Bad Customer Service Scenarios You Should Avoid

No business is perfect. Even when you’re striving to provide the ultimate customer experience, bad things might happen. One key lesson that these examples show us repeatedly is the power of social media. Get something wrong, and the whole world knows about it. If you’re a forward-looking business, you’ll know that your mistakes are a great opportunity to learn, and to do better next time. But why wait to make a mistake? Why not learn from other brands’ customer support nightmares?

Our examples focus on specific incidents of poor customer service and not on the brand — because none of us are perfect.

British Airways: Customer service never sleeps

Things aren’t straightforward. It’s just a part of life. Flights are delayed. You’re in Los Angeles but your luggage is in Frankfurt. And usually airlines make it up to you. But when a British Airways passenger got mad about his lost luggage, he paid for a promoted tweet to publicize his annoyance. His complaint went viral through news site Mashable, and it wasn’t until ten hours after his tweet that British Airways responded with:

british airways

There are a few things to think about, here.

1. Angry customers can use the same promotional tools as corporates to complain and this can make you even more vulnerable. Paid-for, targeted tweets can influence brand followers in the right geographical areas to take brand damage to the max. It’s not hit-and-miss anymore.

2. Customers venting their frustration through social media is the norm. Expect it. Because social media is public, it is name-and-shameable, and it is on a global stage. It is the go-to complaining tool available for anyone. From the customer’s point of view, it’s usually quicker to get a response through social media than using a technical help desk.

3. Customers expect a quick response; A recent study showed that complainants expect a reply within one to three hours on Twitter and within three to six hours on Facebook.

More customers online means that the task of monitoring and responding is scaling up significantly. At what point does it become unsustainable and resource-hungry? Should we even expect to be able to answer every query within the 60 minutes expected? In 2015, Forrester Consulting found that for 67% of companies in the US and UK, improving social customer service was the most pressing short-term priority.

What to do

If you’re not in a position to provide 24/7 social media response coverage, try creating the infrastructure that’ll at least give you a fighting chance of responding adequately.

1. Include social media in your current customer support and brand strategy. Be clear about roles and responsibilities, the criteria for escalation and how you’ll measure and improve your response rates.

2. Improve your communications support infrastructure. Sometimes this might be as simple as forwarding customer messages to your support agents’s mobile phones if they work flexibly, or using algorithms to automate the escalation of messages that contain inflammatory key words like “complain”.

3. Craft sensitive automated response messages that are as “personal” as possible.

4. If you can’t solve the customer’s problems straightaway, let them know your plan of action, and jump the conversation off social media to channels like email or phone.

Bank of America: Be appropriate

Bank of America fell into the wrong side of social media when it received a tweet from a protesting street artist who had been moved away from the sidewalk outside a Manhattan branch.

bank of america

Yep, perhaps the guy was an obstruction. Perhaps not. But it did set off a Twitterstorm which Bank of America didn’t fully understand how to handle. It repeatedly responded to participants’ comments with bot-type responses.

bank of america

bank of america

What makes it more puzzling, is that Bank of America said that these weren’t automated responses, but real staff keying in real responses.

What to do

Examine your automated responses, and your standard “real person” responses. Do you use sensitive language? Also:

1. Be appropriate. Are you getting queries about customer accounts or about a new acquisition? Are people congratulating you on your new brand colors or are they upset because you’ve mucked up their service? It’s easier to be appropriate if you have a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) so social media or your customer support agents know exactly how to respond or when to escalate the issue.

2. The speed of social media means that in an ultra-brand-damaging situation, you need lightning decision-making. If you wait for your hierarchy to churn out a damage limitation strategy, it’s too late. Make sure there’s a member of your leadership team on duty 24/7 to give the appropriate response, even if that means calling them when they’re fast asleep in bed. Sorry, leadership team.

3 Don’t be afraid of auto responders. They’re a blessing. What’s not to like? You’re immediately acknowledging your customer, it’s an opportunity to make a great first impression, and it’s a chance to manage your customer’s expectations. But use the auto responding force wisely, as it’s also an opportunity to blow your reputation as a listening, caring brand. Standard auto responders, tailored to your most common type of message, fail badly when you don’t get that type of message.

Progressive: Don’t make bad things even worse.

Insurance companies deal with difficult, tragic things like accidents and death. Sensitivity at all times is imperative. But Progressive insurance company’s lesson for us is – when you’re standing up to your neck in it, don’t sit down. Which means do the right thing and before you chase that 75K saving, look at the bigger financial picture.

It’s a tragic story. Matt Fisher’s sister was killed by a negligent driver. Progressive declined to pay out her policy and when Matt took the other driver to court for negligence, Progressive chose to advise the driver’s lawyer in court, then lied about it. Progressive settled after a week of being at the centre of a social media firestorm, losing over 1000 customers, and its reputation in tatters.

But to top that, how about a cheery face next to the bot-spawned condolences?


What to do

1. For serious issues like this, use your SOP (remember that?) to escalate it to your highest level, and contact the complainant personally. Then use social media to soothe the situation appropriately; tell everyone what you’re doing, how you’re addressing the situation, and how sorry you are.

2. If you’re offering condolences, change your avatar to something appropriate.

3. Keep in mind that social media will punish businesses that demonstrate anti-social or unethical behaviour. Poor behaviour will always be found out.

Social media is an opportunity and it’s a risk. It can make all the difference to your brand reputation, for better or worse.

