Last Christmas (2011), the entire internet was reminded just how important customer service really is.

If you were fortunate enough to avoid the fiasco, it essentially boiled down to self-proclaimed "marketing expert" (ha!) Paul Christoforo turning a simple customer service email into a disastrous media trainwreck.

While the story garnered a ton of coverage, few discussions were held on the lessons to be had from this monumental failure in engaging with customers.

That's too bad, because there is a lot more to this story than the pageview vultures would have you believe. Today, we're going to look at the implications of this outrageous case study beyond the context of skewering Paul Christoforo.

How it Went Down

PS3 Avenger Controller

A lesson in itself, this entire media storm began with a simple email from a customer known as Dave.

Dave was curious about the progress of the video game controller he ordered, known as the "Avenger Controller", and shot over a quick email (he was displeased, but extremely courteous, as you can see from the links above).

Paul, the customer service person, answered back first with an abrupt date, and later with an email proclaiming that Dave could:

“put on [his] big boy hat and wait it out like everyone else.”

How pleasant!

Unfortunately, things only get worse... much worse. Moving from simply "unpleasant" to aggressive, confrontational, and even abusive to a paying customer, Paul finally met his match when Dave forwarded the emails over to Mike Krahulik (co-founder of Penny-Arcade, PAX, and the Child's Play Charity). Krahulik would then expose the debacle in a post appropriately titled, "Just Wow!".

Do yourself a favor and read the full message. I'll spare you of re-posting it here, but let's just say that the grammatical butchery, inane insults and disrespectful tone of Mr. Christoforo was so infamous that major companies would later make jokes about his threats of being able to "wwebsite as on the internet":

Now that you're up to date, let's break down what we can learn about the customer experience in this shining example of how NOT to treat your customers.

1. Embrace the “Sun Tzu” Method of Customer Care

In Sun Tzu's world-famous work The Art of War, the tale of the physician brothers serves as a perfect metaphor for the preferred methods of dealing with most situations:

My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.

As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

The message: The most skilled are able to deal with situations in a way that prevents them from turning into problems in the first place.

Unlike in this story, however, your namewill get out of the house in one way or another: either for outstanding service or the kind of service that gets you lambasted on the homepage of Kotaku (horrific PR if you sell a gaming product like the Avenger Controller).

Even if Dave had been initially rude or unreasonable with Christoforo (he wasn't), the best way to deal with the situation would have been to clear things upright away.

That's not an opinion. Social psychologist Fiona Lee found that companies that admit to their faults immediately (without playing games) were held in a higher regard (and performed better) than those who tried to circumvent any public mistakes.

Studies show that if you admit to faults immediately when there's a problem, customers will thank you for it.
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On top of that, the turnover for satisfying a customer complaint is high. Even for highly dissatisfied customers, up to 70% of them are willing to do business with a company again if the problem is dealt with correctly the first time around (source and more stats in our free e-book).

2. There is Such a Thing as Bad Press

The myth: Media manipulation experts tell the world there is "no such thing as bad press"; tons of people believe it.

The truth: Controversial press is only good for those whose business is founded on it.

Don't fall for the trap. While cults-of-personality that thrive on debauchery and forcing emotional outrage like Tucker Max can get away with purposefully creating bad press, you're a business owner: for you, bad press is real, and it can sink your business.

For the Huffington Post or hucksters selling books, controversy is definitely a good thing: it gets eyeballs, and eyes are all they need.

Creating a relationship with customers is far more intricate than that. Not only do they need to know you, but they also need to trust you in order to deal with you again, and you're not going to establish this credibility with PR stunts that reveal an abhorrent lack of concern for customers or for the ideals that they stand for.

3. All Customers (Big and Small) Deserve the Same Respect

There's a not-so-tiny detail to this story that many people forget to mention: the reason that Mike Krahulik initially got involved was because Paul had mentioned that he would be appearing at PAX, of which Mike is a co-owner.

When Paul found out that his behavior had reached an owner of PAX, he tried to change his tune:

Mike I'm not trying to fight with you I'm really not , you should give me the benefit of the doubt before judging over one person's *****ing . Did I feed into his emails a little bit too much yeah ok . But it's one person dude for real. No disrespect intended for you , My name is good in this industry and I know a lot of people. I'll be at CES are you going?

This was apparently the last straw for the PAX founder: Mike immediately informed Mr. Christoforo that he would be permanently banned from PAX and that he'd be doing a post tomorrow documenting the incident.”

It's really disgusting watching this part of the conversation unfold.

