Awful Customer Service Examples (and How to Avoid or Correct Them)

There are all sorts of awful customer service examples throughout history, and they don’t have to make or break you. But they should serve as an eye-opener for you.

Did you know that one of the oldest known writing tablets in world history is a customer complaint?

It is. It’s called the Complaint tablet to Ea-Nasir. Ea-Nasir had agreed to sell copper to Nanni; Nanni sent a servant to make payment. But upon finding the copper was substandard, Nanni wrote the complaint, along with other gripes about Ea-Nasir’s business in the past. The tablet dates to ancient Ur, in 1750 B.C. 

In other words, if you’ve received a customer complaint, you’re far from the first.

There are all sorts of awful customer service examples throughout history, and they don’t have to make or break you. But they should serve as an eye-opener for you. 

After all, 73% of customers say that service experience makes a key difference in whether or not they stay loyal. If you don’t stay on top of your own customer service, you might end up like Ea-Nasir: famed for providing customers with bad copper.

However, if you know what to do about it, hopefully your infamy won’t last almost 4,000 years.

Examples of Customer Service Gone Wrong

British Airways

When British Airways customer Hassan Syed noticed the airline had lost his father’s bag, he decided to take it viral. 

In fact, he was so determined to do so that he paid for a sponsored Tweet, just to air out his dirty laundry with the airline.

Normally, the best way to respond would be to contact the customer, apologize for the mix-up, and find out some way to resolve the issue.

That’s not what British Airways did. Instead, they updated Hassan as to their Twitter hours, informing when best to contact them.


British Airways’ half-hearted attempt to put out the fire ended up throwing gasoline on it. Rather than use the poor customer service as an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to their customers, the “hours” tweet served to reinforce the idea that they weren’t willing to listen.

Old Spice

Old Spice is known for its quirky, customer-friendly brand; but even brands like that can make mistakes. 

In one case, Old Spice reached out to a customer who had approached them on Twitter about their products causing a rash.

At first glance, Old Spice did everything right. They apologized that it happened, then showed that they were willing to help address the problem by forwarding their customer service phone number.

Can you spot where they went wrong?

It was in giving a Twitter complaint a phone number. Old Spice was switching channels.

Experienced customers know how frustrating this can be if you call a company. You wait fifteen minutes to get a real human being on the other end of the line. Then, the first thing they do is forward you to someone else

Then you’re on hold for another fifteen minutes.

The customer replied (via Twitter) that he’d been on hold for an hour and a half, only embarrassing Old Spice. 


When K-Mart noticed that a lot of customers were complaining about extended hours during the holiday shopping season, K-Mart didn’t have a specific issue to solve, but the customer complaints were deafening.

Via social media, K-Mart defended itself and how it was giving seasonal workers the opportunity to pick up extra hours.

Which is true. But it also made for a defense of their position that failed to convince anyone who was criticizing K-Mart for overworking its employees.

By failing to see the point of its customers, K-Mart only invited more scrutiny. People who had only a slight reason to feel passionate about K-Mart now had more reason to engage: it seemed like K-Mart was fighting back against their opinions.

In some cases, such as when there is no issue to resolve, the best customer experience is staying out of the way.

What Happens When You Offer Bad Customer Service?

You may already be convinced that customer service is bad for every company statistically. But it’s also a good idea to think about examples like the above. 

Just as good customer service can turn one customer interaction into a loyal customer for life, bad customer service can do the opposite. 

And it can spread like wildfire.

This is especially true in ecommerce, where you’ll want to make sure that you adhere to modern-day standards customers have.

This is the digital age, after all. Customers don’t have the patience they used to. They know you have an army of bots and software ready to jump into action the moment they register a complaint.

If you don’t jump on a problem immediately, you’re already losing the battle.

But it’s also important to know what to avoid when you offer customer service. 

The Potential Consequences of Bad Customer Service

As Warren Buffet once said, “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” 

He meant it as an invocation to think about your integrity and your decisions. One bad decision can unmake years of good work. And that’s true, on an individual level. But is it true for businesses who can afford to lose a few customers?

You already know the basic idea: one bad customer service experience can set a previously-loyal customer against you.

In turn, they’ll go around to their friends and family and recommend against buying from you in the future.

One ill-tempered customer won’t make or break your business, of course. But it’s best to know the consequences of frequently-bad customer service so you don’t make a habit of alienating people who could otherwise be on your side.

