5 warning signs you’re about to receive bad customer service

Steve Cucrov/Shutterstock
Steve Cucrov/Shutterstock
It’s been decades and my father still hasn’t forgotten: Threatened with arrest, his wife in tears, their anniversary ruined. And to top it all off, he was still hungry.

Every time I hear the story, I ask him how it came to that. My father replies, “I never saw it coming.”

For their anniversary, my parents had gone to a well-known eatery north of Boston. Always a popular place, this night it was particularly crowded.

They waited a long time to be seated. They waited a long time for menus, and for a server. They waited a particularly long time for the meals.

Several hours after they arrived, my father’s meal arrived, but not his wife’s. My father would not begin eating until her meal arrived. When her food finally arrived a long time later, he asked the server to replace his meal, since it was cold. To his surprise, the server refused.

My father asked for a manager — and that’s when it got really ugly. They refused to replace his food. Dad moved to leave, and the manager threatened to call the police. The food remained on the plates untouched. My parents left, were not arrested, and never returned to that restaurant.

Service with a snarl

Few things are worse than enduring a bad customer service experience. Unfortunately, all too often companies don’t meet your service expectation.

According to a US Chamber of Commerce study, 68 percent of customers have left a company because they were upset with the treatment they received while dealing with customer services. Nearly 90 percent of consumers surveyed say they left a company for a competitor following a bad customer service experience.

Why does a simple request to make something right turn into a customer service issue? Why do simple service requests turn nasty? Why do we, like my father, ask ourselves, “Why didn’t I see this coming?”

Looking back, you might see there were warning signs of impending poor customer service. Here are five to watch for:

Warning sign #1: A long wait.
Any time you wait a really, really long time it’s a bad sign. It usually means the company is very busy or understaffed. (I offer a waiver for theme parks and doctor’s offices here, but reluctantly.) Whether you are standing in line or waiting on hold, odds are that at best they will apologize for keeping you waiting, then tell you they can’t help you.

Naturally, when most of us endure a long wait, we grow impatient. We don’t want to hear excuses. We want satisfaction and we want it now. And when we want something now and don’t get it, once again we’re going to have a bad experience.

Warning sign #2: It was hard to reach them.
When Rose Joyce of Framingham, MA decided to join Facebook, she was surprised to learn her email account had already been assigned by Facebook to a different person with a different name. Joyce says she tried to contact Facebook to see if she could claim her email address, but couldn’t find a resource for non-members.

She asked friends already on Facebook to send emails to the company; none of them ever heard back from Facebook. Not responding to a customer request or trying to hide from customers are definite warning signs of impending poor service. In Joyce’s case, she realized this and decided not to join Facebook for now.

Warning sign #3: Their initial reaction to your complaint.
While visiting London, my mother-in-law stopped in a food shop for lunch and ordered a sandwich that happened to be pictured in the window display. Instead of receiving what was depicted in the ad — a huge sandwich overflowing with meat and condiments — she received two razor thin slices of mystery meat with mayonnaise between two small pieces of bread. She told the server, “I want the one in the ad!” The server laughed and walked away.

The initial reaction to your complaint is a warning sign. If the reaction is positive — “We are sorry and we will make it right” — then your customer service experience will probably be good. If the initial company response quotes its policies, makes excuses, blames you, says it isn’t their problem or that no one else has complained, you’re probably in for a fight. It isn’t necessarily too late — you can often talk to a supervisor or ask a manager to overrule the initial contact.

Warning sign #4: At least one side declares “war.”
You were just served a lousy meal, bought a poor product, or were given a terrible hotel room. You’re possibly tired, hungry, or frustrated. So, you ask for a manager or call the support line. While you wait, all your complaints run through your head. You replay what just happened, and at some point you declare war. You’ll tell them! When the manager or support person says “Hello,” you launch your devastating tirade. You insult the company and the product. You point out in detail everything they did wrong.You just declared war. Did you really expect things to go well after that?

Declaring war is rarely a good strategy, no matter how wronged one feels. It pretty well ensures a bad customer service experience. Remember the adage: It’s easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar.

If the other side declares war first, the best thing to do is not respond in kind. For example, a few years ago I arrived early at a Continental Airlines flight just in time to witness a discussion between the gate agent and a customer escalate into a yelling match. It didn’t end well for the customer and he stormed off. I was next in line and had barely opened my mouth to ask a question when the employee started yelling at me. I kept my mouth shut until she paused, and then politely asked about my later flight. The woman, realizing how she had wrongly declared war on me, apologized and upgraded me (and my boss) to first class.

Warning sign #5: It seemed too good to be true.
Congratulations! You just won a free trip to anywhere in the world courtesy of United States Airlines. Cash the check to receive a free travel voucher or just pay the tax, and we’ll send you the tickets. Why did we send you this gift? Because you are special or your name was drawn at random.

You may laugh, but thousands of people still fall for scams that basically entice you with something for nothing. Of course, when people don’t receive the freebie, they try to contact the company only to have a very bad customer service experience. They may find it’s impossible to contact the company. They may reach the company and be told, “The tickets are in the mail,” or maybe, “Oh, that was a mistake, you need to send us more money.”

Remember, very few people or companies give something away for free. Look at the materials carefully. Check reputable sites, such as the Better Business Bureau or the office of the Attorney General for information on the company. Better yet, toss the offer in the trash and do business only with known, reputable companies.

Remember, these are indicators, not predictors, of bad service. For example, just last week I went to a Chinese restaurant with my parents and some relatives for Dad’s birthday. The service was horrible. We waited a long time for a table, for menus, and for the server. As soon as I realized there were grumbles and Dad was telling “the dinner” story again, I spoke to the server.

She told us how she was the only server for the entire restaurant and there was a party of twelve in a private function room. She apologized profusely. Dad smiled. We knew the server was doing her best.

We left her an extra large tip.

Do you avoid companies that give you bad service?

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