5 Examples of Bad Customer Service (and How to Fix Them)
Not long ago, I came across a company whose support team was swamped with tickets.
Their solution to handling the overwhelming volume of customer requests was… particular.
All incoming tickets received outside business hours were automatically closed, with an automatic message asking the customer to contact the customer service team again during business hours.
However, that’s a sure way to a negative experience for your customers, and it reflects horribly on your brand.
Bad customer service is still far more common than it should be, which got us asking: what are some examples of horrible customer service?
Sometimes it’s easiest to learn about what your customer service team should do by taking a look at times when other customer service leaders made the wrong choice. Negative examples, if you will.
So if you’re curious to learn how your business can be customer-centric and consistently deliver excellent customer service, read on to learn more about terrible customer service interactions (and to find tips on how to turn a terrible interaction into a great one).
What is bad customer service?
Bad customer service occurs when a support interaction doesn’t meet a customer's expectations. Excessive delays in responding to an inquiry, rude or unhelpful behavior from customer service representatives, mishandling customer complaints, and not fully resolving a problem are all examples of inadequate customer support.
Obviously, that's a subjective definition. And in some sense, there’s no way around that. Whether an interaction with a customer service rep is good or bad depends on what a customer expects.
But on the other hand, some customer interactions are just flat out bad. Take obscenely long hold times or rude customer service agents, for example.
These things are bad for business, but they happen all the time.
And that’s despite the considerable impact that customer service has on business. 68% of customers will willingly pay more for products from brands known to offer a great customer experience. Great experiences increase revenue, boost retention, and improve customer satisfaction.
Or look at it the other way: 65% of customers have switched to a different brand after a bad experience. Bad customer support increases churn and hurts your bottom line.
That’s why you need a sound customer service strategy — because in today’s competitive landscape, your company can’t afford to offer poor customer service.
5 clear examples of bad customer service
Below, we share five common examples of poor customer service and give tips and ideas on how to make them better:
- Support agents not addressing a customer’s concern.
- Prioritize company policy above customer needs.
- Displaying a lack of empathy or rude behavior.
- Making customers wait for too long.
- Making it challenging to access support channels.
1. Support agents not addressing a customer’s concern
In an ideal world, customers would ask for exactly what they need in terms your support agents can understand.
That’s not what usually happens in a real interaction, though.
Customers explain situations based on their own understanding and how they’re experiencing an issue. They share the symptoms as they see them, and your customer support team has to play the role of a doctor identifying the root cause of their pain.
That’s why learning to ask good questions and read between the lines are key customer service skills.
Here’s an example from a recent support ticket at a bank:
A worried customer contacted her bank’s customer service department. Her card purchases were being declined, despite having a positive balance in her account. She feared her money was blocked or, worse, lost.
In response, the customer service rep shared a knowledge base article about existing limits on the number of card transactions. The article wasn’t exactly wrong — she did exceed the number of transactions — but the agent completely missed the real pain point. The main source of the customer’s concern was whether she’d lost access to her money, and simply offering some reassurance would have transformed the interaction.
How to fix or avoid this issue:
Train agents to use critical thinking and ask great questions. That’s how they’ll pick up on what customers need (even when they don’t say it directly). In the interaction above, the bank employee should have addressed the primary concern, reassuring her that the money wasn’t blocked and informing her when the transaction limit would reset.
Other tactical tips to improve in this area include:
- Monitor customer conversations through a quality assurance program to ensure they meet your standards. If agents are failing to identify the root cause of an issue or to address all of a customer’s concerns, give them extra coaching or try role playing complicated customer scenarios.
- Encourage frontline staff to truly listen to customers. This often means you’ll need to make sure your customer service KPIs — like handle time or resolution time — aren’t overly aggressive. Spending a bit of extra time to ensure an issue is fully resolved is well worth it. You’ll see the difference in increased customer loyalty and less follow-up conversations.
2. Prioritizing company policy over customer needs
Bruce Lee famously encouraged his students to “Be water, my friend.” He recognized the importance of adapting and flexing based on the situation at hand.
Sure, policies and guidelines are there to be followed. They’re crucial in keeping all departments on the same page and ensuring your business operations function smoothly.
But a strict or inflexible process can also be harmful.
Let’s say one of your biggest customers contacts you because they need to make a return, but they happened to miss the deadline by a week. They’ve spent a lot of money with your brand, and they also happen to be an influencer in your industry.
But their phone call gets routed to a new support rep, and they opt to follow the return policy by the book, explaining that the customer is ineligible for a refund. That puts the customer in an awkward spot — they can push for an exception, they can share about the bad experience, or they can suffer in silence.
A knowledgeable agent will know that keeping this particular customer happy is more important than following the standard process.
How to fix or avoid this issue:
Empower your frontline staff. Knowledgeable customer service reps can recognize outdated processes that no longer serve the business. They can also identify situations that are the exception to the rule.
Other ideas to help here include:
- Regularly auditing your existing policies to adjust or eliminate polices that no longer serve your business well.
- Segmenting your customers in your CRM so that you’re able to identify customers needing a VIP experience and route their tickets to specific team members.
3. Displaying a lack of empathy or rude behavior
Frontline staff should never demean customers or display brash or sarcastic attitudes. The same goes for showing apathy or simply displaying no interest in solving a customer’s issues.
Unfortunately, it happens.
A full 73% of customers surveyed by chatbot and AI solution provider, Netomi, reported being on the receiving end of rudeness from a customer service agent.
