Why Do People Call Customer Service?

Jeff Sauro, PhD

The hold music.

The wait time.

The menu that always seems to have just changed.

Calling customer service is not usually what people want to do in their spare time. But it’s often necessary and represents an important touchpoint for companies that interact with their customers.

Understanding why people call customer support is also a good place to start identifying problems in the user experience on websites.

Some analyses by the call center industry have found in general the reason people call can be summed up into four broad categories:

  • Wanting more information to make a purchase
  • Being dissatisfied with a product or service
  • Experiencing website troubles
  • Seeking an exception

We’ll look to see how consistent these broad categories are as we examine other data we collected.

Two Data Sources

To understand the primary reasons people call customer service, we used two data sources. The first is our SUPR-Q benchmark reports for selected industries. For the health insurance, banking, brokerage, and airline industries, we asked participants whether they had called customer service in the prior year and the reason for their call. We provided between five and ten reasons based on industry reports as well as providing an “other” option. The data was collected between January 2017 and January 2018.

The second source is a customer service study we conducted in between November and December 20th 2018 where we asked 3,848 participants from an online US-based panel to reflect on their most recent call to customer service for any company for any reason. We asked participants who they called and to describe the reason they called.

Both data sources will provide a complementary look at why people call customer service.

Companies People Call

To understand why people call, it first makes sense to know WHO they call. In our customer service study, respondents provided 3,477 unique companies they reported calling. We manually classified companies with at least two responses into category types (accounting for about two thirds of all responses). Table 1 shows the results for the most frequent type of companies people called.

Wireless Provider2948%
Computer Maker461%
Ride Share/Delivery371%

Table 1: The top companies called by respondents using our classification system representing two thirds of responses.


The top 11 types of companies account for 64% of the total number of companies mentioned, showing a strong example of the Pareto principle. The SUPR-Q industry data also account for three of these top industries (financial, insurance, and airlines).

Table 1 shows that retail websites were the most commonly called company type. The most common examples of what we called retail companies were Amazon, Walmart, Apple, eBay, Target, and Best Buy.

The second most commonly called are cable and Internet providers. But because of industry consolidation, it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate wireless providers from cable/Internet companies as many provide multiple telecommunication services (TV, Internet, phone, wireless). These companies include Charter, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. Telecom companies account for 24% of customer service calls.

Banks and financial institutions make up the next most called category and include companies such as Chase, PayPal, CapitalOne, and Bank of America. Next are insurance companies, which includes both health insurance (e.g., Anthem, Kaiser, and Blue Cross) and auto insurance (e.g., Geico, State Farm, and USAA).

If you had to sum up which type of company people most recently called there’s a good chance it’s a telecom company, retail store/website, or financial institution. In other words, it’s about media, merchandise, or money.

Reasons for Calling

For the customer service study, we asked participants to describe their reasons for calling with an open-text field. To synthesize the reasons people called, we coded the first 1,000 responses into categories. Coding open-ended comments is time consuming but worthwhile to get a systematic understanding of user-generated reasons.

Tables 2–9 show the top reasons why people called each company type and examples of what the participants reported.

Table 2 shows the main reason people called retail companies was for a late or missing package.

Retail Reasons%Example
Delayed package or deliver problem17%A package I ordered didn't make it to my house. I called and they sent a replacement.
Request info/product10%I called Lowes because I ordered a new toilet for my bathroom and wanted to make sure the measurements were the right ones for my remodeling project.
Product/or service prob9%Because I received a broken item.
Technical issues9%Because I have bought a USB drive and when I have connected it, the drive does not worked.
Product replacement/return7%A hinge on my laptop I bought broke while still under their extended warranty. I called to see if I could have it replaced, which I did.

Table 2: Reasons respondents reported calling retail stores/websites.


Table 3 shows that people not having Internet service accounted for a substantial 31% of calls to cable/Internet companies.