The guy who was just verbally abusing a paying customer tried to appeal to another because of his influence. There was a total lack of concern for Dave, but as soon as he came across an industry leader, Christoforo tried to turn on the charm, fortunately, Mike saw through this feeble attempt and took action.

No customer wants to be treated like a 2nd class citizen, and the best way to keep this mindset present among your team at all times is to treat each and every customer like a VIP.

Treating a single customer rudely turned into a PR disaster for a small business. Why every customer should be a VIP-
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4. There’s a Reason Why “Whole Company Support” is Essential

One of the most overlooked lessons (in my humble opinion) about this whole fiasco is just how much authority and how oh-so-little accountability was handed over to Mr. Christoforo with seemingly no concern for his ability to interact with customers.

The reason that this situation got out of hand in the first place was due to his staggering lack of courtesy to customers and his complete control in dealing with them! The former marketing team for N-Control (present before Christoforo's debut) had this to say:

[Christoforo] came in and said I know this guy at Gamestop. I know this guy at Best Buy. They (the N-Control founders) saw dollar signs and decided to start working with him.

We decided to walk away from this because it was a nightmare dealing with their [shipping problems] and this guy Paul.

A classic example of a team of founders not placing enough emphasis on customer care throughout their organization.

They reached out to Paul with one goal in mind, and it wasn't about their customers. Startup teams must realize that every employee needs to be able to interact with customers and have "customer happiness" as a part of their agenda: it's not just the customer service team who needs to know how to talk to people.

5. Having a Great Attitude Can Solve Most Problems

It doesn't take massive expenditures to create goodwill with customers. Most people are simply looking to get through the transaction (and support) in a speedy manner while being treated with respect.

This would seem like common sense, and I apologize for the trite turn of phrase, but it is apparently not all that common.

The Christoforo situation reminds us of this in a very real way: nothing would have come of this if Paul would have just put on his "big boy hat" and treated Dave's initial emails with the respect and attention that they deserved.

A great attitude with customers goes hand-in-hand with good marketing. Every business owner knows it's less expensive to keep repeat customers than it is to acquire new customers, so why not put forth the effort to handle complaints with some enthusiasm or at least some emotional restraint?

Everybody has "off" days, but a poor attitude is never a good enough excuse to lose business and be belligerent to customers.

6. Customers Have Patience for Faulty Products, but Not Terrible Service

Here's the thing, try as we all might, there are going to be occasions when your product has hiccups; it's unavoidable.

In fact it was for this very reason that the first email was exchanged from Dave to Mr. Christoforo, specifically pertaining to logistics ("When will they be shipped?").

As frustrating as it is to have a problem arise during your first transaction with a company, customers will be forgiving if you handle their problems in an efficient manner.

More importantly, customers are mostly concerned that you handle their complaints in a†competent manner: remember that research where we revealed that customers care more about competent service than fast service?

It's a shame that Paul didn't read that: he was quick to respond and apparently likes hearing his own voice, but he paid little attention to the quality of the service that his customer was†receiving†(understatement of the century!).

When your product or service isn't perfect, customers will forgive you. But for bad service? Probably not.
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7. A Reputation for Bad Service is Harder to Overcome as a Small Business

Did you know that huge companies like AT&T are regularly rated for having the overall worst customer service practically year after year?

As a huge corporation, they are able to seemingly get by with this generally acknowledged flaw, but things aren't going to work out the same way for your small business: you don't have the reach that AT&T does, so when word gets out about terrible service, you need to react quickly and appropriately.

Unfortunately for N-Control and the Avenger Controller, they were a small business and their post-disaster efforts didn't quite save them from the wreckage.

Beginning with a highly visible Reddit PR thread, the "new guy" did his best to get the word out on news sites and large blogs in an attempt to reconcile with current and prospective customers over Christoforo's actions, ensuring everyone that he was now totally detached from N-Control and not associated with the Avenger Controller product in any way.

It was valiant effort, but couldn't stem the tide of people who gave the controller numerous negative reviews on Amazon out of spite (it hit 1-star at one point in time), despite the fact that the majority consensus was that it was a solid product!

It didn't matter though: those unaware of the debacle saw low reviews and this (without a doubt) severely hurt purchases; many of the reviews that you currently see are from people who never even bought the controller, they simply left negative feedback due to the Christoforo incident.

It's my personal hope that the N-Control team was able to make some sort of comeback after this turn of events. As they seem to still be selling the controller, I'm hopeful that this is the case.

If you love your customers, be sure to check out our free guide on 25 Ways to Thank Your Customers. Let them know that you care!

Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti

Greg is a writer, marketing strategist and alum of Help Scout. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.