Customer Service Nightmares That Should Never Happen

Last Updated Mar 20, 2011 4:16 PM EDT

Customer Service Nightmares That Should Never HappenWhether it's the phone company, a big box store, or an insurance provider, everybody has nightmare customer service stories.

To me, the most frustrating problems are the ones that companies create for themselves by employing idiotic management policies and systems that stand between customers walking away satisfied and customers feeling like they want to strangle somebody.

Here are 5 Cases of Customer Service Nightmares That Should Never Happen because, in addition to striving to increase customer satisfaction, most companies also strive to lower the cost of customer interactions, and those two goals are in conflict. More on that later.

Now, these are all big companies so I don't mind naming them. Just remember one thing: a single anecdote does not mean there's a systemic problem although, in some cases, it sure does seem that way. Also noted are the response from company executives in two cases where I requested them.

Case 1 - Best Buy
According to a local store manager, the most they have the authority to discount an item is 20%, regardless of its price. So they have discretion to discount a $5,000 TV by $1,000 but they can't swap one free promotional item (valued at $40) for another of the same value after the promotion has expired, even though it's within the 30-day return window. Why? Because the system won't let them do it and even the top guy at the store doesn't have the authority to override the system.

In an email, CEO Brian Dunn called my experience "disturbing," apologized, and made it right. All without making any excuses, which I found refreshing.

Case 2 - AT&T
To make a simple change to my land line system, I waited on hold, got the wrong department, waited on hold, got the right department, took forever to make the change, finally an independent person verified the change. Weeks later, no change. Did the same thing all over again, including having my call dropped (ironic, isn't it?) after waiting 20 minutes in the queue. No explanation for why the change didn't take affect the first go around. Sure seems like a systemic problem to me.

On the plus side, the people are always nice and the service technicians are fantastic.

Case 3 - Blue Shield
Why, oh why, would a medical insurance provider deny a refill request (not the original, mind you), make the pharmacist contact the prescribing physician to reiterate, in writing, that he really did mean to prescribe that particular drug, not the non-identical generic, and then approve the refill request, wasting two days, two trips to the pharmacy, and doctor's and pharmacist's precious time? It's not a one-time thing. It's a policy, albeit with a seemingly random component.

Is it getting harder and harder to get medical insurance companies to actually pay for claims or is it me?

Case 4 - Sony
Dell will ship you a part with instructions on how to install it yourself so you don't have to give up your precious notebook for a week. Not Sony. You have to leave it at one of their stores or send it in, but they will not ship you a touchpad to replace a defective one within the warranty period without invalidating your warranty. Sure, you can buy it and DIY, but if that doesn't fix the problem, you're back to square one and out the price of a touchpad. To me, that's just dumb customer service management.

I emailed some senior executives and had someone at my home a few days later, but it never should have come to that.

Case 5 - Radio Shack
The Shack is by no means unique when it comes to frustrating, time-wasting return policies, but making the customer answer a bunch of questions while the sales associate fiddles with the item, checks something online, then goes looking in the back for the manager who eventually comes out and does pretty much the same thing, is nuts. The item was missing a proprietary cable and it took 20 minutes to return it. Shameful.

Has anyone managed to figure out what The Shack's value proposition is yet? All I know is customer service doesn't appear to be it.

Bottom Line
I think the problem in all these cases is that customer service organizations have conflicting objectives. They're never "achieve industry-leading customer satisfaction at any cost." I'm not saying they should be. But "achieve acceptably high customer satisfaction efficiently," (meaning low cost), has two inherent flaws:
  1. Those two goals: customer satisfaction and efficiency / low cost are in conflict, in part due to the second flaw;
  2. Efficiency means the company's efficiency, not the customer's. They're not the same. And these days, time is everyone's most precious commodity. Waste customer's time and they're instantly frustrated.
So, I'm thinking customer service goals should of course include interaction efficiency - but from the customer's standpoint. I'd be willing to bet that just looking at customer interaction from that different perspective will actually improve efficiency and lower cost without conflicting with customer satisfaction.

I'm also thinking that lots of big companies have their work cut out for them.

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Image: Rob Boudon via Flickr

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