  • People tell others. One study noted that 95% of people tell at least one other person about a bad experience. But a majority, 54%, said they share it with at least five other people. In some cases, bad customer service can go “viral” much more quickly than good customer service, which should give you an incentive to avoid giving customers any more reason to spread their frustration than they already have.
  • Many customers are more quick to take action based on negative experiences than positive ones. A sad fact, but true. Many people are more motivated by negative experiences than the pleasant experiences you’re trying to give them. What does that mean in ecommerce, for example? Negative experiences leave customers more likely to leave a bad review than a positive experience will. In other words, ticking someone off can be an even greater impetus to getting them to leave a review than if you do everything right!
  • Employees can turn against you. We often don’t think about this aspect of good customer service, but it matters very much to employees. Employees want to feel like they’re making a good impact in the world. If they feel that they’re working for a company that nickels and dimes its customers, they’re likely to start resenting you, too. Employee resentment can be a real problem, and it leads to all sorts of negative consequences inside your company.
  • Word-of-mouth advertising starts working against you. Ideally, word-of-mouth advertising makes your product viral without you having to spend a dime on advertising. But word-of-mouth advertising is like fuel: it can propel your growth, or it can make your online presence more flammable. Bad word-of-mouth advertising can be difficult to overcome, because once the Internet gets the idea that you’re not selling a good product, it can be very expensive to reshape that reputation online.
  • Increased customer churn. Some customers are understanding. They’ll go on buying from you even if they have one bad experience. Maybe they figure that your customer associate had a bad day. Maybe they figured they had a bad day. But overall, those experiences add up. It can be difficult to spot how much customer churn you’re experiencing because of bad customer experiences, which makes this a particular challenge to diagnose. But it happens. And if you sell products with regular subscription purchases, you’ll want to make customer satisfaction an even bigger priority.

How to Avoid Bad Customer Service in the First Place

“Fine, fine,” you might say. “I get it. Customers need to be treated well. But what does that mean?”

Let’s solve that by looking at the various ways you can avoid bad customer service in the first place.

Speed: Get to the Customer as Quickly As You Can

Everyone can relate to this one. We hate being on hold. We have a problem that needs solving now, and every minute we have to listen to that horrible on-hold music, or wait for a few minutes in the “online support line,” we get angrier.

It works the same for your customers. According to HubSpot, for example, 90% of customers rate immediate response as one of their top priorities when seeking out customer service.

The solution? If you can do nothing else, increase the speed at which you respond to customers.

There are a few ways you can do this. You can…

  • …add chat services to your website so your customer at least has a portal to access when they need to register a complaint now.
  • …invest more in your customer support team so you have more specialists ready to handle the incoming calls and tickets.
  • …invest in CRM and customer support software to streamline your operations and get yourself more flexible and capable of handling increased customer responses.

One, two, all three—it’s really up to you. But if you don’t make customer service a priority, you will likely find that your lack of speed starts to anger some of your previously-loyal customers. 

The longer they wait, the more they might consider going to a competitor—especially if that competitor responds on time.

Humanize: Let Customers Know You’re On Their Side

Customers know when they’re being herded like cattle.

When they read “Dear Customer” on your ticket rather than personalizing their name, they know exactly what’s going on. You couldn’t even deign to learn their name for the purposes of reaching out to them.

Customers can be willing to forgive a lot if they know there’s at least another person out there who cares about their problem.

Ideally, that person will be a professional, skilled member of your team.

But good customer service begins with making the customer feel like they’re part of the same team. It’s not your company vs. the customer. It’s your company on the customer’s side, trying to solve their particular issue.

True: in some cases, you’re going to run into problems you simply can’t solve.

But if you’re honest with them, and you treat them with respect, and you don’t try to shuffle them around but rather at least try to solve their issues, customers can sometimes be more understanding than you might expect.

Solve Their Problem

It sounds easy. Too easy. Slap-yourself-on-the-forehead easy.

But most customers only come to you because they do have a legitimate problem. When you care less about solving it than getting a great customer review, it can show up in the way you communicate with them.

When good companies help their customers, they don’t do it in a paint-by-numbers way. They take the time to reach out and find out the underlying problems that are causing the customers to speak to them that day.

Yes, you might occasionally run into some customers who are exaggerating. You may even run into some customers who are bored and just want to talk to someone.

But in most cases, customers have a legitimate problem that needs solving. If you focus on anything else than getting that problem solved, you’re not on the same page with them.

Making Good Customer Service a Habit

Awful customer service usually happens when you’re not thinking about the customer’s problem. You’re shuffling the customer to the next department. You’re putting off a support ticket. You’re not thinking about what they actually need.

Get rid of these habits and invest in your customer service, however, and you can change everything. You can build a company that cares about its customers—and shows it with every single touchpoint with existing customers it has.

Join +250,000 of your peers

Don’t miss out on the latest tips, tools, and tactics at the forefront of customer support.