastern in 1992.

For her most recent study, Kevoe Feldman ana­lyzed calls made by cus­tomers seeking more infor­ma­tion on the status of their broken cameras.

After lis­tening to hours of recorded calls, she found that ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives didn’t directly address cus­tomer queries regarding the wait time between camera repairs and receiving their good-​​as-​​new product in the mail. Instead, they offered a time frame for when the repair tech­ni­cian would fix the product—a tactic that is wholly unsat­is­fying for the customer.

When a rep­re­sen­ta­tive says that a customer’s product will be repaired in 10 to 20 busi­ness days, a cus­tomer might say, ‘Oh my god,’ and com­plain about the wait time,” she said, adding that rep­re­sen­ta­tives often shied away from spec­i­fying a date of return, out of fear of promising some­thing that was not guaranteed.

Kevoe Feldman found that the com­pany would be better off if its ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives offered cus­tomers an approx­i­mate date for when their cam­eras would be returned, as opposed to when they will be fixed—even if they couldn’t be pre­cise. “Cus­tomers under­stand they can’t get an exact date,” she explained, “but they’re looking for a time frame for when they can expect to have their product in their hands.”

That approach would reduce call time, saving the com­pany money and cre­ating more good will among customers.

Kevoe Feldman also found that ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives who played the empathy card were wasting their time. Cranky callers treated their apolo­gies as “very robotic and phony” and con­tinued to com­plain, she said.

In the end, cus­tomers can play a large role in reshaping the way a com­pany dis­closes its orga­ni­za­tional knowl­edge, she said. After reporting her find­ings, the camera repair com­pany took a number of steps to improve the quality of their cus­tomer ser­vice calls, which in turn reduced the amount of time rep­re­sen­ta­tives spent on the phone with customers.

There is an orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture in place,” she said, “but cus­tomers push back and reshape how things get done.