Five WORST Practices of Customer Service

A few years ago I was speaking at a conference and committed a cardinal sin: I used a company as an example of poor customer service, and that company, an electric utility, was in the audience. I tried to mea culpa my way out of it, and apologized profusely to the company’s support manager at the conference. A couple of weeks later I received a call at my office from the head of support for the utility company, who informed me they had made major investments to their support operations, including 100% call recording, and he had listened to every one of my phone interactions over the last couple of years and I had zero reason to think they gave poor support.

Worst Practice #1: Never tell a customer their feelings about poor treatment are unjustified. You are basically calling them a liar, and putting the customer immediately on the defensive.

The folly of all of this is that the account I had had so many problems with was a rental property I owned at the time, and the electric account wasn’t even in my name. Using call recording as a bully club to argue with customers is ridiculous, as you can’t possibly tie me personally to account problems my name and phone number aren’t associated with.

Fast forward a few years. A few weeks ago, Northern California received a record breaking storm, the remnants of a typhoon from Asia. I live in the Santa Cruz mountains, and I received 10 inches of rain in one day. We had sustained winds at 40mph, with gusts up to 70mph. My power was out for 4 days, and if that wasn’t bad enough, my encounters with that same utility company left me so frustrated, that weeks later I am still angry. This blog post is my attempt at catharsis.

Worst Practice #2: Always level with the customer up front. Set realistic expectations, even if it is bad news.

My power first went out on Monday afternoon, came back on overnight on Monday, then went out again on Tuesday morning. It was out until Friday afternoon.  I knew from news reports that thousands of people had no power, and the damage in my somewhat remote area was obvious. I dutifully called the company’s outage line for updates, and the message always said, “Your power will be restored, or we will have an additional update, by [insert time].” The time would jump ahead 8 hours at a time, with no new information. I kept thinking the problem would be resolved, because the message never said, “We do not expect your power to be back on for 2-3 days.” Setting realistic expectations for customers up front is the best thing you can do–giving them false hope only increases their frustration.

By Wednesday, the power was restored to my neighbors 2 doors down.  The power lines between their house and my house were fine, so at that point I became quite irritated.  My calls to the utility company involved an hour or more on hold to reach a live agent.  Oddly, every time I called I had a different phone system. Sometimes it was a voice automated tree. Sometimes it was a touch tone interface. Sometimes it knew who I was by my phone number. Other times I had to type in my phone number so the system could identify me.  At this point it started to seem like amateur hour, and I had to navigate a different menu and prompts each time I called. One time I was offered a call back automatically, other times I had to hold…for an hour. I then found I could call different phone numbers and receive different wait times, so I would call on both my home and cell and usually one line had a wait time of an hour, the other 15 minutes.

Worst Practice #3: An inconsistent customer experience costs credibility.

Were their phone systems overloaded? After a storm? What on earth will they do after a major earthquake? Clearly they weren’t equipped to deal with this outage.

When I finally got through to a live person and asked why my neighbors had power and I didn’t, I was told, finally, “Let me be honest with you. We haven’t even been out there yet to check on the problem. In fact, we don’t even have a crew scheduled to go out there, and I don’t know how long that will take.”  Every previous person I had spoken to, who told me “they are onsite working and your power should be back on soon,” was lying. Another agent told me, “Some people here just tell you what you want to hear. It is easier.” (You wonder what the supervisors listening to the 100% call recordings think about THOSE conversations!)

Worst Practice #4. Never lie to a customer. Never. Never. Never. Not only is your credibility now shot for all future issues, but you missed an opportunity to set realistic expectations up front (back to #2).

At some point, I decided to stop calling and check the utility company’s online outage maps.  The map didn’t even show an outage in my area.  My power had been out for 3 days at this point, and their online system had no record of it.

Worst Practice #5: Self-service with WRONG information is worse than no self-service at all.  If you can’t get your content synced across channels, be sure you aren’t giving wrong or outdated information to the customer. Bad information only causes you further loss of credibility, and erodes customer trust. It also makes you appear to be a Luddite, since you aren’t able to meet the needs of customers via newer channels.