Jo Causon, CEO of the UK’s Institute of Customer Service, says

“We have reached a point where social media is not just a necessary component of a credible customer service strategy but one which offers powerful insights that drive better innovation, co-creation and collaboration. To make this a reality, social media needs to be a central part of a coherent, sustained and long-term focus on customer service strategy, something that many organizations are yet to do.”

Comcast. That telephone call

If you’re feeling exhausted by social media, let’s move to a more traditional customer service mechanism, the cozy phone call. It’s an opportunity to speak one to one with your customer, be pleasant, show yourself to be human and oh-so-customer facing – lovely!

None of us like customers saying bye-bye to us. We want to keep our customers. We’ll tempt them with offers, be nice to them and try to delight them – that’s common sense. What’s not common sense is to fixate on why they’re leaving, to waste their time, and to try to bully them into staying. It doesn’t work.

Exhibit A: Comcast customer Ryan Block tries to cancel his service. There are so many things wrong with this, that I had to have a lie down. See how long you can listen for.

What to do

If you can’t delight your customer into staying, then:

1. Accept they want to leave and cancel their service or account gracefully

2. Use the interaction as an opportunity for great customer service. The recency effect, where they’ll remember their last impression of you, is in operation so they’ll be back. And it’s your chance to welcome them with open arms.

npower: Make sure your systems work. We’re looking at you.

npower is one of the biggest energy suppliers in the UK. After it changed its billing system, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Its new system failed. With nearly half a million customers billed incorrectly and resolution times running into months, its reputation lay in tatters. npower blamed the system. This backfired as who but npower was responsible for ensuring the system worked?

Customer service operatives know that they’re often the target when things go wrong in the back room. Often it’s not their fault. But it’s a company-wide mistake to assume that the back end of the business isn’t “customer service”. Every part of a company is customer service.

What to do

1. Make customer service a company-wide value, not just for the people on the phone desk. A truly customer-centric organization has systems that work.

2. If you make a mistake, don’t play the blame game. Take the hit, make amends and move on.

Brick Kitchen and Bar: Don’t have a meltdown

We do our best to serve our customers (hopefully) but sometimes they’ll complain. And it hurts. They don’t like us. They don’t like our stuff. But our stuff is lovely! How can they not like it? We all know we can’t please everyone, no matter how hard we try. But, even if we think the customer is being unfair, we know not to have a public meltdown. Dealing with complaining customers is not easy.

And this is why.

The proprietor at Bricks Kitchen and Bar took exception to a customer complaint on Facebook. It got nasty.

Brick Kitchen and Bar

It gets worse…

What to do

1. Even if the complaint is undeserved, people are watching and judging your response so always be polite. Never be rude or hostile to a customer. Your professionalism is at stake.

2. Don’t take complaints personally.

3. Use the negative review as a great opportunity for customer service excellence, especially when called out in public. Fight fire with oh-so-nice. Apologize. Assure the customer you’ll improve your service. And then improve your service. Invite them back for a freebie. For every commenter who is impressed by your performance, there will be hundreds more who don’t comment but will love you a little more. You’ll repair brand damage and come out shiny and beautiful.

Time Warner: Robocalls. Really?

Automated phone calls, or robocalls, are the no. 1 cause of complaints made to the Federal Communications Commission. In politics, they’re cheap to make, but ineffective. In the US, people can opt out through the Do Not Call list, but the worst companies often ignore that.

“Robocalls are harassment, plain and simple,” says Shaun Dakin, CEO and founder of Citizens for Civil Discourse, an anti-political calls group. Time Warner didn’t get the memo. It was made to shell out $230,000 after harassing a consumer with robocalls. Some poor consumers can be harassed with more than 700 robocalls a day (Bank of America again…)

What to do

1. Stop using robocalls for telemarketing. For any sales you actually make, you’ll turn off many more customers.

2. Do you monitor your robocalls? If your robocall has contacted the wrong person, stop, and don’t forget to apologise.

2. Don’t be afraid of using robocalls for valid, non-salesy reasons, e.g. for account verification for current customers.

Ryanair. That’s all you need to know.

Ryanair is a difficult brand. It’s a UK airline that millions use and thousands complain about. In one example, Ryanair caused a passenger and their family to miss their flights (and wedding reception) because of communication failures, under trained staff and just a plain oh-so-bad attitude. The complainant’s open letter went viral

. It’s not just an entertaining read, but it could be a Masters in “how not to do customer service.”

What to do

Communications are more straightforward to fix than a corporate attitude, and excellent leadership is key. The purpose of leadership is not just the “what” to do but the “how” to do it. If you want a corporate-wide attitude of delighting customers at every touchpoint then you’ll need leadership that demonstrates this, a performance management culture that rewards it and staff empowerment that can deliver it.

Getting started

Poor customer service is usually a team effort. Many times, customer service operatives don’t have the remit, authority or empowerment to give great service or respond beautifully to complaints. Poor customer service can be found in the small things, like a lack of eye contact, brusqueness or poor product knowledge; or in the big things like disjointed systems or disempowered or rushed staff.

Grab a coffee and take an hour out now to reflect on where your customer service works, and where it doesn’t. How could you improve it?

You may need a cultural shift, which has to top-down (leadership has to walk the talk). You may decide to think about staff empowerment, systems that work, clear service standards or a new SOP. Or it might mean thinking about some simple actions, like using social media to publish top tips for customer self-service, to reduce your level of queries.

But wherever you’re starting from, if you prioritize customer service it’ll naturally lead to big improvements.

What’s one thing you could do to improve customer service where you are? What’s worked for you in the past? Share your stories!

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