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The Seven Deadly Sins of Customer Service

Is customer service getting more abominable by the moment or is it my imagination? Last week, my latest service nightmare (more later), made me think of previous customer service offenses, many (but not all) by large companies. Wake up, business owners! In a world where everything eventually becomes a commodity, great service is a differentiating factor that you can hang your hat on. Avoid these seven deadly sins of customer service and you'll be well on your way to one-upping the competition. The good news: the bar is pitifully low these days.
Keeping customers in the dark. Last week, Cablevision's Optimum, which is my Internet service provider, left customers in my area without access to email for almost 24 hours because of a server crash. For those of us who work at home, it was a disaster. There was no explanation, no accurate estimate on when the system would be up again, and certainly no sincere apology. In fact, when the problem was finally fixed, one of the first emails in my in-box was from Optimum, wanting to sell me additional services for $9.95 a month! Are they serious? The next day, I did receive an email from Cablevision. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused," it said. "We have corrected the situation and a $2 credit will be applied to your account automatically." Wow. Thanks. It would have been great to hear a little bit more about what happened and why it will never, ever happen again. Gmail, here I come.

Pretending to care, then dropping the ball. I've been a loyal Hertz customer for years but lately, the company doesn't seem to like my American Express card. Every time I make a reservation with it, it's rejected, even though my card is active and usable everywhere else. Several calls to customer service got me nowhere, so I resorted to complaining on Twitter (always my last option). That got their attention and they emailed me and called, which was nice, except that after promising to follow up and help me solve the problem, they disappeared. That actually irritated me more than if they had never contacted me at all. Be consistent and follow through, for heaven's sake.

Gouging on price. My son goes to school in Ithaca, NY, a lovely little city with a very limited number of hotels. So reservations for graduation must be made literally years in advance. Imagine my surprise when I called the Ithaca Holiday Inn to reserve a room for graduation in 2013 (that's right) and was told that a standard room would cost $425 a night with a three-night minimum! The explanation: "It's graduation weekend." My response: "But that's price gouging!" Their retort: "Everyone does it." I'm sure they do, but that doesn't make it right. Frankly, I'd rather dust off the tent in my attic and camp that weekend or, better yet, check out Airbnb to see who might have a room to rent.

Nickel and diming. Airline and hotels are the worst when it comes to this. A $6 bottle of water in my room? Charging for blankets and pillows on an airplane? Frankly, I'd rather they just increase their base rates and include everything they're making us pay for, since even the illusion of "free" is better than feeling nickel and dimed. News flash: free is good! My friend, Chris Zane at Zane's Cycles in Branford, CT knows this intuitively. He gives away anything that costs less than $1 in his store. Guess whose independent bike shop is thriving while his competitors are getting slammed by the superstores? You guessed it.

Adopting an air of superiority. No, the customer is not always right. But be awfully careful about how you communicate that. I recently took my border collie to be groomed and was told it would cost $75. But when I picked her up, I got a long, nasty lecture from the groomer about the difficulty of the task and a bill for $120. I believe she even called me "honey." And it wasn't in the way that nice Southern ladies call you honey; it was definitely a condescending New York honey. "Bring her in every three months and it won't cost so much next time," she said. Well I've got news for you, honey: there won't be a next time.

Playing favorites: Not all customers are created equal. Of course you have favorites, but that should not be apparent to your customers. If you're meeting with a smaller customer and Ms. Big calls, do you stop the meeting to take the call with a perfunctory apology? If so, the message is clear: you're not that important to me. Be as democratic as possible with your customers; you are not the Soup Nazi, after all. And you never know when the little customer will suddenly become Ms. Big.

Refusing to admit you're wrong. Everyone makes mistakes, but fear and arrogance often prevent CEOs from admitting they're wrong, which just serves to escalate customer rage. Former JetBlue CEO David Neeleman got it right three years ago after an ice storm at New York's John F. Kennedy airport kept hundreds of passengers stranded on the tarmac for over six hours. Neeleman apologized on a YouTube video, gave a detailed explanation of the changes he was making at JetBlue to make sure that similar problems would not happen again, and announced that the company was creating a passenger bill of rights. Say what you like about JetBlue or Neeleman, but the apology, which went far beyond the boilerplate "sorry for the inconvenience," was the right thing to do. Optimum, take note.

Angry cat image by Flickr user Gumuz, CC 2.0