Cable/Internet Reasons%Example
Internet outage31%All of my services were out and I couldn't figure out why.
Technical issues22%Cable box in my mother's bedroom was not working.
Billing question12%I discovered that I was paying more for slow service than they were currently charging for far faster service. I wanted this fixed.
Product/or service problem8%My Internet speed is supposed to be 100mbps and it is consistently below 50.

Table 3: Top reasons respondents reported calling cable/Internet websites.


For the banking industry, we have two sources. From our customer service study, the main reasons for calling were around billing issues and account management (Table 4). From our SUPR-Q banking benchmark shown in Table 5, the main reasons were login issues, making payments, and updating information (respondents could select multiple reasons). For the brokerage report, the top reasons were also login related (38% selected) and then other tasks related to managing and making trades (Table 6).


Bank/Financial Reasons%Example
Billing question16%Extra charge on credit card that needed to be removed.
Request info/product12%Inquiring about how a loan could be structured.
Account management/question10%I wanted to change my account type.
Make payment5%For a payment on my credit card. I set up payment over the phone.

Table 4: Top reasons people reported calling customer service for banking/financial companies.


Banking (Top Reasons)
Login issues (e.g. username, password)29%
Make a payment or transfer19%
Update address or personal information18%
Check balance and recent transactions17%

Table 5: Top reasons people selected (multiple selections allowed) for calling customer service in our 2018 banking benchmark.


Brokerage Reasons%
Login issues (e.g. username, password)38%
Check portfolio and recent trades23%
Transfer funds in or out of my portfolio23%
Make a trade or investment purchase19%

Table 6: Top reasons people selected (multiple selections allowed) for calling customer service in our 2018 brokerage benchmark.


For wireless providers, the main reasons were technical issues and billing problems (Table 7).

Wireless Reasons
Technical issue18%Because I'm having a problem with my device not receiving text messages and give him the wrong GPS location.
Billing question16%My phone bill was inaccurate.
Request info/product13%A question about getting a new phone for an elderly relative.
Product/or service problem7%The cell service I have through them was giving me issues and I was hoping to have them resolved.
Upgrade or downgrade 7%I had a question about what possible upgrades were on my account.

Table 7: Top reasons people reported calling customer service for wireless companies.


For the insurance industry, we have two sources. From our customer service study, the main reasons for calling were confusion around plan coverage and updating information (Table 8). From our SUPR-Q health insurance report, the main reasons were checking a claim and finding a doctor (Table 9). Having login issues was also cited by 21%.

Insurance Reasons%Example
Request info/product21%I was confused about a specific benefit of my current health care coverage.
Account management/question18%I wanted to update my last name as I recently got married.
Billing question15%I called them because I had a charge on my bill that I didn't recognize.
Pricing/fee questions12%I was reviewing my upcoming auto insurance coverage/payment (I pay every 6 months in full). I wanted to see if I could get a good driver discount.
Claim status6%I needed to discuss an open claim.

Table 8: Top reasons people reported calling customer service for Wireless companies.


Health Insurance Top Reasons %
Checking claim40%
Contacting a doctor27%
Making a payment23%
Login issues21%

Table 9: Top reasons people selected for calling customer service for health insurance companies.

How Common Are Calls to Customer Support?

While we don’t have any comprehensive data on how often people call customer support, we know it differs by industry. Across our four benchmark studies we found that the percentage of respondents who called in the prior year ranged from a low of 13% for brokerage companies to a high of 32% for health insurance companies (Table 10).

Industry% Calling within the Year
Health insurance32%
Consumer banks21%
US airlines17%

Table 10: Percent of respondents in our benchmark reports who reported calling customer service within the last year.

Login/Password Issues

We’ve read reports that around 25% of calls to many call centers are login related (forgetting passwords and usernames). We had trouble finding the original source data from Gartner, but our benchmark data revealed similar findings. Table 11 shows the percentage of respondents who reported calling for login related issues by industry.

