Consumer IQ

5 Stupid Things Companies Do When They Have a Problem Customer

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When it comes to dealing with a problem customer, ignorance is not bliss. Far from it.

But tell that to the thousands of companies who ignore their customers every day. Giving them the cold shoulder is a time-tested, proven tactic for making problem customers go away.

It shouldn’t be. One often-cited survey says most customers will eventually abandon their efforts to have a service problem addressed when they’re stonewalled. The poll, whose origins are unknown to me, is part of customer-service legend – or, perhaps, myth. (If you know more about the poll, please email me.)

At any rate, it’s hard to disprove the thesis that customers who are ignored eventually go away. It’s equally hard to deny that these customers will be really, really upset.

You would think that only the most customer-hostile companies on earth – true corporate bottom-feeders that give slumlords and hedge fund managers a good name – would engage in these kids of practices.

If only. And if only that were the only thing they did.

But limiting the list to just five stupid things companies do to their problem customers – that was the real challenge. Here they are:

1. Send a form letter

Pre-written responses, as I’ve said in the past, serve a purpose. You don’t want to have to write the same letter over and over again. But when a company is dealing with a seemingly intractable problem – defective merchandise or service that fell far short of expectations – then it really shouldn’t send a form letter. That will only deepen the resentment felt by the customer and will make a resolution more difficult. If you get a form letter, don’t take it personally, and continue to pursue your grievance. (Read these five tips on getting out of a form letter trap first.)

2. Pretend the Internet doesn’t exist

Some companies remain in denial about the Internet. They believe they can offer shoddy products without any negative repercussions on social media or in the blogosphere. That’s a mistake. If you’re left with the impression that the company you’re dealing with has its head buried in the sand, when it comes to living in the 21st century, perhaps you should remind it that there is such a thing as the Internet by posting your horror story online.

3. Make promises they can’t keep

Problem customers are often encouraged to use the phone to resolve their grievances. Why? Because there’s no record of a call, and offshore call center workers can – and do – promise them the world without being held accountable. Listen for phrases like, “We’ll take care of it,” or, “Don’t worry,” and above all, don’t believe it. Instead, ask them to put in writing. Chances are, they’re just telling you what you want to hear.

4. Test their patience

Some companies feel that by stringing out a reply, they can make troublesome customers go away. They do this by making them wait weeks, even months, for refunds or replies. Or they string them along when they have an urgent request, making them wait days for a meaningful answer. Testing customers’ patience is a huge mistake. If you feel as if you’re being stonewalled, take your grievance to a higher authority by emailing a supervisor or vice president, but don’t take the silence personally. Companies are often unaware that they’re doing this.

5. Stop listening to them

This assumes a company was listening to you in the first place, which is often incorrect. But it’s relatively easy to know when it has stopped: You don’t get a call back, and any written responses are obvious form letters. Not only has the company stopped listening, but it stopped caring, too. When you’re given the cold shoulder, as a customer, you often have other options – like filing a credit card dispute on a purchase. Or taking the company to court.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it represents the biggest corporate sins, when in comes to customer service. Got one to add to it? Or an experience to share with your own service problem? Send me an email (elliottc@gmail.com) or leave a comment.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.