Some industries get away with bad customer service. Cable and internet companies are a prime example. With near monopolies on their markets in many areas, customers have little choice but to suffer through poor support experiences when they need help.
But for most other industries, customers have far more choice in providers. Bad customer service in industries when there’s heavier competition ultimately leads to poor retention, negative word-of-mouth marketing, and a direct impact on your bottom line.
In this post, we’re going to share eight bad customer service stories that created PR nightmares for the companies that caused them, along with tips on how to avoid similar situations occurring at your company and ending up in the limelight.
8 stories of bad customer service
One of the best ways to understand what poor customer service looks like (other than experiencing it yourself) is to read about other companies’ support mishaps. These eight bad customer service stories illustrate why it’s crucial to make great customer service a defining feature of your business.
1. Walmart’s pricing blunder
Imagine that you walk into your local Walmart and see a Lego set you want to buy for your son. You notice that the item at the store costs 35% more than the same exact Lego set on Walmart’s own website.
That’s exactly what happened to Clark Howard. But when he asked the team to meet their company’s online price, Walmart refused to price-match. So he pulled up his phone and ordered the product online for an in-store pick-up.
Howard says, “My son and I stood there and watched as a different employee came a few minutes later, picked the item up off the shelf, and brought it back to the holding spot for pickup.” Because Howard didn’t receive the email confirmation from Walmart.com until the following day, he couldn’t bring the item home that day.
Instead, Howard had to go back to the store the next day — inconvenient, to say the least. Although Walmart doesn’t require that store managers match online prices, it would have been the best (and only) response in this scenario.
The Takeaway: When companies prioritize a policy above the needs of customers, it shows. If you’re not sure how to respond in a scenario, think about what’s the kindest, most honest thing to do. This overarching ethos can easily prevent really bad customer service stories from happening on your watch.
2. Comcast’s new low
There are lots of reasons not to like cable providers. You always have to argue for a fair rate, and most of the time, you don’t get what you need. But even in this not-so-helpful industry, Comcast is America’s most hated company.
In 2015, Comcast apologized after hitting an all-time low. One of their customer service reps changed a customer’s name from Ricardo Brown to “A**hole Brown” on his account when his wife wouldn’t renew their cable contract.
Although Comcast leaders apologized to the customers and offered a two year refund, the incident still made waves. Because customers hate Comcast’s pricing model, and so many people can relate to the frustration, the story resonated with millions.
The Takeaway: This bad customer service story is emblematic of a work culture where employees are so fed up, they’re willing to sacrifice their jobs to make a point — and get a laugh.
The best way to cultivate an empathetic customer service team is to treat the team with empathy, too. This sense of shared appreciation and respect will naturally extend to customers.
3. Bank of America’s PR nightmare
During the Occupy Wall Street movement, activists across the world organized public protests and social media activity to advocate against corruption and greed. In New York, Mark Hamilton wrote an anti-foreclosure message in front of a Bank of America branch in chalk. After being asked to leave by cops, he tweeted at Bank of America.
— darthmarkh (@darthmarkh) July 6, 2013
But instead of recognizing the context for the tweet — and the reason for subsequent comments by other users — Bank of America had an epic Twitter fail. Customer service reps asked these protesters if they could help them with their banking accounts.
The laughable responses not only seemed automated, they underpinned the protesters’ point that banks acted inhumanely toward real people.
Customer service representatives can only do their jobs well if they have thoughtful and timely information about real issues affecting their industries. It’s even more important now that social media channels are such immediate, public forums.
Leaders benefit from keeping an eye on industry news and sharing it candidly with team members. Even if something doesn’t seem relevant at the moment, it might come up in a social media interaction, and preparedness can make all the difference.
4. Target’s trolling incident
Do you remember when Target announced that they were changing how girls and boys items were advertised in their stores? In an attempt to create a more supportive and open environment for children, Target removed gender-based signs in some of their kids’ sections.
Although a lot of people appreciated the spirit of their choice, it also angered many shoppers. Some customers saw it as a move away from tradition for the sake of “political correctness” and commented on Target’s Facebook page.
Soon after, a Facebook user pretended to be Target’s help desk and trolled these unhappy customers. The Facebook user changed their name to “Ask ForHelp” and their profile picture to the Target bullseye. Posing as the help desk, they wrote snarky replies.
Customers were already livid, and the responses they received only reinforced their perception that Target didn’t care about their views.
As customer service expands into social media channels, there’s an increased risk for fake accounts that enrage (rather than delight) customers. Vigilance is the key to preventing a bad customer service example.
Create a clear system so that at any time, a trained team member has their eyes on social media accounts. Although it can be difficult to stop these scenarios from happening, the quicker you shut them down, the better.
5. United’s big goof up
United’s big goof up happened in 2008 when employees recklessly damaged the guitar of musician David Carroll. Sitting in his airplane seat, Carroll saw employees throwing around his guitar on the tarmac, powerless to protect his property. Like any concerned customer, Carroll went through the proper channels to report both the behavior and subsequent damage.
