Learn by Bad Example: Customer Service Lessons from the 10 Worst Companies

Business.com / Customers / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

There are always good lessons to learn from really bad customer service. Learn from some of the worst examples.

I once spent more than an hour on hold waiting for a company just to solve a simple billing issue. It was worse than nails running across a chalkboard listening to their "hold music" playing repeatedly over and over. Their customer service was completely broken.

That was not even the worst part. What made me most upset was having to hear "Your call is very important to us" every two minutes or so. If my call was so important, why wouldn't the company hire more employees to staff the phone lines?

This is just one story of poor customer service. You probably have at least a few yourself. That's because companies that frustrate us far outnumber those that delight us. This is an unfortunate reality of the world we live in.

I have read thousands of complaints during my career. And I can tell you at least a few things are certain. First, most companies do not focus enough on supporting their existing customers. They are far too focused on gaining new ones. Second, the number of negative reviews continues to rise with each passing year.

With that in mind, we used our data to compile a list of the top 10 worst companies for customer service so far in 2016. This is according to more than 100,000 rankings and reviews across more than 4,000 companies listed on our website.

Related Article: Lessons from Big Brands: 4 Customer Service Pitfalls That Will Destroy Your Brand

1. Walmart

It comes as no surprise that Walmart is ranked #1 on our list. DMOZ, one of the oldest directories on the web, even has their own complaints directory for Walmart. It's OK to cut Walmart some slack, though, more than 260,000,000 customers visit their stores each week.

The problem? It is difficult for Walmart to keep growing and keep employees happy at their stores. Ultimately, you cannot hire the best people when you keep wages low. This means that while profits are high customer complaints are too.

  • Customer service lesson: Hire the best people even when you are growing fast.

2. T-Mobile

T-Mobile is the highest ranked wireless carrier on the list, narrowly beating AT&T for the #2 position overall. How did they do it? It seems that to their customers at least, contacting a live person at T-Mobile is next to impossible. Although contact info is easy to find, solving your problem usually is not.

There are hundreds of complaints each month about long wait times and poor customer service. The other aspect that stands out about T-Mobile is the unusual rate of complaints about billing problems. There are two to three times more billing issues reported with T-Mobile than any other wireless network.

  • Customer service lesson: Make it easy and painless for customers to contact you.

3. AT&T

AT&T deserves a little slack at #3, much like Walmart does at #1. AT&T is another corporate giant with 365,000,000 customers worldwide. Customer complaints about AT&T are typical and include support, monthly billing and dropped calls.

Unlike T-Mobile, feedback from AT&T customers tends to fall across a very wide spectrum in terms of their behavior. All-in-all, there is not much the company can do. You will not keep everyone happy and the best course of action as you grow is to monitor feedback closely.

  • Customer service lesson: Keep track of both good and bad feedback on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis.

4. KFC

Coming in at #4 is none other than Colonel Sanders. KFC’s complaints reach globally, which is more than most of the other fast food providers. Because of the franchise nature of the company, more than 18,000 KFC locations exist today. Most KFC locations are owned by independent franchises and have little incentive to promote the brand. For the right amount of money, anyone can open their own KFC location.

  • Customer service lesson: Always put your brand first, even during periods of rapid expansion.

Related Article: The New Differentiator: Why Customer Experience Should Be Your Top Priority

5. J.C. Penney

J.C. Penney is a surprising top 5 company, considering their business has been in decline for years. Even their CEO has admitted the retailer is struggling. Still, when you think about the companies difficult transition into the digital age, it is not as surprising. This is the company that just brought back it’s print catalog because it believes in print as the future.

This will be the challenge for the leadership team at JCP corporate headquarters. How do you compete as a retailer when customers increasingly demand faster, better, and more convenient options? They do not have Amazon’s happy customers, nor will they ever. And the number of complaints reported at department stores around the country are evidence of this.

  • Customer service lesson: Innovate and look to the future or your customers will leave you in their past.

6. Burger King

Have it your way? Unfortunately, for Burger King’s customers, that phrase seems to be a rhetorical question instead of a promise. Burger King is no slouch at #6. According to a 2015 study, Burger King has the most loyal customers of all the fast food chains. That is really their problem.

Fans love Burger King, and they have set the bar high with fan favorites like the whopper and other custom meals. When patrons don’t get what they expect, they complain. And every time Burger King rolls out a new promotion, commercial, or special burger, customers who visit have high standards.

  • Customer service lesson: Set proper expectations with your customers and do not overpromise and underdeliver.

7. McDonalds

You might think McDonald’s would be the top company considering its size and global presence. It serves 68,000,000 customers each day. Let that sink in for a moment. McDonald’s customers are mostly satisfied and have realistic expectations when it comes to service levels and food quality.

The biggest opportunity for the corporate team at McDonald’s relates to their pricing policy and brand position in a market that continues to get more competitive. And when customers are upset at food quality they are switching to chains like Chipotle and In-N-Out that use organic high-quality ingredients.

  • Customer service lesson: Even the most loyal customers will switch to your competition if you lose focus on quality.

8. Sears

Sears comes in at #8 for consumer complaints, with a few quality issues. For the most part, Sears has a major disconnect between its customers and it’s employees. Sears customers are simply going elsewhere today for their shopping needs.

The average Sears customer is extremely savvy and educated. It’s difficult to hire employees to serve more affluent customers for minimum wage. This disconnect led one Forbes writer to say that even Sears customers don’t like Sears.

  • Customer service lesson: Hire the right kind of employees based on your ideal customer persona.

9. Samsung

Samsung is a 70-year-old company with deep roots. But today's customers are more mobile than ever. And that means the ability for them to complain about poor service using their mobile phone has never been easier. It’s no surprise that Samsung, one of the largest wireless providers, also cracks the top 10 spots at #9 on our list.

Samsung does have a decent support website but it is painful to use. The majority of customer service complaints about Samsung relate to simple billing and technical problems that support should be able to solve in minutes, and should not drag out for days and weeks.

  • Customer service lesson: Rather than attempting to silence your upset customers, embrace negative feedback as a chance to improve.

Related Article:Get Engaged: 4 Awesome Customer Service Strategies for Social Media

10. CVS

CVS is a name I did not want to see on this list. Mainly because they are also a pharmacy that millions of Americans depend on for prescription medicine. Sadly, most of the complaints that bring CVS to the last position on our top 10 are related to incorrect prescription problems, or miscommunication with pharmacy techs. It’s good to see that CVS is doing work to improve their customer service, but they still have a lot of areas they can improve.

  • Customer service lesson: When your customers depend on you for life-saving services, customer service can be a life or death matter.

What do you think defines a company? Some would say their revenue or others might say their number of employees worldwide. For this list, though, we used online feedback as the primary metric.

These 10 companies are far from bad companies. In fact, they serve millions of happy customers each year between them. But as you look at purely their customer service, it's clear there is room for improvement.

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