11 Types of Bad Customer Service (and How To Avoid Them)

Mathew Patterson | July 13, 2021

Sometimes the customer service teams who are supposed to be solving problems somehow manage to make them so much worse instead.

These are their stories — along with some tips to help you avoid ending up on this list next time we update it!

1. Running from responsibility

The root of many terrible customer experiences is a company that is happy to collect money from a transaction but not to accept responsibility when things go wrong.

Amazon refuses to refund an outrageous delivery charge

In the case of the $7,000 toilet paper, Amazon relied on being technically correct (in that a third-party seller had levied the enormous delivery charge) to avoid any responsibility until their hand was forced by bad press. This is one situation in which the company should have definitely folded.

Get responsible:

  • Center the customer’s perspective. They should not need to care about the business arrangements behind the scenes. If you sell something to them, you are (at least morally) responsible for their experience.
  • Use systems to catch outliers. Don’t wait for a customer to report it; use technology to spot out-of-bounds situations.
  • Teach your team how to apologize. Shifting the blame doesn’t fix the issue, and it leaves the customer with a negative impression.

2. Reluctance to respond

Slow response times are one of the most common causes of low customer satisfaction rates, and the passing of time can turn even the smallest problem into a major issue (or so my dentist insists on telling me).

Final call for boring

One man was on hold for 15 hours with Australian airline QANTAS. Painfully, that’s 20 minutes longer than the flight from Adelaide to NYC he was calling about. QANTAS denies it happened, but anyone who has dealt with automated phone systems is prone to believe the customer.

Speed up your service:

3. Failures of flexibility

Sticking rigidly to policies, even when they make no sense in a given context, is a classic customer service failure that is especially common when dealing with larger companies.

The microwave with the maxi problems

A microwave requiring five repairs in six months was apparently not broken enough for Whirlpool to just replace it. They dragged the process out until (again) being publicly shamed into action.

Get to full stretch:

  • Take a lesson from Captain Barbossa: Make your policies more like guidelines than actual rules.
  • Give your frontline team the authority to do what is needed, and then back them on their decisions.

4. Deceptive designs

Some of the worst customer experiences happen before the customer service team is ever involved. Product designers and managers, looking for ways to growth-hack their way to meeting KPIs, can be tempted to trick customers into doing things they might not voluntarily do.

LinkedIn’s dark design

Professional network LinkedIn has famously pushed the boundaries of dark design patterns. Dan Schlosser catalogued them a few years back. One such design resulted in thousands of people being bombarded with “Join LinkedIn” emails seemingly sent by their friends.

Stay on the light side:

  • Make your core values a real part of business decisions. If you claim to be customer centric, then test your designs against that mark. If your values change nothing, they aren’t real values.
  • Review your product copy to make sure it clearly and accurately describes what will happen. Have your support team review it; they will be able to predict certain customer confusion points.

5. Hiding humans

When you’re looking for help and a competent, caring person arrives, it is an incredible experience. Of course, the reality is often more like chasing Ron Swanson’s swivel chair. Making it hard to talk to a person is so common that services like GetHuman exist to help people find human assistance.

Hide and seek

This frustrated Telstra customer’s plea for help really makes the point. Apparently, being a Level 8 Inspector is not enough to warrant a phone call with a real person. Bad news for Inspector Gadget.

Be in touch:

  • Invest in customer service. If your customers’ calls are actually important to you, spend some of your profit to pay someone to answer them.
  • Build better self-service resources. Many people are happy to avoid calling if they can get an answer quickly on their own.
  • Improve your contact points to give customers direction on how best to get help.

6. Bamboozled bots

If not being able to talk to a human is frustrating, then talking to a wonky simulation of a human can be even worse. From unhelpful to outright incomprehensible, bad bots beget bothered buyers.

The chat bot that chats not

In writing our article on AI chatbots in customer service, we tried a bunch of live bots. The most frustrating ones were not those that failed completely, because that is at least fun to watch. It was the bots that seemed to offer help but failed to deliver it, like this Flowxo example:

Be the best bot you can be:

  • Look for alternatives to chat bots that will still meet your customer service goals.
  • Use chatbots in situations with a narrow set of questions (like a menu ordering process).
  • Use AI behind the scenes to make your human support teams smarter and faster.

