Ever told a customer they have zero fashion sense? Or held them to ransom just after their house was wrecked by a tornado? Maybe you’ve spent 20 minutes arguing on the phone like a spoiled child because they no longer want your service? If so, congratulations, you’ve made it into the exclusive club of the worst customer service workers in the world!

There have been countless tales of customer service calamities over the last few years, and we’ve picked out some of our favorites below. What’s more, we brought in the experts to examine why things went so horribly wrong and to offer some words of wisdom to highlight how your company can avoid the negative PR that comes with the feverish social media backlash of such cringeworthy customer service practices.

Besides following their advice, you should also think about investing in a customer service app. There are plenty of excellent applications out there to help you create lasting customer relationships. On with the horror stories…

Fail #1: The Wedding Crusher

The story:

For many women, shopping for wedding dresses makes them feel like a princess. But for one poor bride-to-be in Australia, the experience was something that will forever haunt her, as The Age outlined in its report of the story.

The plight of Keara O’Neil went viral on social media after her fashion sense was ridiculed by the customer service team of retail outlet, Gasp. Keara complained to Gasp about her treatment by a pushy sales assistant while shopping for bridesmaids dresses for her wedding, who she claimed told her: “I knew you were a joke the minute you walked in”.

The email response she received back after lodging her complaint (which you can read here) left Keara gobsmacked. She was told by the Gasp representative that the outlet appeals “to a very fashion forward customer.” Instead of apologizing for her treatment she was told that the sales assistant who she was referring to was a “retail superstar” who’s “only problem is that he is too good at what he does”.

Excerpt from GASP area manager, Matthew Chidgey
Excerpt from GASP area manager, Matthew Chidgey’s response to Keara O’Neil’s complaint (published on Melbourne Herald Sun)

The email response finishes by asking Keara to “side step our store during future window shopping expeditions.”

The fallout:

Not only did Gasp lose Keara as a customer (in fact, they outright told her they didn’t want her business), but after her tale reached the internet, the company was faced with a firestorm. The Gasp Facebook page was bombarded with derogatory comments, and anti-Gasp pages such as We Hate Gasp and Boycott Gasp began springing up.

The lesson:

Shep Hyken, customer service and experience expert, and author of New York Times bestseller, The Amazement Revolution says:

“Not all customers are created equal, but they are all people and should be treated as such. Some customers spend more, some spend less. Others don’t spend at all. But alienating a customer based on any type of disconnect – be it looks, communication, or any other factor – is a mistake.

I’m reminded of the scene from the movie Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts, who didn’t look like she belonged on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, is disrespected by a salesperson in an upscale shop. Several hours later she walks down the street with thousands of dollars of merchandise she had bought at another store. The lesson was obvious.”

Fail #2: The Amazon agent who wouldn’t listen

The story:

Ever get the feeling someone’s not listening to you? We’d all expect this from time-to-time from a partner, kid, or dog – but from Amazon’s live chat customer support?

As Business Insider reported, that’s what happened to Chris Williams when he contacted an Amazon chat support worker with a request to disassociate an email address from his Amazon account due to fears he could be subjected to a phishing scam. Now, Amazon is generally noted for its great customer service, but in this case Williams had to spend nearly an hour on live chat trying to get agent to understand what he meant.

The live chat worker, who insisted on calling Chris ‘Brittni’ appeared to use a mixture of canned responses and poorly written English, which caused no end of confusion to the customer. What’s more, the transcript demonstrates that the agent had lots of trouble understanding what was quite a pretty simple query.

The entire transcript of the query was published here by Chris Williams, and makes for an infuriating read.

The Amazon agent inexplicably continues to refer to Chris as
The Amazon agent inexplicably continues to refer to Chris as ‘Maam’ and ‘Brittni’

The fallout:

Although the support worker never lost their cool in the face of the customer’s frustration-fuelled tirades, the agent’s poor understanding of the subject led to negative publicity for Amazon when the story got out, prompting Business Insider to run a piece highlighting the site’s use of canned responses in their live chat support.

The lesson:

Emily Yellin is a journalist and author of Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives. She says:

“For companies, you are only as strong as your weakest customer service channel. Please apply the same standards of good practices to all of them. Treat people well and give both customers and your agents a sense of control in a situation where both often are made to feel helpless, and thus enraged. Company executives set up the dynamic between their employees and their customers. So when things go wrong, I always blame the CEO and upper management instead of the agents, supervisors or customers. Jeff Bezos is known for being customer-centric. So I wonder what this signals.

Whenever a channel of communication opens between companies and their customers, a new way to do customer service well or poorly also opens up. Phones, emails, social media, texts and chat – they all are reaching new heights of both good and bad these days. It is vitally important that companies pay careful attention to these interactions because each one makes up your marketing, PR, customer service and reputation. It doesn’t take much for that to affect your bottom line. So I would say that Amazon had better pay better attention to all their channels of customer interaction. I have seen so many instances in which a company’s customer service missteps were the first sign of eventual stock price declines.”

Fail #3: Missing cable box causes a storm

The story:

The last thing you want after your neighborhood has been ravaged by a tornado is for your cable company to tell you to cough up money to replace your missing set top box – or go look for it.