My power eventually came on–12 hours after a supervisor assured me it would be on in the next hour. All in all, I think the support agents were friendly and polite, and obviously masters at dealing with upset customers.  But the company is missing the point:  heavy investments in call recording and agent training are great, but if you don’t enable your employees to provide accurate information, it is all in vain. I suppose a utility company–with zero competition–only has to care so much about customer service. After all, what am I going to do? Live without electricity? I’m stuck with them.  It is really too bad, because I suspect the customer churn rates for this company would be incredibly high if there were an alternative.

I hope all the customer service managers reading this will look beyond my whining tale and think about these five worst practices.  Be sure your support organization isn’t committing them!  Thanks for reading!

Explore posts in the same categories: Best Practices, Consumer Support, customer experience, customer support, Technology

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15 Comments on “Five WORST Practices of Customer Service”

  1. Mary Sue Says:

    solar panels. spin your meter backwards. at least you won’t pay for your frustration


  2. Shawn Santos Says:

    Great post John. It is easy to see how the worst practices of customer service are ubiquitous across most industries. Ultimately, these aren’t just bad service practices, they are bad people practices.

    Unfortunately, it looks like the utility company has a monopoly up there in the Santa Cruz mountains. It begs the question: if they are the only option available to consumers in the area, why should they bother investing in improved customer service? Do you think the company sees this as an unnecessary spend, and what can consumers do to get the treatment they deserve?

    Thanks again,


    • jragsdale Says:

      Hi Shawn;
      You are probably not old enough to remember Lily Tomlin’s excellent comedy act as Ernestine the Operator. This was in the pre-deregulation days of phone companies, and each region of the US was serviced by a single monopoly.

      Ernestine’s most famous line was, “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.”

      You are correct, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for a monopoly to care about service. I’ve emailed our local consumer affairs news columnist to ask about this. I believe there are some government regulations about service quality for monopolies, but would like to find out more. I’ll report back if I learn anything!

      Thanks for taking the time to post a reply!


  3. Adesh Sidhu Says:

    These days companies only intent is to sell and sell more. In the the whole process if customer become loyal, it will be a happy accident for them. There would be hardly any hard work to make them satisfied with services.

  4. David Kay Says:

    To Mary Sue: I’m a relative neighbor to John, and I do spin my meter backwards–but rarely during a storm. For now, we still have to rely on The Man (aka PG&E) for power at night and during a downpour. I’m hoping our water company (for our 120 houses) can take on power generation with a new technology someday, but living off the grid today is a major commitment, including in environmentally unfriendly batteries…

    John, I live with this utility company’s terrible self-service systems during the winter, too. And I, too, hate being lied to. It’s also counterproductive for them, because any time we see a crew on the road, we all pester them to get at ground truth. Those crews have better things to do than customer status updates, but that’s the reality.

    But the most horrifying thing you said is that they pulled out your recordings (“for quality and training purposes”) to use against you. We should insist that reasonable privacy screens be put up so no one can access recordings by name, address, and account number. That’s despicable.

    One ringey-dingey, two ringey-dingey,

  5. Duane Floyd Says:

    John…great post…this same type of story could be applied to so many industries. One that we are all familiar with, however, is the airlines. Think about all those delayed flights you have been on…the ones where you are promised, “it is leaving within the next hour,” only to, eventually, find out that it is NOT leaving and now it is 1:30am…you have to find a hotel…and, oh by the way, the only flight out tomorrow is at 5:30 am!

    Honesty, consistency and empathy go a LONG way into truly satisfying customers…

    • Shawn Santos Says:

      I agree Duane. It brings to mind a quote from a JetBlue executive subsequent to their debacle a couple of years ago “We can’t change the weather, but when we acknowledge customer frustration, it’s truly appreciated.”

    • jragsdale Says:

      That is a great example. It is maddening to be sitting at a gate when departure time has come and gone, the arriving plane is no where in sight, and still the signs all flash the original departure time and “On Time.” Sadly, the online self-service system usually has much more accurate information than you can get from a gate agent.

  6. Melissa Says:

    At times I also notice that companies employ an improper use of CRM Application
    and actually harm the customer more than they help.

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