7. Forcing phone calls

This is the opposite of the earlier “hiding humans” category of poor service. Requiring customers to make a phone call to cancel or modify their account, when everything else can be done online, is infuriating.

How Bare you?

Tarek Khalil took to Twitter to document his quest to cancel his Baremetrics account. The company provided some reasons that it was “necessary” to work this way, but it sure is odd that signing up is always so much easier than leaving.

Meanwhile in Australia, satirists at The Chaser currently offer to do the tedious work of cancelling a subscription to Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers on your behalf. Now that’s good service!

Avoid phoning it in:

  • Respect your customers’ time and energy. If they can sign up online, let them cancel online, too.
  • Let people cancel immediately, but leave them a window of time where an explanation or a better offer could bring them back right where they left off.

8. Disrespectful discourse

Being in customer service can involve accepting a lot of unpleasant behavior from upset customers and still responding kindly. However, sometimes it is the customer service agent who is bringing down the tone.

A customer by any other name

Comcast was forced to apologize after a team member changed a customer’s account name from Ricardo Brown to “A**Hole Brown.” (Although that’s likely the fastest Comcast has ever updated a customer’s details.)

Rudeness reduction:

  • Treat your customer service staff well so they have enough emotional energy left to make smart, empathetic decisions.
  • Don’t let your customers abuse your team without any consequence.
  • Use quality assurance techniques to identify possible training or attitude issues before they get to this level.

9. Lazy listening

A special kind of service failure involves receiving customer instructions and doing exactly what was asked but without applying any independent thought or consideration of intent. This is another form of “technically correct” (the best kind of correct).

Well, that takes the cake

Review this astounding collection of cake decorations where the decorator seems to have taken things a touch too literally.

Recipe for better reading:

  • Give your team time to ask questions for clarity, rather than rushing to get the job done.
  • Teach them to read analytically.
  • Reward the application of common sense.

10. Careless of context

When you are in a phone queue because the company’s website is broken but you still need help, it’s especially infuriating to be told “Try using our website!” every 30 seconds by a recorded voice. Context matters, and what might normally be a perfectly reasonable response can suddenly be awful if the situation has changed.

Bot of America

In what was initially presented as friendly, human social media service, but later revealed to be another bamboozled bot, Bank of America repeatedly sent generic “helpful” Twitter replies to an artist protesting the bank’s behavior. This one was a robot, but there are plenty of real humans who aren’t able to break from the script even when the play suddenly has a new act.

Pay attention to your surroundings:

  • If you’re using bots, don’t pretend they are real people.
  • Be careful about scripting customer service responses too tightly. Allow for human judgement.

11. Declining to de-escalate

Everybody makes mistakes, is misunderstood, or disappoints someone sometimes. When things go wrong, though, it’s best not to dig in and make it much worse.

Motel madness

An Australian motel received an online review they disagreed with, and rather than working with the customer to understand and address it, they decided to charge them an extra $50 instead. Inevitably, this resulted in media attention and an eventual refund, with far greater damage to the business than the original review.

Dig up:

Most bad service is unspectacular

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably not delivering customer service so bad that it is featured on the local news. Reading about the failures of others can be reassuring and even satisfying.

However, it doesn’t take a huge error to lose business. Small service irritations, left to fester, will drive away many otherwise happy customers. Pay attention to all those small signals that tell you when things are not quite right.

Watch your customer satisfaction rates, your response times, and your social mentions. It’s much cheaper and more effective to make small course corrections before they turn into major problems.

If you’re just starting out with your customer service team, or if it has been a while since you stepped away from the queue to see the big picture, consider taking our free Foundations of Great Service course.

You’ll set yourself and your team up to deliver the sort of consistently high-quality service that shows up on your company’s balance sheet, instead of on Twitter’s trending page.

Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.