You make me a bad customer

By Sarah
Stealey Reed

Published December 17, 2015
Last updated December 17, 2015

I had a date Sunday night with my mobile provider. It was long overdue, and I had been dreading it. The last time we'd attempted a rendezvous, I’d been transferred to at least seven different customer service agents, been provided gads of misinformation, and had my only phone incorrectly deactivated. I'd left the final conversation in tears after an embarrassing bout of profanity-laden hostility. "You make me a bad customer," I about sobbed to the beat-down agent before hanging up. "I'm better than this."

I had been reduced to an emotional mess.

Sunday's phone interaction was initially poised to end the same.

The fourth customer service agent I spoke with on Sunday resolved my problem, and we all remain unscathed. I credit patience, a little wine, and my ability to press redial numerous times.

I am not alone when it comes to anger and customer service. In a 2013 report by Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, customer rage is on the rise.

The number of people experiencing "customer rage" jumped to 68 percent from 60 percent in 2011. Rage occurs when a customer is either very or extremely upset about the company’s response when they complain. This is a huge crush to customer loyalty. The study estimates that over $76 billion in revenue is at stake for the businesses involved.

More of us are expressing that rage by yelling and cursing at customer service agents. Yelling rose to 36 percent from 25 percent, while cursing jumped to 13 percent from 7 percent. This is not something that any of us should be proud of.

What industry is driving most of this customer rage? Cable and satellite television companies top the list. Sadly, I admit to yelling and cursing at my cable company too. I swear I am not usually a bad customer. I do know better.

It’s still not about the ketchup

Do you remember the blog post about the woman that aggressively lost her composure at a fast-food restaurant over ketchup? It seems she’d been waiting in the drive-through for 10 minutes, received the wrong order (with ketchup), and then stormed inside the restaurant to berate the staff and demand a supervisor. To date, Matt Walsh’s, Maybe You Get Bad Customer Service Because You're a Bad Customer has been liked by over 2 million people, and over 200,000 have shared it on Facebook.

Walsh’s article is long, but his premise is short: bad customers get bad customer service.

As a contact center leader for almost two decades, I’ve both ruthlessly fired customers for doing bad things and gracefully asked others to exit because, “we just aren’t right for each other.” In a 2013 follow-up piece to Walsh’s article, I wrote about having my fair share of bad customers. (My article did not go as viral, I might add.)

[I’ve had to take over calls from agents who were being sworn at, I’ve had to mediate customer and agent shouting matches, and I’ve personally received more than a few threats of bodily injury when I’ve refused a customer something that they thought they were owed. I mean seriously, you are going to threaten to come to my office and harm me because I won’t refund you $50 for a service you used and abused? Yes, there are a lot of bad customers. Even though I am in customer service, I do not follow the mantra that “the customer is always right.”]

I said it then, and I will say it now—the customer is not always right.

The customer-company relationship

At the time, I argued that the ketchup lady and the restaurant were probably both at fault. And I agree still. Perhaps not equally at fault, but they both had a hand in the demise of their relationship. Because that is exactly what they had—a relationship. The give-and-take (service and money, product and usage) between a customer and an organization is a relationship.

[Customer relationships: sometimes it is one that lasts for two minutes, and sometimes it may last for hours, days, weeks, or months. The ultimate goal for almost any organization is for it to last a lifetime. A lifetime as long as it is mutually beneficial for us both; it’s a relationship.]

The give-and-take (service and money, product and usage) between a customer and an organization is a relationship.

And while I don’t agree with the approach this particular customer took, I also don’t agree that her experience should be shrugged off. By dismissing her solely as a bad customer, we neglect to look at what the organization potentially did to push her in that direction. It is the company—the provider of the service, product, or experience—that is responsible for the rules of the relationship. It is likewise the company’s role to ensure that everyone they employ knows how to uphold, act on, and understand the ramifications of breaking the rules.

[For companies to truly understand the experience their customers are having, they need to be measuring it, and measuring it well. Equally as important is the correlation back to the means of improvement. Take this situation, for example, how do the leadership and staff of the fast-food restaurant know if this woman’s experience is a one-off or a trend? She seemed to make reference that this has happened before. What if every third customer was getting an incorrect order? What if it was the drive-through channel that was the problem? What if it was a specific employee? Or an antiquated process?

