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7 bad customer service stories and how your team can do better

Bad customer service can hurt your business. How can support teams create better experiences?

By Erin Hueffner, Content Marketing Manager, @erinhueffner

Published December 12, 2018
Last updated August 21, 2020

What was your absolute worst customer service experience? If you stopped doing business with that company and told all of your friends about it, you’re not alone - and your customers will likely do the same.

Loyalty hinges on delivering a great customer experience. It’s not enough to just have a good product anymore — companies are setting themselves apart by delivering exceptional customer service. Make a misstep, and you risk losing a customer forever.

According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, roughly half of customers say they’d switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. That number skyrockets to 80% after more than one disappointing customer service experience.

So how can you make sure to deliver a great customer experience, every time? Read on for some real-life bad experiences, as told on social media, and learn how you can avoid them.

Bad customer service definition

What is the most important aspect of a bad customer experience?

We surveyed 3,000 people worldwide to pinpoint this answer.

It might not surprise you to learn that the top answer is:

Long hold/wait times while interacting with an agent

The next highest-rated answer is...

Automated system that makes it hard to reach a human agent

... followed closely by...

Having to repeat my information multiple times

Slow service and wasted time are two major annoyances for customers, and those are things you can address. In fact, it’s not something you can afford to ignore in today’s digitally connected world.

When customers have a bad customer service experience, they are often quick to voice their complaints on social media. People have expectations about how a company will serve them and if an employee mistreats them or the customer support is not up to standard it can be bad for your brand.

7 poor customer service examples and how to avoid them

1. Support agents don’t show empathy

“I got ribs at a barbecue place in my town, and they had squeeze bottles with barbecue sauce on the tables. I squeezed some onto my ribs, and THREE DEAD WASPS came out with the sauce. The owner just happened to be there, and said, "what do you want me to do about it?”

How to be better: This one comes down to basics. To provide good customer service, you really need to care about your customers, and that means demonstrating empathy. Connecting with your customers on a human level is more important than ever before — because customer experience is what sets your brand apart.

According to research by IDC, 73% of customers say it takes a differentiated experience to keep them loyal, not just an acceptable one. So if you're not paying attention to customer expectations, your company's reputation will suffer because of the poor service experience.

Customer centricity is key to empathy

Customer centric organizations bake empathy into their ethos. In business, empathy means putting your customer first in everything you do.

Empathy is also a vital customer service skill, so when you’re looking to hire support agents, it’s something to look for in candidates. High-performing teams have agents who are driven to helping people — they really love interacting with customers.

How can you encourage empathy? It might mean letting your agents take more time with a customer to help resolve their issue instead of pressuring them to have quick call times. It also helps when your technology lets agents provide proactive support — when agents can identify issues before they arise, it’s better for everyone. All of this builds up to a customer centric experience that can have a huge impact on loyalty.

2. Not listening to customer complaints

“I tried to tell a company about a bad experience I had with their product, and the agent didn’t seem to care at all. I was so frustrated! It was like they didn’t care about me after they had the sale.”

How to be better: Just the words “customer complaint” probably make you feel a little jittery. But the truth is, no business can avoid customer complaints completely. Companies that know what to do with customer complaints can actually turn a bad situation into an opportunity.

3 tips for handling upset customers

  • stay calm and moderate in tone when dealing with a confrontational customer.
  • When someone is upset, one of the main things they want is to feel heard.
  • Take the time to actively listen, acknowledge that their issue is real, and apologize for the trouble. Then take steps to correct the situation.

Complaints can also be a great source of insights. If you start to see a pattern in customer complaints, it may be a cue that something needs to change. For example, if customers are consistently confused about instructions or how to make a return, you can publish an article on that topic for your help center. If you’re hearing a lot of complaints about the product’s quality, there might be something to investigate.

Shaking hands

3. Lack of respect for customers

“Long ago, my husband and I were shopping for a TV at a major retailer. I had cash-in-hand but I couldn't get a salesperson to pay us any attention. When we asked to see a manager, a salesperson said, ‘Sorry, he doesn't have time for that.’ We left without a TV, and haven't set foot in that store since.”

How to be better: Everyone has good days and bad days. And your agents will have busy times when they can’t get to everyone. It happens.

But you need to make sure your agents are well trained to be polite and professional in every customer interaction. That sometimes means taking a moment to say “I’m happy to help you! Do you mind waiting a moment? I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

Customer service training is key to your agents’ success. Not only that — well trained agents can help your company build customer loyalty, which can drive the success of your business. According to the Zendesk Brand Loyalty Survey, 72% of people say they value customer service over price. Investing in building up your team’s customer service skills is worth the time and effort.

On the flip side, a customer feels disrespected or ignored, they might take their business out the door. And they won’t likely forget how they were treated.

4. Not serving customers on the channels of their choice

“I needed some help, so I opened the app, but there wasn’t a way to message customer service. So I had to hunt for another way to get a hold of them, and it took forever. It was almost like they didn’t want me to talk to them.”