Consumer banks29%
Health insurance21%
US airlines0%

Table 11: Percentage of respondents in our benchmark reports who selected login/password issues as a reason they called customer support in the prior year.


A substantial 38% of respondents reported calling brokerage companies because of login password issues, followed by banks (29%). It makes sense that the websites that contain the most secure information require higher security; unfortunately, higher security results in higher frustration when getting locked out of an account. Interestingly, no one in our airlines report mentioned calling support because of login issues, but we also didn’t provide this as an option for respondents to select from as we did for the other industries.

In examining our 1,000 coded responses from our customer service study we found a significantly lower percentage were login/password related. Surprisingly, only 3% mentioned having a login or password problem as the reason for calling.

In fact, the word password only appeared 49 times in the 3,477 reasons. Even accounting for variations (such as login/log in and password/pass word) it still accounts for less than 3% of all reasons.

The difference is likely in the different ways the data is collected. For our customer service study, we asked for any company in the last year and people had to provide their own answer (no prompts). In our benchmark reports, we asked about a specific company and provided the option of login/password issues. It’s also likely more frequent and salient activities like having no Internet (stress!) or a missing package (also stressful near Christmas) may dominate self-reports.

Other Website Related Issues

In our benchmark reports, we’ve identified potential issues with the websites that lead to calls to customer support (e.g., confusing jargon, poor findability, etc.) In our customer service study, we also looked for participants who specifically called out problems they felt were because of the website. We found only 23 (2.3%) reasons in our consumer study were specifically related to website difficulties and these seem to be because of errors. Examples included:

“Our computers for work are under a warranty and I needed to get service scheduled so needed to send back and the website was giving me an error.”

“Their website was down and I needed to order a cake, things didn’t work out, so I had to contact customer service.”

However, in examining the reasons across the industries, many of the reasons participants identified can either be provided by the website or may already be on the website and be difficult to find. For example, a Sprint (wireless) customer reported:

“I had a question about what possible upgrades were on my account.”

In our wireless benchmark report, we found our participants struggled finding different plan options.

Or a customer of Blue Cross/Blue Shield (insurance) reported:

“I was confused about a specific benefit of my current health care coverage.”

In our health insurance benchmark, we found our participants were confused by basic things like terms used (EOB, deductible) and what was covered.

Summary and Takeaways

An analysis of reasons why people call customer support revealed:

Telecoms, retailers, banks, and insurance companies dominate calls to customer support. The majority of companies people reported calling were comprised of telecom conglomerates (Charter, Comcast, AT&T) that handle multiple services including Internet, TV, phone, and wireless, and retail companies (Walmart, Target, Amazon).

Reasons differed by company. For telecom companies, Internet outages brought the most calls to customer support. For retails stores and websites, it’s delayed or missing packages. For banks and insurance companies, unexpected charges, billing discrepancies, and payment and trading requests dominated.

Login issues show up if you ask. Similar to other reports, we found username/password problems were among the most common reasons, but only when prompted. For banking and brokerage companies, around one third of the calls were related to logging in. In our customer service study, a small percentage of respondents cited login issues as their most recent reason for calling. It’s likely this lower percentage is because calls to other companies are more memorable and frequent (e.g. Internet is down or a package is missing) and may also be a function of the time of year the study was conducted (the Christmas buying season).

Offer a balance of open- and closed-ended response options to understand reasons. This study shows how you can use a mix of both open-ended reasons and pre-identified reasons to triangulate around the actual reasons people call. The advantage of open-ended comments/reasons is that it provides more top-of-mind reasons, but it does require time to code these into categories for better interpretation and it may underrepresent the frequency of certain reasons. Open-ended comments can be converted into pre-identified options respondents (or call center agents) can select from to better track call reasons. The main disadvantage of providing a list of reasons is that it may inflate the actual percentages. A good strategy is to use both.






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