3 Lessons from the Worst Customer Experience Ever

Last Updated Jul 8, 2011 1:39 PM EDT

You hear a lot of horror stories in my line of work â€" everything from tales of inexcusably rude employees to complaints about products that break when they're taken out of the box.

So when I say something is quite possibly the worst customer service experience ever, you can take it to the bank.

Literally.

Here's what happened to Ikenna Njoku, of Auburn, Wash., when he tried to cash a tax rebate check at Chase Bank.

The 28-year-old was looking forward to paying off his car loan with the money. But when he handed the teller a cashier's check for $8,463, Njoku reportedly didn't get far. A bank worker expressed doubts that the check was legit.

He told Seattle TV station KING:
I was embarrassed. She asked me what I did for a living. Asked me where I got the check from, looked me up and down--like 'you just bought a house in Auburn, really?' She didn't believe that.
Auburn police arrested him for forgery the next day. He spent five nights in jail before bank investigators and police were able to clear him. By then, the car he had hoped to pay off had been towed and auctioned off. He also lost his job because he didn't show up for work.

Chase did nothing after the incident â€" no apology, not even an acknowledgment that it had goofed. Only after being contacted by an attorney and a local reporter did it 'fess up. Yesterday, more than a year after he was jailed, the bank issued the following apology through a spokeswoman:
This is a very unfortunate and unusual situation. We apologize to Mr. Njoku and deeply regret what happened to him. We are working quickly to understand all the details so we can reach a fair resolution.
How awful.

Where do I even start with this one? Here are some of the lessons any business can take away from this unfortunate experience:

Do your due diligence. Chase should have verified the authenticity of the cashier's check before contacting the police. Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty"? I mean, do you call the cops when someone suspicious enters your store? No, you wait until that character in a raincoat is caught with merchandise to dial 911.

When something goes wrong, fix it. Fast. Allowing Njoku to languish in jail for five days is inexcusable. Reports say the detective assigned the case had the day off, making him stay in jail for the weekend. So what? Bank investigators should have called the nonemergency phone number and cleared the suspect. Similarly, any business that screws up should make amends as quickly as possible. Five days is simply too long.

Apologize -- and mean it. It's absolutely incredible that Chase took a whole year to say it was sorry, and only did so after it was pressured by influential third parties. When a business screws up, it should apologize and make meaningful amends immediately.

There's simply no excuse for this kind of behavior from a business. Heads should roll for this incompetence.

And if you're a customer like Njoku? What now?

Four words: Find a new bank.

Related: Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: Neubie/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.

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