Poor service costs companies more than $75 billion per year. In response, businesses are ramping up investment in customer experience (CX) improvement efforts: Yet, customer satisfaction stubbornly continues falling to new lows.

Customer relationships are clearly at a critical point in their evolution, in part because social media enables individuals to document interactions and easily call out businesses for providing bad service.

5 examples of customer ‘fails’ we can learn from

1. Avoid cookie-cutter customer service on sensitive issues

Customers want shorter response times, personalized customer support, and 24/7 availability. But companies must avoid sacrificing quality for speed and around the clock service. Bank of America learned this the hard way.

After writing an antiforeclosure message in chalk condemning Bank of America, Mark Hamilton was instructed by police to vacate the sidewalk outside the bank’s Manhattan branch.

Naturally, Mark went on Twitter:

Bank of America’s customer service team began responding to Mark, and other Twitter users that commented on the tweet, using scripted language:

Example Bank of America interaction on Twitter that shows how stock responses can go wrong

Stock responses from Bank of America (Source)

Initially, people assumed these responses were coming from an overzealous bot. Bank of America later clarified their social media was (at least at the time) handled entirely by humans.

Customer service lessons on personalizing responses:

  • What this response ultimately failed at was personalization. Poorly trained employees quickly copied and pasted pre-written responses rather than taking a minute to review Mark’s issue and react to it appropriately and thoughtfully.
  • Use a true mixture of chat bots/automation and human customer service agents, and always make sure that someone is monitoring your social media platforms. If your organization isn’t open 24/7, turn off automated responses when nobody is monitoring.

2. Enable customer service agents to escalate non-standard requests

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has described his company as “customer obsessed” and considers a compulsive focus on the customer the “secret sauce” of its success.

Unfortunately for Chris Williams, the sauce sometimes sours. Worried someone was trying to use his email address to commandeer his identity and commit fraud, Williams contacted an Amazon customer service agent and requested they remove an email address tied to his account.

Williams spent nearly an hour trying to get the customer service rep to simply understand the nature of his request, with his report of a phishing scam in action repeatedly falling on deaf ears. The entire transcript of the chat was published here by Chris Williams, and makes for an infuriating read.

Example Amazon service chat that shows a man being called 'maam' and the wrong name

The Amazon agent refers to Chris as “Maam” and “Brittni” (Source)

Amazon’s live chat worker used a mixture of canned responses and poorly written English that resulted in endless confusion. It is unclear exactly what is happening behind the scenes based on the transcript alone, but it is clear that the agent was struggling to process a fairly basic request.

Customer service lessons on escalating complex requests:

  • Recognize when requests are out of hand: Bad customer service interactions often drag on endlessly. Customer service agents should be trained to recognize customer conversations that are intensifying and have a strategy in place to adjust course and steer the interaction in a different direction.
  • Know when to pass requests off: Rather than let one agent’s skill gap fuel negative customer experiences, reps should be trained to pass along requests that are beyond their job or skill level to someone better suited for the task.

3. Build empathy into your customer service experience

Customer service is one of the most intimate interaction points your business has with its customers, making it essential that agents empathize with customers after they experience any kind of tragedy.

In our next example, Charter Communications (provider of Spectrum branded internet and cable services) makes it abundantly clear that recovering company property comes before distressed customers. After tornados struck Alabama, some Spectrum customers that lost their homes in the storm were instructed by service agents to either find their cable box or fork over $212.

Disappointingly, it seems that Spectrum’s customer service agents refused to deviate from the standard policy script, making their customer’s bad situation feel even worse. Ultimately, the company received negative PR for this decision and back-pedaled—waiving fees for customers impacted by the storm.

Customer service lessons on empathy:

  • Empathy is tough to teach, but you can train your customer service agents to be ready for difficult situations—including disasters like the one above—by inserting disaster/tragedy relief protocols into your scripts.
  • Creating empathy maps through engagement with your customers allows you to provide solutions based on an understanding of your customers’ problems.

4. Avoid hard sells and discourage aggressive behavior

Service workers that can convince customers looking to cut ties with your business to stay are invaluable. But there is a hard line between good faith customer retention efforts and annoying customers who simply want to cancel their service.

When Ryan Block called Comcast customer service to cancel his contract, he faced an unreasonably persistent agent that wouldn’t stop asking, “Why is it that you’re not wanting to have the number one rated internet and tv service available?” This interaction speaks for itself:

Customer service lessons on retention and sales tactics:

  • Your company reputation is more important than any individual customer. Make sure service agents aren’t over incentivized through performance metrics or training to convince people to stay.
  • It’s fine to ask customers why they are canceling their service (this is valuable information for your business after all), but do so respectfully. Acknowledge the customer’s cancellation request first, then inform them you’ll need to ask a few questions to process their request
  • Offer alternative solutions based on customer responses but make sure reps know when to back off. One or two attempts is a safe threshold for attempting to change a customer’s mind, anything beyond that quickly becomes excessive.

5. Choosing the right customer service outsourcing partners

It is increasingly common for businesses to outsource customer service to third-parties. However, it is imperative that your business chooses the right partners to be the face of your brand—or risk others tarnishing it.

Consumers seeking iPhone repairs in India must rely on third-party service providers because Apple does not have retail stores in the country. According to Buzzfeed News, “customers in India say these outlets often provide terrible service, can take weeks to complete minor repairs, and set their own policies when devices are out of warranty.”

In the U.S., Apple is consistently one of the highest-ranking companies in the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). Yet in India, it has one of the lowest net promoter scores (NPS), a measure of how willing customers are to recommend a product or service, in the industry. High prices and poor service has ultimately resulted in Apple failing to penetrate the world’s second largest smartphone market, where it has just 1% market share.

Customer service outsourcing lessons:

  • Determine what types of customer service you need before seeking out partners. This includes things such as service availability (24/7 or set hours), communication channels (e.g. email, phone, chat), as well as additional services such as appointment scheduling. You cannot identify a suitable customer service partner without first defining your customer service needs.
  • Check to make sure customer service partners under consideration have the knowledge-base, language skills, and professional demeanor to adequately represent your company. If a partner isn’t well versed in your industry or can’t properly communicate with customers in their native language, customer service and satisfaction will suffer.
  • If you’re considering outsourcing your customer service to a third-party, be sure to check references for potential partners. Make sure any potential customer service partner has had clients that operate in your industry who are happy with the quality of service provided.
  • If your business is looking to reduce customer service costs, increase efficiency, or both, consider digital customer service solutions. These include things such as chatbots and customer self-service tools that aim to resolve service issues without involving more expensive live communication channels.
  • Make sure any digital customer service your business deploys improves your customer experience. The primary issue facing digital service tools is their tendency to prolong the customer journey–leading to a more expensive service process for your company and a more frustrating one for customers.

Note: This article was originally published Aug. 27, 2018, and has been updated to include further recommendations for customer service training.

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