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Lessons From Big Brands: 7 Customer Service Pitfalls That Will Destroy Your Brand

Jennifer Dublino
Jennifer Dublino
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated Apr 26, 2022

Avoid these massive customer service pitfalls that can destroy your company's brand and tarnish its online presence.

Most businesses aim to provide products or services to others and become successful in terms of profit and reputation. Customer service is also a critical aspect of a successful business. In a marketplace flooded with more than 32.5 million small businesses competing for attention, excellent customer service can help distinguish your business in customers’ minds.

While excellent customer service can turn a problem into a positive experience that creates repeat customers, poor customer service can end customer relationships or even destroy your reputation for years to come. Unhappy customers can loudly broadcast your customer service failings via online review sites and brand social media accounts. 

Even the biggest brands have made reputation-damaging customer service blunders. Here’s a look at seven massive customer service pitfalls famous companies have fallen prey to, and how you can avoid making the same mistakes. 

7 customer service pitfalls to avoid

Learn from the mistakes of brands that have made some big customer service missteps. 

1. Poor products lead to a flood of customer service encounters.

If your brand offers products and services that require constant customer assistance, you have bigger issues to handle than customer service improvements. When consumers are unhappy with the products and services they’re receiving and then have to deal with subpar support, it’s a recipe for losing customers. 

AT&T offers an example of this dilemma. Before making drastic improvements in recent years, AT&T was infamous for hard-to-understand bills, changing plans and poor customer service for people calling about these issues. The problems were so prevalent that entire websites cropped up for consumers to share their experiences and aggravations. 

AT&T is by no means alone in this situation. Multiple carriers and businesses of all types have gone through customer service rollercoasters, experiencing periods where people report serious failures in customer service.

Small and midsize businesses can avoid this cycle of unhappiness by being transparent and straightforward about the company’s offerings, including costs, expectations, refund policies and what customers can expect. There will be less cause for confusion if you’re upfront about your products, services and systems, leading to less customer service traffic and fewer customer service complaints. 

2. A lack of social media savvy can embarrass a brand.

Your company’s social media accounts and email lists are often your customers’ first impression of your business. What you post on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social accounts sends important messages to your customers and shapes how others perceive your brand. 

Not every business hires a social media manager to carefully curate its online presence. Too often, companies hand over marketing communication duties to employees without adequately training them or setting expectations. If they lack experience and marketing savvy, this can result in embarrassing or even offensive posts that woefully miss the mark. 

For example, someone posting to promote Little Mix’s new perfume accidentally included the marketing team’s notes in a promotional Instagram post, making the post look understandably inauthentic. 

In another example, U.K. snack company Walkers had a social media campaign that invited users to submit selfies for a chance to win tickets to a sporting event. Cheeky respondents submitted pictures of serial killers, dictators and criminals; unfortunately, no one curated the pictures before posting them to the online account.

Learn the basics of thoughtful social media posting so you can train your team, or get professional help to avoid missteps and blunders. It’s also good to have another set of eyes to review posts before they go live; failing to do so can lead to disastrous results. An embarrassing social media mistake is not how you want thousands of people to discover your brand.

Did you know?Did you know? Research from Gartner shows that 64% of people say customer experience is more important than price when they make a purchase.

3. Beware of looking tone-deaf on social media.

When companies launch digital marketing strategies or make social media posts without considering current events, they look tone-deaf or even mean. When stepping forward with a new campaign or hashtag to catch some views, always be cautious and aware of what’s going on in your business, your industry and the world. [Related article: Great Ideas for Your Brand’s Social Media Posts]

Qantas Airways gave us a perfect example of what your social media department can do when it’s unaware of what’s happening in the company: Employees started a “luxury” social media campaign the day after labor negotiations failed with its internal unions. Something that could have encouraged potential customers to interact with the company led to a PR nightmare.

Qantas isn’t alone. Food maker Entenmann’s added a #notguilty hashtag to a tweet, presumably about eating tasty treats without guilt. However, the infamous Casey Anthony murder trial had just ended in a not-guilty verdict, angering and upsetting many people. The company experienced negative backlash and eventually deleted the tweet and apologized.

Adidas gave us one of the most regrettable examples of not knowing what’s going on in the world. Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, where three people were killed and hundreds injured, Adidas sent out an email with the subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” The company apologized and explained it hadn’t realized the connotation.

To avoid making an embarrassing mistake forever imprinted in social media history, check trending hashtags and cultivate a general awareness of what’s going on in your industry and the world. 

4. Beware of online Q&A sessions.

Customers live in an age of immediate online interaction, where they can get brands’ attention instantly in a public forum. While many companies monitor social media mentions to address customer service issues quickly, this public forum can quickly take a turn for the worse. 

Many of us have witnessed Twitter Q&A segments, where companies use their official accounts to schedule discussions with customers about new or changing services. But the 280-character limit isn’t often enough space to handle complex or serious topics. 

For example, British Gas held a Q&A on Twitter after announcing a rate increase. The disaster should have been predictable. The company increased prices for many families during a financially challenging period and then left the floor open for angry customers to discuss it. The experience quickly turned into a massive black eye for the company, negatively affecting its image for customers and potential customers.

Open internet discussions can be an excellent way to gain customer feedback, but companies must be aware of these events’ potential to go sideways if displeased customers or online trolls take over. 

