True tales of terrible customer service

Gripe Line readers tell war stories of how they were pushed to the tipping point

In a recent post, I asked whether anyone had been pushed to their tipping point by a customer service experience, and Gripe Line readers did not disappoint. Each war story was appalling, and all were richly told. Moreover, the letters underscored my central point: Companies stand to suffer huge losses in good will and brand name when they push customers beyond this precipice to a place where not being a customer becomes a fervent mission.

These clashes with customer service called to mind a primal human impulse: the need to tell epic tales of battle. Though no swords were mentioned, readers’ tales included weaponry familiar to the front lines of today’s customer service battlefields, including cell phones, automated voice response systems, email messages, and online chat. It is this very impulse to share the tale that puts so many companies at risk of great loss when they tick off their customers.

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Or as Gripe Line reader Will put it, "Joe Girard (who was in the Guinness Book for having sold more Chevys than anyone else) used to say, 'If someone had a good transaction, they tended to talk about it for 18 months or so. But if they had a bad one, they talked about it for 18 years -- or more.'"

In this era of social media, the human impulse to share war stories has given companies the opportunity to watch word of its transgressions spread quickly, affecting public opinion. I'm a strong believer in contributing to the information stream that makes this possible. According to the ClickFox survey I cited in my original post, 51.8 percent of irked customers spread their tales of woe to friends and family, but only 20 percent took to social media to air their grievances. I'm on a personal mission to raise that number.

Here are a few lessons companies can learn when it comes to earning the respect of their customers.

Stop harassing grieving fathers for the price of a pizza

After a torturous struggle, neo-natal intensive care, and extended stays in the hospital, Reece's 19-month-old daughter died. Devastated and exhausted, he and his wife had yet to deal with funeral arrangements, purchase a burial plot, pick a grave marker, cancel medical appointments, review insurance records, deal with their grief -- and pay the telephone bill. "Guess which one slipped?" he asks. It wasn't the only bill that slipped during this ordeal.

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