“I notified three employees, who showed complete indifference toward me,” says Carroll.
The customer service experience was so appalling, it inspired Carroll to write and record a song called “United Breaks Guitars.” This musical rendering of his bad customer experience has been on YouTube for 11 years, and it’s received over 20 million views!
Carroll even wrote a book aptly named United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media, and employee indifference to the company’s mistakes ballooned into a PR nightmare.
Empathy is the key to building a successful customer service team. If employees don’t care about the mistakes their company makes — and how they affect individuals — they’re not going to be invested in positive change.
Like a muscle, empathy is something you can strengthen over time. Practice empathy with customers by asking more questions and mirroring their answers. No matter how difficult the situation, they’ll feel heard.
6. Whirlpool’s negligence
For eight years, A New York Times column called “The Haggler” helped frustrated people during bad customer experiences. In one situation, Joanna Vintilla reached out to the column for help with a $216 Whirlpool microwave that became a customer service problem.
The backstory: Vintilla had a Whirlpool-approved technician come to her house five times to fix her microwave. He had replaced four parts of the microwave within six months of Vintilla’s purchase, and the technician said he already needed to replace some of those same parts again.
But Vintilla couldn’t get anyone at Whirlpool to help get a replacement for her defective microwave. In fact, Whirlpool’s customer service team insisted she wait until the one-year warranty expired, and even then, they would have to send another technician and wait six months to consider the exchange.
Believe it or not, this bad customer service example became even more appalling! Once The Haggler got involved, Whirlpool offered a refund with two stipulations: Vintilla would have to pay Whirpool $75 to dispose of the broken machine and sign a confidentiality clause.
The whole debacle got written up in one of the biggest newspapers in the country, which didn’t bode well for Whirlpool’s reputation in the industry.
Confidentiality clauses — especially for purchases like a $216 microwave — are the quickest way to end a relationship with a customer. Likewise, asking customers to pay for a company’s mistakes is nothing short of insulting. Both tactics magnify an already upsetting issue.
7. Walgreens’ dangerous mistake
Walgreens customer Larina Helsom began having unbearable pains in her chest. They were so worrisome that she even had surgery to stop the muscle spasms. When glancing at one of her prescriptions, Helsom realized Walgreens had been giving her 50 mcg pills instead of the prescribed 5 mcg pills.
Because of their error, Helsom had been taking 10 times the amount of medication for months, which caused her chest pains. But when Helsom reached out to be compensated for missing work because of the pains, Walgreens said the prescription they gave her was within a safe range for that medication. After suggesting Helsom speak to a third party, they ignored her calls altogether.
Although Walgreens told the press that they would prevent this kind of issue moving forward, they didn’t give a wholehearted apology to Helsom or make up for her major health crisis. This very public lesson in customer service horrified readers across the country, and for good reason.
The depth of an apology needs to mirror the seriousness of the mistake. To rectify a life-altering issue, you need to apologize quickly, sincerely and repeatedly without any qualifications or excuses.
Likewise, companies need to use every resource at their disposal to do more than say sorry. When a company as big as Walgreens does nothing, it’s nothing short of alarming. People will notice.
8. Gasp’s retail gaffe
When Keara O’Neil went to an Australian clothing store called Gasp looking for bridesmaids dresses, the salesperson was pushy and mean, implying O’Neil didn’t have good enough taste to appreciate the company’s dresses.
O’Neil followed up with management over email who ferociously defended the salesperson.
The Age reported, “In an email, the retailer asked her to do Gasp a favour, stop wasting the store’s time and shop elsewhere because she was not a ‘fashion forward consumer’ who could appreciate a ‘retail superstar’ with ‘unparalleled ability.’”
In the midst of this customer complaint and response, the salesperson called O’Neil unrepeatable names in a leaked internal email. Gasp then barred O’Neil from the shop and warned other “rude and obnoxious clowns” to stay out.
Gasp thought that this incident was a good thing because of the press the company received, but research indicates otherwise: a horrible customer experience can trigger a negative spiral of bad customer service that perpetuates indefinitely.
The adage “all press is good press” doesn’t apply to customer service — going viral for terrible service isn’t worth the momentary traffic boost. When you try to justify your (or your company’s) behavior, you excuse toxic behavior and set a new baseline for bad customer service.
That shift in perspective pushes out employees with integrity and creates an environment that’s as inhospitable to good customer service as it is to higher sales. Over time, a company will suffer, even if they see short-term gains.
Always put your customers first
These bad customer service stories are newsworthy because of how relatable they are. Every person has a terrible customer service story to tell. Even when it’s not as dramatic or extreme, customers experience terrible service every day, and it slowly erodes a company’s reputation.
The best way to tackle bad customer service stories is to prevent them in the first place. When you create a supportive culture grounded in mutual respect and customer appreciation, you’ll always be miles ahead of this crowd.