That’s exactly what happened to one Charter Cable subscriber who, as Stop the Cap! reported, had just lost her home, possessions, along with her cable box. The customer, named only as ‘Kelly’ was told by Charter Cable:

“If your house was destroyed, and you have looked around the neighborhood for our cable box and cannot find it, you owe us $212 and you need to either pay us or make an insurance claim on our behalf”.

The fallout:

After the storm surrounding this seemingly insensitive act of customer service broke in the media, Charter Cable changed its policies so that customers would not be charged for equipment for missing or damaged equipment as a result of the tornado.

Contacting a customer just after a disaster like the one that struck Jefferson County to demand money is certainly not very tactful and it ended up giving Charter a PR headache.

The lesson:

Bill Quiseng is a blogger and award-winning writer in the areas of customer service for front-line associates and customer service leadership for managers. He says:

“Roy Disney said, “If values are clear, decisions are easy.” Charter Communications’ Mission Statement starts with “Drive growth and increase shareholder value…”. So it should not be surprising that Charter did what it did.

The first principle of creating customer loyalty is “Be the Customer.” “Walk in the customer’s shoes” is common sense insight, but certainly not common practice at Charter. If “People over Profit” was a core value at Charter, given the customer’s emotional toll from such a catastrophic event, Charter would certainly have been more empathetic.

It [Charter] could have used the event to build brand loyalty by telling its customers they were waiving the cost of any lost cable boxes. Instead it only reinforced the collective customer perception that cable companies are the worst at customer service.”

Fail #4: The rep who couldn’t let go

The story:

What is it with cable providers and their customer service? Another horror story, recounted by Time, comes from former Engadget editor-in-chief, Ryan Block who was given a rough ride by a “customer retention specialist” when he called to cancel his contract with Comcast.

As the recording of the call (or at least, this eight-minute snippet of it) proves, sometimes an agent needs to know when to give up.

In a painstaking call that often feels like a political debate rather than a customer service query, Ryan asks multiple times if it’s possible to arrange to cancel the service over the phone and the unrelenting agent continually refuses to supply an answer, instead coming back with questions asking why he wants to disconnect.

The fallout:

Ryan eventually managed to get disconnected, but the impact on Comcast’s reputation suffered a big blow, and the company was forced to issue a statement outlining its embarrassment at the way the customer was spoken to.

The lesson:

Mike Aoki is speaker, trainer and consultant at Reflective Keynotes, which offers call center, sales and presentation skills training. He says: “The Comcast cancellation story is notorious for the agent’s over aggressiveness,” and offers the following tips that he says would have helped:

1. Always acknowledge the customer’s initial request for cancellation. Many customers expect a fight when they call to cancel, so diffuse that tension by acknowledging the customer’s request. You should still try to retain them. However, don’t start the conversation in an adversarial mode by ignoring or refuting the customer’s initial request. Instead, respond with, “I’m sorry to hear you want to cancel.”

2. Offer to help them. Callers are still expecting a fight. So, continue to defuse that tension by stating, “I want to help you.”

3. Begin asking questions to discover ways to help them retain their service. Always start this part of the conversation prefacing your question with, “In order to complete your request, I’ll need to ask a few questions,” Then, ask whatever questions are appropriate to uncover the customer’s need to cancel.

4. Offer alternatives and solutions. After you’ve discovered why the customer wants to quit, see if you can help them make better use of their service.

5. Remember, your company’s reputation is more important than saving any individual customer. Do not be overly aggressive in your “save” attempt. Try once, or at most, twice, to retain the customer. If someone has turned down two “save” attempts, asking a third time probably won’t work. But, it make provoke the customer to lash out on social media or complain to the press. As we saw in this Comcast “save” attempt, the caller was so irate, they lashed out on social media and used their press connections to make the story front page news. The damage from this one phone call was far worse than just losing a single customer.

Fail #5: Pain in the bot

The story:

When Mark Hamilton got into a dispute over a protest he was making against Bank of America, he took to Twitter to vent his frustration at being forced by police to vacate the scene, reported Digiday.

However, when other Twitter users weighed in to give their opinion on Mark’s plight, Bank of America’s automated responses seemed to go into overdrive. The company’s Twitter account began @ messaging respondents with stock phrases such as: “We’d be happy to review your account with you to discuss any concerns. Please let us know if you need assistance” and “I work for Bank of America. What happened? Anything I can do to help”.


The fallout:

In response to Digiday’s article, Bank of America issued a statement to say: ““All of our interactions are personal and handled by a team of over 100 social-media servicing representatives. We respond to mentions of the bank to help identify underlying customer issues in addition to direct requests for help.” However, in this case, the tweets were sent in response to angry messages from activists disgruntled at the bank, so they seemed completely out of context.

The lesson:

Micah Solomon, customer service consultant and speaker said:

“Since BoA says this wasn’t a bot response but a personal (but NOT personalized) response, the problem (and solution) would seem to be this: anyone answering a tweet should at least spend a minute reviewing the background behind the tweet.

I’ve received (not from the same institution) those annoying “what happened?” tweets that seem like they have no knowledge of history. Social customer service IS customer service and you need thoughtful responses, even if they’re 140 or fewer characters.”

If you’re keen to avoid such disasters as the customer service bloopers we’ve highlighted here (and you should be!) go read the 10 lessons that Sujan Patel wrote for the GetApp Lab describing the key things entrepreneurs should know about customer service.

Oh, and do make sure you have the right customer service software for your business. Check out our ranking of the top 25 customer service apps, GetRank, to help you make the right choice.