Dec 10, 2020

6 Lessons to Learn from Bad Customer Service Stories

If you (and your customer service team) survived Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the run-up to the holidays probably doesn’t look too bad. Well, that’s until you think of the long return lines for rejected Christmas presents come December 26th!

According to the Harvard Business Review, acquiring a new customer is anywhere from 5 to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one. However, maintaining consistent customer service and retaining customers can be challenging even when it’s not the holiday season.

This punny article uncovers six customer service horror stories and the lessons we can learn from them:

Bad service Hertz the most

Bad customer service

When I plan trips, I budget in about 15 minutes to pick up a rental car at the airport. Add about 15 more minutes if the airport rep doesn’t speak English, or there’s an issue with the car. I’m sure best-selling author and keynote speaker Peter Shankman thought the same when he flew into Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix, AZ one sunny Tuesday morning.

As a Hertz’ gold member’, he was one of the lucky ones who could skip the counter and hop right into his rental car. Unfortunately, his name wasn’t on the board where it should’ve been.

He spent nearly an hour in different lines before it was his turn to talk to a rep. Instead of apologizing and making up for the lack of good service, the rep repeatedly asked Peter to go back downstairs to join another line. The conversation ended like this:

Peter: So I want to make sure I have this right: After 25 minutes downstairs, then being told to come upstairs, then waiting 30 minutes on this line, I finally get to you, and you have the power to look up my reservation, but instead, you’re refusing to help me because this is the “non-gold” line, and I’m a gold member?”

Rep: That’s correct, sir.

The rep then looked past Peter and called over the next person in line. Unbelievable.

Although the company sent an apologetic email to Peter the next day, it was too late. He was already cruising in a better, less expensive ride from Avis Rent-a-Car. What’s more, his influence in the Customer Service industry would mean that a lot more people, like you and me, would hear about his experience.

The Lesson: Like Peter says, “every single time a business interacts with a customer, that business can either reinforce their relationship with the customer, or they can end it.” Train employees to nurture customer relationships. To ensure that even if their expectations aren’t met, their sentiments aren’t hurt.

Don’t Comcast a shadow on your business

Growing up in the US during the ’90s and ’00s, Comcast was a household name for cable, home phone, and internet services. Fortunately, I wasn’t old enough to pay bills, and so I didn’t need to worry about frustrated employees changing my name to something profane!

Comcast has often received criticism for their customer service or complete lack thereof. The most notable example is when one of their employees changed a customer’s name from Ricardo Brown to A**hole Brown after his wife had politely tried to cancel their cable subscription.

Comcast A-hole Brown
Ricardo Brown’s bill


That’s not all; a Comcast customer named Mary Bauer received a bill addressed to Super B*tch Bauer after she had a heated call with a Comcast employee. Mary had an erratic cable connection that 39 Comcast technicians had tried to fix but to no avail. Eventually, when she didn’t receive a bill for four months, she called the company.

Although Comcast has apologized and offered various refunds and free subscriptions, these examples show that there are loopholes that allow employees to get away with acting out in this manner. This also indicates that employees aren’t engaged enough to care about the company, its reputation or customers.

The Lesson: Ensure your employees are satisfied with their jobs, are treated and compensated fairly, and are well aware of their boundaries. This will go a long way in safeguarding the quality of your customer support.

Never Hoover your customers out

My dad first moved to the UK in the ’80s. As a young adult, he picked up a few terms that he uses even today. For example, his weekend to-do list still includes ‘hoovering the carpets’ even though he no longer owns a Hoover vacuum cleaner!

Between 1908 to the 1980s, there was only one name associated with vacuum cleaners, none other than the American brand, Hoover. Over the years, it had monopolized the market and became one of the UK’s most trusted brands. But with the recession looming and new competitors entering the market, profits fell from $147 million in 1987 to $74 million in 1992.

Desperate to drive up dwindling sales, Hoover paired with a travel agency to offer an attractive sales promotion. For every £100 spent on Hoover products, customers would get two return air tickets to any destination in Europe. The numbers improved until Hoover decided to offer flights to the US on the same £100 purchase.

Hoover free flights
Ad in The Guardian, October 1992


Soon, Hoover’s investment in air tickets (£ 100million) far outweighed their profits from sales (£30 million). Hoover, deep in trouble, took all possible measures to ensure that none of the 300 thousand qualifying customers received their air tickets. Of course, this wasn’t received well, and thousands of people retaliated, many filed lawsuits, resulting in tremendous losses and a $72 million payout that flew about 220 thousand people – but not everyone who qualified.

