What Can We Learn From Poor Customer Service?

Continue To Hold

Everyone is talking about the customer experience. We’re in an age where a bad experience can be shared with millions in minutes, so companies can soar or die if they get it wrong. Yet poor customer service is still a daily struggle for most of us.

Small companies, particularly those that deliver a service in a highly competitive market, live or die by the quality of the service they deliver to customers. Many people prefer to employ small businesses because they feel more valued by them than they do larger companies. As the owner of a small business I therefore spend my life trying to improve customer service, which means that when I receive poor service from others, it probably rankles with me even more than most people. Some of my top irritants are below.  I’m sure you could add to my list…

Disconnected Call Centres

When I take time out to call a company I have a few basic requirements: that the phone is answered by a person quickly, the person at the other end of the phone understands what I say, knows about the product or service and has some authority to help me or quickly pass me to someone who can.

Sadly, my experience with most call centres is that they fail on all four of these basic measures and instead use up hours of my time. As a result, I have no loyalty to suppliers using these call centres, and it has even acted as a drive for me to move my business elsewhere.

I would happily pay extra for call centres like First Direct’s who are an exemplar of how a call centre should be. The trouble is they’ve made me even less patient with the others that don’t live up to their high standards.

Of course, if you work with a small company, you can expect to have the mobile number of someone who cares about your business to speak to at all times.

Time-Sapping Customer Service

I hate delivery people or services who cannot state a time within an hour (sometimes within a day). Companies that insist I wait for them at home all day are telling me that they believe their time is more important than mine. That’s all I need to know to take my business elsewhere.

The trend now is to deliver within a specified time frame and to text you to confirm. The supermarkets and takeaways have been doing this for some time, but this has now extended to companies like Argos, who will deliver within hours of you ordering and even contact you to apologise if they’re going to be a few minutes late. If you want to keep customers happy, deliver – in the way that they want!

Unnecessary Barriers

Microsoft and Apple – Where do I start?   Talk to each other.  It doesn’t make me think better of either of you that you won’t.  You own shares in each other so don’t try to pretend you’re deadly rivals.  There are daily irritations caused by the ‘show rivalries’, such as when I get an e-mail from a Mac and the images come as attachments; and then there are the days when files produced on one system simply refuse to open on the other. Remove unnecessary barriers to avoid an irritating customer experience.

Unreliable Service

Trains – do I need to say more? Their recent treatment of passengers is outrageous and they get away with it because many of us have no other option for our commute. Yes, the strikes are a major problem, but so too is the general lack of concern that makes travelling by train in the UK feel like going into battle.

Broadband can be just as bad too. I live and work in London, but must call out engineers at least once a quarter, and each time they promise it is fixed, yet still I struggle with it. Too many of my friends are told they have to live with almost no connection, so I consider myself lucky. Reliable service builds loyalty – as does having the integrity to deliver what you promise.


Professionals who refuse to talk in simple terms and use their own acronyms and language are another problem. I know we’re all guilty of it sometimes, but I hope not deliberately. However, some professionals make it into a whole career. Would we need lawyers at all if they always called a spade a spade?  Many smaller companies have gained valuable market share by making straight talking a USP.

The Dangers of Poor Service

As you can see, the worst experiences are usually delivered by large companies that are in a monopoly position. They do it because they think they can get away with it or because the decision makers are too far removed from the delivery. That’s why the programme; “Back to the Floor” was so illuminating.

But can they really get away with it? If you compare the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 now, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 60 years later. Of course some have merged, but many have gone bankrupt or been overtaken by their competitors.

The other reason companies give poor service is because everyone in their industry behaves like that; they are comfortable that no-one gives better service in their sector (think of the six-week delivery on most furniture). But, as shown to numerous now defunct businesses, that is not a safe argument for any business to make. That attitude is a gift to a disruptive entrepreneur who can steal huge market share and quickly, by simply improving things.

So in my frustration, I am consoled by the fact that companies giving poor customer service will die a death; and probably far sooner than they expect, however big they are and however strong their monopoly. But as they themselves become larger, the disrupters who take their place will need to hold onto their focus on service as they steal market share, or they risk suffering the same fate. The customer will win in the end.