Once you determine that the experience some or all of your customers are having isn’t ideal, how then do you rectify that? Now we get into the classic contact center conundrum; the cause of the poor experience. What agent activities are contributing to the poor customer experience? Is it knowledge? Is it empathy? Is it adherence? Is it behavior? Then you have to extrapolate and determine the root–recruiting, training, management, leadership, channel selection. And let’s not forget the factors that are typically outside the control of the contact center (or the front-line of the restaurant)—the product, marketing, budgetary constraints…you get the picture…it all contributes to the customer experience. And that is what makes it so darn challenging. But that is also why it is the responsibility of the organization to manage, and not that of the customer.]

As with any relationship, bad feelings and heartache are lasting. In 2013, Dimensional Research and Zendesk coauthored a study that found 39 percent of us still avoid companies more than two years after a bad experience. And 95 percent tell at least five people about it.

There’s no crying in customer service

In her 20 years working in Customer Service, Becky Levy has held roles as a front-end agent, resolution supervisor, trainer, and now as part of an executive management team. She recently underwent a bad support experience with her mobile provider. With the same mobile provider as I have. They also drove her to tears.

"I hold service at a long leash. I’m nice on the phone, I’m empathetic. I know how hard it is to service the customer and appreciate how difficult the job is.” - Becky Levy

“I tried to go online and do it myself,” Levy said. “But I needed something specific, so I needed to call. I was geared up for the long process this was going to be, and I felt ready. I am much more understanding than the average customer. I hold service at a long leash. I’m nice on the phone, I’m empathetic. I know how hard it is to service the customer and appreciate how difficult the job is.”

After a harrowing service ordeal that involved multiple trips through the IVR, a week of back-and-forth calls and emails, five agents, and a supervisor, Levy’s problem was resolved. But she doesn’t feel good about it. “In the end, I got what I asked for, even a bit more than what I asked for. Everything they gave me satisfied my need,” she said. “But getting there was so much work. It was awful. And now I’m contractually obligated to them for another two years. It’s left me resentful and angry.”

In the Dimensional Research and Zendesk study, they noted that less than half (47%) of those interviewed thought their interaction was positive because they got what they were originally hoping for.

Levy admits that she became the bad customer partway through the support process. “Three contacts in and I started to cry, I got angry and nasty, I demanded a supervisor. The agent then told me that the supervisor refused to take my call or allow me to wait on the line. I was told to hang up. What is that? My head exploded.”

What is good customer service?

Dimensional Research and Zendesk sought to answer the often puzzling question: what is good customer service?

Again, it’s not about just giving customers what they ask for. The single most important factor that defines good customer service is having the problem resolved quickly. “I always have the agent listen to their call before training or QA,” Says Levy. “And yes, customers can be difficult. But real escalations are usually in reaction to the agent’s tone, question or statement. When the agent understands that, they ‘get it’ and they understand their responsibility.” The agent’s responsibility is to resolve the customer’s problem. The company’s job is to make it easier for the agent.

The single most important factor that defines good customer service is having the problem resolved quickly.

Secondly, customers define good service when the person helping them is nice. In Levy’s particular case, it was the fifth and last agent she spoke with that kept her on board as a customer. “It’s not just that he gave me what I needed. It was how he felt about it. He said, ‘I could tell in your voice. I have a mother and three sisters, and I knew the tone in your voice. I knew I needed to take good care of you.’”

The customer-rage study showed that when companies added non-monetary appreciation, like an apology, alongside resolution customer satisfaction doubled to 74 percent.

Finally, for a customer to consider the service good, the problem needs to be resolved in one interaction—no passing around to multiple people. “As a customer,” says Levy, “you should never feel at an impasse with an agent. Every time you as a customer have to call back or get transferred is like starting over. And a supervisor that wouldn’t talk to me? That’s the stuff that makes good people nasty customers. That’s not just bad customer service, that’s enraging service.”