The Lesson: Deliver what you promise, and don’t underestimate your customers! If you do end up doing that, don’t top it off by cheating them of money! Had Hoover been more mindful of the financial projections their risk managers had made, they would have realized that the promotion wasn’t viable. Instead, they worked on pure assumption and proceeded anyway.

Don’t go bacon their hearts

If the last few examples didn’t send a chill down your spine, this one definitely will. The co-owner and head chef of Carlini, a restaurant in Shropshire, England, decided to post the following on a Facebook group after serving a group of diners one Friday evening:

“Pious, judgmental vegan (who I spent all day cooking for) has gone to bed, still believing she’s a vegan.”

Yes, she wrote that and that too in a group with 18,000 members! What’s more? In another post in the same group, she also wrote: “Spiked a vegan a few hours ago.” This naturally took social media by storm, and the restaurant received numerous negative reviews, angry phone calls, and even some death threats.

The head chef eventually resigned and apologized, stating that no meat products were used in the dishes served. She said that one of the diners ordered a regular pizza which contained mozzarella – a cheese that isn’t vegan. That upset her enough to write what she did on a public platform.  Why she chose to say she ‘spiked’ the food remains a mystery.

Bad restaurant service comic

The Lesson: Respect your customers! If you can’t cater to their preferences, politely let them know. There was something clearly vengeful about how the head chef behaved. Not only was she disrespectful, but she was also okay with the consequences of serving a possible allergen to a customer.

Lost? Go get a crew

Take a couple of minutes to imagine you’re on deck, a beautiful cruise liner. It’s warm, the sky is clear, and the ocean is calm. You’re all set for a restful vacation spanning 15 days along the Panama Canal – until you notice that joining you is an entire construction crew hired to give your ship a facelift while you’re on it (with no option to leave!)

That is precisely what happened to the passengers aboard Norwegian Sun’s Panama Canal cruise. Shortly after boarding, several parts were cordoned off as excessive maintenance work began. There were loud grinding and hammering sounds, with dust and debris everywhere! The fumes and particles were enough to send some passengers to the infirmary (which was later charged for.)

Halfway through the cruise, angry passengers gathered in the hopes that the Captain would address their concerns. Unfortunately, the meeting wasn’t very successful, and there was little legal recourse available unless the claims were filed in Miami, where the company is based.

Customer support center

Instead, Norwegian Sun offered a discount of 25% on their next cruise (valid for one year).

The Lesson: Don’t try to stay profitable at the cost of good customer service. Focus on providing a great customer experience. If you fail at that, at least follow it up with adequate after-sales support. Not only did Norwegian Sun fail miserably at customer experience, but their after-sales support was even worse!

Last bud not least

What’s worse than missing a family event? Sending flowers with a derogatory note. That’s definitely not what Douglas Moore had in mind.

When Mr. Moore couldn’t attend his Grandmother’s funeral, he chose to send flowers instead.

Unfortunately, when he tried to order the flowers, the 1-800-Flowers rep was a non-native English speaker. Clearly, there were some elements of the message lost in translation. Instead of “Farewell Grammy, you had a good run.” the version that appeared on the note was “FAR WELL GRANDMY YOU HAD A GOOD RUNS.”

The note was definitely not appropriate for a sensitive event like a funeral, and with Diarrhea commonly referred to as ‘the runs,’ the rep committed a serious cultural faux pas. Or perhaps, the company took multilingual customer service so seriously that they simply forgot to hire reps that speak the National language – English!

1-800-Flowers has since stated that they would refund the amount Mr. Moore spent on the flowers.

Customer support translation comic

The Lesson: Choose a platform that can aid clear communication. In this case, an online platform could have been a better way of ensuring the message is not misrepresented. Moreover, ensure you offer support in popular languages spoken in the regions you operate in. Multilingual customer support can play a huge role in helping you reach out to customers! Partner with a good language services provider and use the right customer service tools to ensure accuracy.

Over to You

With the holiday season upon us, I hope these stories will help steer you and your team in the right direction. Have a customer service horror story you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below, and maybe we’ll publish a second part to this article!

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Ruju Patel

Ruju Patel

Ruju Patel leads the Content and Design Team at Translate By Humans. She has a background in Psychology and Business and former experience as an HR professional. She is a people's person and a pro at drafting contracts, policies, and articles. Her creative edge helps give life to all the written and graphic content produced by the company.

When she's not writing, you'll find her reading with her cats or combining her love for food and culture by traveling around the world!

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