When the Customer Experience Fails: What Might Howard Do?


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Stuff happens. No matter how customer-centric a firm is, no matter how attentive, no matter how disciplined, some number of product/service/experience failures are inevitable. Even if strong, loyal customer relationships provide some support to help weather performance failures, how companies handle a botched experience can spell the difference between a customer and an ex-customer.

Instead of consultant-speak about models and statistical relationships, I’d like to step back and talk about real-live customer (and former customer) behaviors: mine. I serve these up as bad, worse and truly ugly examples of how companies have lost and even ruined beyond redemption a customer relationship: mine. This is 100% anecdotal, a few examples based on a non-projectable sample of one. I offer these as illustrations torn from my life (instead of the headlines). Most of the names, alas, have been changed to protect the heroes and villains alike.

GPS: Where Am I?
I’m lucky I can get to the end of my driveway without directions. The cable for charging my GPS failed and I needed a replacement. I call customer service. The recording from the company gave me the “we are experiencing higher than average call volumes” lie and directed me to their website for support. Lacking a live chat option, I was directed to submit my query online. Three submissions later, I get zero response.

What Might Howard Do? I sent an email to Investor Relations asking them if this level of service is part of the corporate strategy for customer retention. I magically get an email and live phone call from the service folks the next day to address my problem.

I let them slide on this one. Then I went to download new maps. What a nightmare: the company obviously is far more concerned about preventing me from stealing maps than about affording me easy access to maps for which I had paid. Since no one could help me real-time (remember: can’t call and no live chat), I cancel my order. So much for their ongoing revenue stream from selling me updates. (I guess these folks sell razors, not razor blades.)

Happy Valentine’s Day

At a pricey restaurant having Valentine’s Day dinner with my wife, and the bus boy dumps drawn butter on my wife’s unique ornamental dress. She is not happy. Waitress rushes over, escorts her to the ladies room and tells the manager. The manager comes over, asks us what he can do, and says he will take care of the problem and pay to have the dress cleaned. He leaves, speaks with the waitress and ten minutes later he returns with a $50 gift certificate. He leaves, speaks with the waitress, and ten minutes later he picks up the $150 dinner tab.

What Might Howard Do? I didn’t mind that the bus boy looked like a deer in the headlights. But the manager? His indecisive, begrudging serial approach to the problem cast a strong negative impression. Instead of spending $200+ to make us feel better about the problem, he spent the same amount and left us feeling totally underwhelmed. Doubtful they’ll ever see any business from me again (other the use of the gift certificate, that is.)

Reactive Credit Card Service

I love the fact that many credit card issuers have sophisticated modeling and tracking techniques to look for potential irregularities and fraud (even though I know they are concerned more about their own liabilities than mine.) I appreciate it when they call me to ask if I actually am in Katmandu or took up sky diving, just to make sure. One bank recently had a cause for concern about a few transactions. Rather than contact me, however, they froze the account – which I found out the hard way while standing at the front desk of a hotel where a clerk politely informed me that my card was declined.

What Might Howard Do? “Why didn’t someone call me,” I asked the service rep? “That’s what my other banks do.” Offers to over-night me a replacement scarcely correct for the embarrassment and inconvenience. That card account is now closed.

How to Force Churn

When I moved to New Jersey I needed car insurance. I called the company with which I had been insured for years. First the service rep can’t identify an agent for me near my office or home; then they are uncertain if they even are writing policies in NJ; then they give me some names and numbers of agents: one number is wrong, one agent no longer handles the company. It just seemed like too much work to try to continue to be a customer – so I stopped trying. Then I get a mailing from them regarding my insurance needs (mailed, of course, to my address in New Jersey).

What Might Howard Do? I still don’t know if the company writes policies in NJ, but I no longer care. My business just went away.

My Best, All-True Example of Horrendous Experience (Not to mention Management)

This one is such a winner that I must tell you the company: AirTran (albeit, a few years back).

I am flying with my daughter (pre-teen at the time) who is in full leg casts on both legs going back-and-forth to hospitals for surgeries. Northwest regularly moved people around to give her bulkhead (because her legs are straight out) or an upgrade. Thank you Northwest. We had the misfortune, however, to fly one leg of a trip on AirTran through Atlanta.

At the gate check-in we informed the rep of the situation and requested, as we regularly did, if they could ask whoever was in bulkhead to switch seats with my daughter. “We don’t do that,” was the reply. I ask to speak to the supervisor, who eventually saunters over, jokes with the reps and eventually turns her attention to us. “We don’t do that,” was her reply. OK, “can I speak with your supervisor?” She informs me her supervisor sits in Orlando and is unavailable.