How to be better: This is a big one. You need to be where your customers are. That means being able to help them on the channel of their choice, and it’s often on their smartphone. According to Zendesk State of Messaging, conversational channels like SMS, chatbots, voice assistants, messaging apps and chat aren’t as common as traditional channels like phone and email, but that’s about to change.

Businesses are adopting messaging for the same reasons consumers are: it’s fast, convenient, and secure. And unlike traditional customer service channels, messaging is also sessionless and asynchronous — so customers can hop in and out when it’s convenient. Agents can also serve more customers at one time, which speeds up resolution.

Your customers want to connect with you the same way they do with friends and family. So being able to provide omnichannel customer service is one of the best ways to create a great experience.

Reasons companies offer messaging

Agents need to be able to handle customer inquiries quickly and efficiently in a variety of channels. It really helps when your technology can seamlessly track all of those conversations and switch between channels easily. So, for example, if a customer reaches out by email, but the issue becomes too complicated for that channel, your agent can easily switch over to a phone call.

5. Automated systems make it hard to reach a human agent

“I really needed to talk to someone because my problem was complicated, but when I called the customer service number I had to go through all these prompts that got me nowhere. And after all that, I still had no answer to my question.”

How to be better: Chatbots and automations can boost your customer experience if they’re used the right way. Customers want to take care of problems themselves, and they’re open to using chatbots and artificial intelligence if it means faster resolution to their problems. And according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, use of AI drives success among high performing teams that use the technology.

Chatbots work best when they have access to the underlying context - like if the person always buys pants in the same size, or has made a recent return.

Data is key to context, because it helps the bot make meaningful recommendations and help the customer more effectively.

For example, knowing if your customer’s warranty is about to expire, or if they’ve had complaints with another product recently. Having the tools to analyze your customer data and glean insights is what makes your chatbots helpful (or not).

Behind every well-oiled AI system, there needs to be a human presence. If your customer is getting frustrated or the issue is too complex for a bot to handle, the system has to be able to intelligently hand it off to a human agent. This mix of human and machine is the secret sauce to seamless customer service.

Hand with phone

6. Keeping the customer waiting on hold too long

“One time I was put on hold for more than an hour. I wanted to give up but I couldn’t, so I just had to sit there listening to smooth jazz waiting to talk to someone. I still hear that song in my nightmares.”

How to be better: Customer expectations have never been higher. They want you to respond quickly.

Customer response expectations by channel

Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, often prefer channels that lend themselves to fast responses — social media, in-app messaging, and social messaging apps top the list.

Older generations still prefer more traditional channels like phone and email. But even then, patience is short: almost one in three surveyed customers expect a response in under 5 minutes by phone.

Today’s digitally-savvy consumers are just not willing to wait if they don’t have to.

Knowing how fast customers expect you to respond is one thing. But what can you do if you can’t get to every call that quickly?

Best practices for speedy response times

Here are a few ways to keep up with customer expectations:

  • Create an automated response to let customers know how long they might expect to hold. If it’s too long, give them a way to easily ask for a callback or leave a message for your team.
  • Flag priority customers and inquiries that need a response in your system so an agent can follow up promptly.
  • Improve processes that might be slowing you down. Getting tickets to the right agents as quickly as possible is essential to speedy service, and automations can help route workflows for you.

7. Transferring callers again and again (and again)

“I called customer service with a question about a healthcare bill. The person who answered the phone said they had no idea why I was given that number, because she wasn’t in billing.

I got transferred to someone else. That person couldn’t help me either. So I was transferred AGAIN, and had to explain everything all over. This continued on repeat for more than an hour. When I finally got to the right department, I was told they couldn’t help me.”

How to be better: When a customer calls you for help, it usually means they couldn’t resolve the problem on their own. The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends report finds 63% of people say they always or almost always try to find answers on your website first.

By the time they’re picking up a phone, your customers are likely already feeling frustrated. So, set yourself up for success with the right customer service software. Your team needs quick access to customer data to help them - so look for software that brings all of that information together in one spot. That way, you won’t have to bounce customers from department to department, or make them wait on hold to find answers.

And, it goes without saying, do whatever you can to help resolve an issue - it’s definitely a poor customer experience if you tell them you can’t do anything about their problem.

Managing your customer data for better CX

Agents need to understand the customer’s needs to create a good experience. That takes access to the right data and tools.

For example, the Zendesk Support Suite allows customer service teams to work seamlessly in any channel, and connects all of a company’s data sources to bring up the right information about customers automatically.

When you can effectively manage your customer data and communications across channels, you open up new ways to improve your CX:

  • Agents have access to all of your customer’s data in one spot, so they don’t have to hunt for it in multiple systems (and that can mean less waiting)
  • A robust knowledge base can help customers help themselves, so they get their answers and go about their day
  • AI-powered article recommendations can be used to help customers instantly

Good customer experience means putting your customer at the center of your universe

It takes a lot to make a customer loyal, but just one negative experience to break their trust. These tips can help your team avoid the pitfalls and create great customer experiences.