This actually happened to me personally, very recently. My wife ordered a new area rug online. It ended up being the wrong size, so she initiated a return. The rug was so large that it needed to be picked up by a third-party logistics service, and she waited two weeks to hear from them.
After calling the logistics service, she was told there was no record of her request. So she tried again, and after several more days of silence, she called back the company she’d purchased from.
The customer service rep gave her the runaround, ultimately telling her that it was her fault the return had stalled out so long because she had waited too long — even though it was their system that failed to notify the logistics service of the request.
How to fix or avoid this issue:
The moment a customer takes the time to contact your support team, they’re already frustrated. Opening the conversation with empathy and communicating a willingness to resolve their problem goes a long way.
To help with this:
- Focus on hiring people who display a high degree of emotional intelligence and communicate with empathy. Role-playing difficult conversations can help surface these skills.
- Equip your support team with strategies to keep calm even when dealing with rude customers.
4. Making customers wait for too long
Long wait times are a classic example of subpar customer support. They’re a great way to create frustrated customers and build a negative brand reputation.
If you’re curious how it plays out, there are entire Reddit threads about how long consumers have waited on hold.
You’ll read about a customer trying to cancel their phone company and waiting 85 minutes on the phone. Or the 42 minutes it took to book a doctor's appointment.
That’s about 84 minutes and 41 minutes longer than customers should be waiting.
An excessive response time is only made worse by having to repeat yourself multiple times across different agents. In a recent survey, almost two-thirds of US adults shared that they believe valuing their time is the most important thing a brand can do to provide them with a good customer service experience.
How to fix or avoid this issue:
Reduce your hold times and respond faster. There are many different ways to reduce hold times, and the right one will depend on your situation. Here are some ideas:
- Find and improve processes that may be slowing your team down. Intelligent conversation routing is essential to speedy service. Use support automation to improve your speed and efficiency, for example, by routing specific tickets to qualified agents without manual work or time sitting in an inbox.
- Use canned responses or templates. For example, Missive allows you to compose and reply faster with pre-written snippets or templates that still allow for personalization through custom variables.
- Offer a callback option. While long hold times are never ideal, offering a callback option at least gives customers the option of getting off the phone and moving on with their lives while they wait to hear from your team. It’s still a long wait, but it feels like less of a pain when they’re not stuck with their phone in hand for ages.
- Adjust your hours or your staffing. When your agents are spread too thin, your customers are forced to wait longer. While reducing your operating hours may sound like a negative, if it dramatically improves your customer experience during those hours, it may still go over well with your customers. Alternatively, hiring more agents or adjusting the shifts they work can make a big difference.
5. Making it challenging to access support channels
Is anything worse than finding it hard to reach a business when you need help?
Comcast/Xfinity is infamous for this, as Reddit threads like this show. Here’s a snippet from one user:
“I asked to cancel (which took 4 tries as it 'accidentally' kept hanging up on me in the process..) and I said the same to them. They offered $75 at first and I said no. They then offered $45. I thought about it, but they said that's only for a year then it's back to the "regular rate" I told them to cancel it then. Had my fiancée sign up immediately after that, and now we are locked in at $30 for two years.”
Is it possible that the phone system hung up on them four times? Technically, yes. But it’s highly unlikely.
Whether it’s unhelpful support agents, a chatbot that gets users caught in a loop, or burying your contact form deep in your help center, situations like these are incredibly frustrating. While offering great self-service is a critical part of a modern customer service strategy, you should always make it easy for users to get human help when they need it.
How to fix or avoid this issue:
Whatever communication channels your support team offers, make them easy to find and access. Customers look to contact you when they have problems, so don’t create additional problems by making it hard to reach your support team.
Tactical tips to do this include:
- Use software that enables teamwork. Your customer support team can handle tickets much faster by working on a collaborative platform like Missive, which includes features like tagging teammates as observers and real-time collaboration on replies.
- Offer support where your customers are. If most of your sales are through social media, offer support on social. If you have a mobile app, embed easy support channels right in your app.
The underlying causes of poor customer service
We’ve seen examples of inadequate customer support and how to improve it. It’s tough to deliver a consistently great experience. It takes hard work and intentionality.
Across the board, there are a number of underlying reasons why bad customer experiences are still so prevalent. These include:
- Inadequate training. Without properly training frontline staff, you risk agents offering lousy service. Your team might even be providing insufficient support without you knowing, hence why it’s so crucial that quality assurance is part of your support operations.
- Low employee morale. Don’t expect excellent customer support from unmotivated employees. In a survey, about 75% of employees said that workplace culture affects their ability to serve customers.
- Operational inefficiencies. Cumbersome processes and outdated systems impact your team’s ability to serve customers quickly and reliably.
- Lack of automation. Excessive reliability on manual work isn’t scalable. Companies often deliver great service when their customer base is small, then struggle to maintain that quality when they experience growth.
- Lack of omni-channel support. Forcing users to use a specific contact channel risks creating frustration and increases customer effort.
- Poor customer feedback handling. Ignoring or mishandling customer feedback can lead to customer resentment and negative reviews. It also robs your organization of an opportunity to learn and improve.
Great customer service is a game-changer
Negative customer experiences are damaging to your business. Your customers are your company’s most important resource, and building out systems that enable you to support them well won’t happen by accident.
At the same time, your customer service processes will always be evolving. This work is never done, so don’t focus on getting across a finish line that doesn’t exist.
Instead, make it a regular part of your routine to audit your customer experience and analyze customer feedback. By creating feedback loops that enable you to continually improve, you’ll build a flexible customer service operation that your customers can rely on.