Social networks are all about people, right? Perhaps, but they’re the worst industry at one of the most important things a brand can do: customer service.

And not just by a little.

“You’d think that, being born in the cloud, they’d be good at customer satisfaction,” Zendesk VP Sam Boonin told me yesterday. “But they’re not just at the bottom of the list … if it was a horse race it’d be embarrassing.”

Zendesk, the customer service-as-a-service giant, runs probably the largest ongoing global survey of service anywhere: It collects hundreds of thousands of consumer ratings each and every month from 16,000 of its client companies. In its latest study, social media companies ranked last. Their 75 percent rating compares poorly to the education industry, with a 95 percent rating, or the IT services industry, also at 95 percent.

And it’s a shocking nine points below the much-maligned telecom industry.

On the country measure, Kiwi, Canadian, and Australian companies rock at customer service, with customer service satisfaction levels around the 90 percent level. American firms are mid-range, at 12th, but businesses from South African, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates bottom out in the 50s and 60s.

customer satisfaction survey

And education’s relatively high rating?

That may seem odd to those of us who grew up in vast, bureaucratic institutions and universities with massive, slow student support services, but it’s the new reality in the education industry, Boonin says.

“We serve over a thousand education companies, such as the University of Michigan, and we’re seeing a big movement to adoption of cloud services in education,” he said. “As education is becoming a more competitive industry, education companies are taking a customer-centric approach. They’re  not wrapping in a lot of bureaucracy.”

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customer service by industry 2013But it’s not surprising to see that telecoms are near the bottom of the heap.

Mobile carriers, traditional phone companies, and media companies are notorious for poor customer service, labyrinthine automated phone systems, and long waits. But Boonin says the numbers are actually starting to pick up, driven by newer, more competitive segments of the industry.

“Telecommunication providers suck at service, but we’re starting to see companies actually improve,” he told me. “MVNOs [mobile virtual network operators] in Europe are making an attempt to differentiate on service.”

It is surprising, however, that social media companies are doing so poorly. Between 50 and 100 social media networks use Zendesk to manage their customer support, the company told me, in addition to many social media management companies. But they do have unique challenges.

For one, they’re experiencing massive, unprecedented growth. In addition, their “customers” are not actually paying clients, but people the networks monetize via ads. That’s a not-so-subtle difference that has major implications for how many resources social networks can devote to customer service. In addition, Boonin says, if users are interacting with customer service at a social site, they’re likely already unhappy — either their account has been suspended, or they’re being warned, or they’ve lost data.

customer service

But the survey does reveal some bright spots for social media companies.

“They are at the top of the list for self-service,” Boonin says.

In other words, they don’t want to talk to you personally — and literally can’t, with the size of today’s social networks — but they do an increasingly good job of helping you help yourself.

And why are the Kiwis so good at customer service?

“They’re pretty innovative in using technology and treating their customers right,” Boonin says. “When I was out there in Auckland giving a presentation, they were markedly different in their attitude to customer service than anywhere else. They seem to really care about this.”