TipTip: To host a successful Q&A on Facebook Live, promote the livestream, prepare a list of the main points you want to touch on, and interact with your viewers so they know you value their input.

5. Displaying a lack of empathy can harm a brand.

While customers understand and acknowledge that a business’s primary goal is to make a profit, they don’t want profit and the company’s self-interest to trump acting in a considerate and humane manner. 

An example of this is when Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean. With another hurricane looming, the airport was closed, so Marriott sent a ferry to rescue customers stranded in Saint Thomas and bring them back to the mainland. So far, so good. However, when the ferry arrived, 35 people, including children and the elderly, were refused admission onto the ferry and were left in harm’s way because they were not Marriott guests. 

In another incident, United Airlines wanted to transport four employees, but the flight was already fully booked. When no passengers responded to the offer of free travel vouchers to give up their seats, the airline forcibly removed four passengers, including a doctor who needed to get to his patients. The doctor resisted and ended up with a broken nose and other injuries; the entire incident was filmed by other passengers and went viral.

Companies must treat people (not just customers) with empathy and compassion; from time to time, this may mean sacrificing profits or other corporate goals. However, failing to do so can negatively impact the bottom line for years to come.

6. Breaking promises can damage a brand.

In essence, every brand makes many promises, whether centered on a product’s features or its effects on the customer. When a brand breaks its promises, both explicit and implicit, it has a lasting damaging effect. 

In fact, according to the Jack Morton Experience Brand Index, more than 52% of consumers say that brands fail to live up to their promises, and a third equate overpromising and underdelivering with brands. These perceptions have real consequences: Nearly half (47%) of consumers surveyed said that when brands lose their trust, they won’t buy from those brands anymore.

For small and midsize businesses, keeping your promises means that if you are scheduling appointments, don’t keep customers waiting. If a product you sold breaks or is defective, offer a replacement, fix or refund. 

7. Being unresponsive tells customers you don’t care.

Responsiveness is an essential aspect of customer service. You demonstrate that you care about customers when you make communication easy and listen to customer complaints, issues and concerns with empathy. When you respond satisfactorily to your customers’ problems, you demonstrate that you stand behind your offerings. 

One of the most frustrating customer service issues is never-ending automated phone systems. More than 7 in 10 people surveyed by Clutch encountered a phone menu always or most of the time when calling businesses, and 88% of respondents said they preferred to speak to a live customer service agent. Give customers the option of bypassing the phone menu and talking to a human early in the call to reduce frustration. 

Another responsiveness pitfall to avoid is not picking up the phone or returning customer calls, texts, and emails. In a survey from Accenture, 91% of consumers were frustrated that they had to contact a company multiple times for the same reason, and a similar percentage were upset about being placed on hold for a long time or having to repeat their issue to multiple customer service reps.

Treat customer communications with respect, and respond quickly. Customers who are ignored will go elsewhere and tell others to do the same.

Did you know?Did you know? Online consumer complaints can be a customer service opportunity, helping you gain valuable insights about your offerings and procedures and presenting you with a chance to make it right.

How to regain customer trust after a poor service experience

Even with the best of intentions, customer service mistakes happen. Whether the mistake impacts a single customer or, in a worst-case scenario, many customers, there are steps your business can take to repair the situation and regain customers’ trust. 

  1. Acknowledge the mistake and communicate with empathy. The first step is to acknowledge that a mistake was made and that you feel badly about it. According to a survey from Consumer Reports, these are the top things customers want when something goes very wrong: 
    • To be treated with dignity (87%)
    • An assurance that the problem won’t be repeated (79%)
    • A resolution; product is repaired or service issue fixed (76%)
    • To be spoken to in everyday language and not with a scripted response (76%)
    • For company to put itself in the customer’s shoes (71%)
    • An explanation of why the problem occurred (68%)
    • A thank-you for the customer’s business (64%)
    • An apology (60%)

  2. Be transparent. When addressing a customer service issue, be honest about what happened and why. Take responsibility for the problem and outline what you can do to fix it. If there are limitations on what you can do, be upfront about it.

  3. Fix the problem, and keep customers up to date on progress. A huge part of winning back trust is making meaningful changes that address the problem. As you implement new policies and procedures or add personnel, keep customers updated.

  4. Do a little more and delight the customer. Just fixing the problem is fine for most customers, but when you go over the top to make the customer feel valued, you can turn a disgruntled customer into a delighted customer who may become a brand ambassador. Common approaches are to offer a discount on future purchases and upgrade the customer’s product or service for free.

  5. Monitor your social media. Regularly check the posts and comments on your social media accounts, as well as mentions of your company name on social media in general. Manage your online reputation by responding, deleting posts and apologizing as appropriate.

Christine James contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. 

Image Credit:

ViewApart / Getty Images

Jennifer Dublino
Jennifer Dublino
business.com Contributing Writer
Jennifer Dublino is a prolific researcher, writer, and editor, specializing in topical, engaging, and informative content. She has written numerous e-books, slideshows, websites, landing pages, sales pages, email campaigns, blog posts, press releases and thought leadership articles. Topics include consumer financial services, home buying and finance, general business topics, health and wellness, neuroscience and neuromarketing, and B2B industrial products.