What Might Howard Do? My wife (who is even more shy than I am) and I stand up in the boarding area and ask for the attention of the passengers and explain the situation, whereupon someone from bulkhead readily switched seats with my daughter. I go home and write a letter to the president of AirTran at the time. I get back a letter from some junior assistant lackey in customer service essentially saying “we don’t do that.” Not deterred, I copy an article ranking airlines in terms of passenger satisfaction – in which AirTran is ranked last. I send it along with copies of my original letter, the response I received and a cover note to the president saying that it’s no wonder AirTran received the worst ratings, since it was obvious that even the most senior management of the firm didn’t care about passengers. To my astonishment, I get a “we don’t do that” letter from yet another lackey (albeit one more senior than the original junior assistant lackey). I have not flown AirTran since and in the negative word-of-mouth department frequently cite this example.

What Might Howard Do?

If you really want to tick me off, make certain that your reps read the gratuitous “I hope I have been able to address all of your concerns” or ask “are you fully satisfied with my service?” – even when they have explicitly failed to resolve anything. Nothing makes me feel better as a customer than when I ask a service rep about something they can’t handle and they turn around and ask me how pleased I am with how they handled the problem. That’s a sure win.

Nothing earth shattering, but the above scenarios from my life-sample of one are played out, with infinite variations, day-after-day – and it matters. Churn is expensive. Replacement costs for customers – like replacement costs for just about everything else – are higher than maintenance costs. Given the cost of acquiring customers in the first place, every defection is tantamount to a lost asset. Nothing diminishes the lifetime value of customer like shortening their lifetime as a customer.

Perhaps I’m “different” (more difficult?, challenging?, irascible?) than your average customer. But each of you would be better served if you stopped for a moment and thought about the experiences of your customers and simply asked, “What might Howard do?”

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Howard Lax, Ph.D.

Supporting better informed decision making with technology, research and strategy. With a focus on CX/VoC/NPS, Employee Engagement and emotion analytics, Howard's domain is the application of marketing information and SaaS platforms to solve business problems and activating CX programs to drive business objectives.


  1. Nope, you’re not different or more difficult than the average customer. Unfortunately, we all have our stories. I was once in a nice upscale restaurant and my lovely salad arrived with a lovely little garden variety green worm inching along a crisp lettuce leaf. I called the waiter over and he robotically picked up the plate without comment, like it happened all the time. He returned with a salad that looked strangely like the one that he just removed, sans live protein source. No apology, barely a comment at all. No one, not the manager, no one said a thing to me. No gift certificate, no apology. The meal was not comped, the salad wasn’t even comped. Just desserts when the restaurant went out of business. Apparently, customer service, or the lack there of, was just the tip of the iceberg…lettuce!

  2. LOVE THIS! I agree with you and it reminds me of what just happened to me. Took my son and daughter to a movie and asked for two student tickets and one adult. They asked to see student IDs, my daughter had hers but my son didn’t. I said, he’s a minor and I’m his mother. Instead of saying they couldn’t honor student discount, they just charged me for two adults and one student. After charging my card and handing it back, I realized what she did and asked why she charged for an adult fare for my son. She smiled and said, he didn’t have his ID. I went inside and asked for the Manager. Some young, pimply faced boy said I’m the manager and re-explained his policy of the student ID. I asked why my word wasn’t good enough that my son, who is a minor, didn’t have his ID. He continued saying the same thing. Then, another patron came by and handed me three dollars, the difference in cost, and asked me to stop embarrassing the manager! I politely declined and gave his money back, saying it wasn’t the money but the principle, that they wouldn’t take my word. Then I politely asked him to mind his own business. Maybe Howard wouldn’t have done this, but I wasn’t happy by then and not willing to deal with outsiders. We saw the movie: my “adult” minor son, my daughter, and me. Oh well. Should have checked with Howard first.

  3. Actually, Howard would have taken the three bucks from the other patron, shredded the money and tossed it in the air. (What can I say? A bit flamboyant?)

    Thanks for the stories, Margaret and Evelyn. I have received any number of personal emails since this post from people retelling tales of service misadventures. I guess it’s cathartic. I feel better, at the very least.

    Perhaps I’ll distribute WWHD bumper stickers or start a web site where we all can post our rants . . . Do you think it would be unseemly if all of the bloggers and readers on CustomerThink held a rant-in?

  4. Maybe a national rant-in day and promoted via bumper stickers, bloggers and readers?? I know a great marketing firm that can help promote!

  5. Hopefully your post reaches the eyes of those responsible (directly and ultimately) for customer sat, service, loyalty, etc., and their kin.

    Unfortunately, this is all too common. Bad enough that customer experience is mostly uninspiring, artificial, or misaligned with most brands, but lack of caring from management and employees who are fully miserable in their presence (and ours) at their jobs, means that service everywhere mostly stinks.

    We customers are partly to blame. Sometimes switching providers is so painful and time-consuming that we endure the stink, and then how much time do we research who is actually worthy of our valuable business? Do we end up with something even worse? And how much more are we willing to pay for quality, or do we insist on lower prices and be surprised by a lower quality?

    In addition to standing up for service, I applaud when others pull back the curtain for others to see. E.g., if you've never seen it, Dave Carroll's "United Breaks Guitars” music video is pure gold: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo


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