15 great examples of bad customer service (and what to do instead)

Get more digital commerce tips

Tactics to help you streamline and grow your business.

In the United States, even when customers love your brand, 80 percent will walk away after a couple of bad experiences. 

The challenge is, in most cases, customers won’t tell you they’re unhappy. In fact, only 1 in 26 disappointed customers complain. The rest simply leave.

Worse still, 78 percent of customers have pulled out of a purchase following a poor customer experience.  

Brands that don’t want to be part of these statistics will need to know what bad customer service looks like and how they can overcome it. 

Let’s start with the basics.

What is bad customer service?

Bad customer service can take several forms.

A simple definition is behaviors that fail to meet your customer’s needs and expectations or further exacerbate their problems. 

Bad customer service can manifest itself as rude behavior, unwarranted delays, and poor communication, to mention a few examples.

Customer service expectations may differ from business to business. For instance, a rational customer shouldn’t expect the same fast delivery from a local small business as they would from a seller on Amazon. 

Either way, when you fail to meet expectations, you deliver a poor service experience for your customers.  

Good customer service vs. bad customer service

The difference between good and bad customer service is not how chipper your customer service rep sounds over the phone. It’s not about how many coupons or discount codes you provide or how many times you apologize.

Good customer service, as Harvard Business Review’s seminal article explains, hinges on your ability to solve the customer’s problem.

If you can’t do that, no amount of extra perks will make them happy. 

That said, there are principles of customer service that transcend industries and businesses. While you’re solving the customer’s problems, you should exhibit the following attributes:

  • A positive attitude
  • Responsive
  • Situational empathy
  • Active listening

Conversely, some elements of poor customer service include:

  • A negative or “bothered” attitude
  • Unresponsiveness or long delays
  • Situational apathy
  • Being passed to multiple agents and touchpoints
  • Listening to respond rather than listening to understand

How does poor customer service affect your business?

When United Airlines tarmac workers aggressively threw a guitar into the luggage compartment of a plane, they didn’t realize the owner of the guitar, Dave Carroll, was watching in horror from his seat on the aircraft.

He frantically alerted multiple employees, all of which showed complete indifference toward the situation.

When he landed, his worst fear came true — his prized guitar was irreparably damaged.

After the company refused to compensate him for the $3,500 guitar, he recorded a full-fledged, studio-quality song and uploaded it to YouTube. 

The song is simply titled United Breaks Guitars, and to date, it has over 21 million views. More to the point, it triggered a 10% drop in United’s stock price. 

Aside from being the muse for a pretty catchy tune, Carroll’s plight demonstrated to all businesses what customer service could do in the age of social media.

Here are some of the other adverse effects poor customer service can have on businesses. 

A tainted reputation  

In the words of Warrant Buffet, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” 

Unhappy customers won’t hesitate to write negative reviews when they’ve had a bad experience with your brand. They’ll vent their anger on social media for everyone to see. 

In one study, 67 percent of respondents admitted to switching brands after a bad customer experience. Of these, 13 percent told at least 15 other people about their experience.

And if you think people aren’t reading reviews, then you might want to know that 9 out 10 customers read online reviews before buying.

More customer churn

When a customer churns, it means they cancel their service, switch to a competitor, or otherwise sever ties with your brand.

Churn is a big deal, especially in SaaS companies where recurring revenue is essential to stay afloat.

Churn is also directly correlated with your lifetime value (LTV) and customer acquisition cost (CAC). The higher the churn rate, the lower the LTV, and the more money you need to spend to acquire customers. 

And since acquiring a new customer can cost five times more than retaining an old one, poor customer experiences have a trickle-down effect that significantly impacts your CAC.

This leads directly to the next point.

You’re forced to outspend your poor customer experiences

Companies that lose customers to poor experiences must act to stay afloat. Unfortunately, the common impulse is to frantically pour money into marketing spend to try to offset the rapid customer loss.

This results in a “churn and burn” rat race of trying to spend enough money to outpace customers leaving.

It’s a bit like scooping water out of a sinking ship without first plugging the leak. A better way forward is to address the customer service problems to stop the churn. Then, you can invest in your marketing proactively and not reactively. 

Your business struggles to maintain its best employees 

The adverse side effects of subpar customer service go beyond losing your clients. You also run the risk of losing your top talent. 

It’s very rare that you’ll have a customer service department full of rockstars and one bad apple. Most of the time, the leadership dictates the culture of the customer service team.

When the leadership creates an environment of negative attitudes, disdain toward the customers, and carelessness, that will inevitably bring down the entire department. 

The result is that any talented employees will either leave without a second look or stay and risk burnout and dissatisfaction.

And in light of 2021’s so-called Great Resignation, you can’t afford to lose great talent.

Examples of bad customer service

We’ve assembled 15 bad customer service examples to help you identify poor customer service in your organization. We’ll even tell you how to fix them.

Let’s jump in.

1. Absconding responsibility

It’s a natural impulse to try to blame someone else for a mistake. After all, if you can pin a bad situation on another party, you’ve escaped all liability to make it right.

But customer service representatives must fight this counter-intuitive desire to blame-shift. Otherwise, the consequences may be dire. 

Consider this example from none other than Amazon.com. 

Back in 2018, Amazon charged a Georgia woman a whopping $7,455 to deliver three cartons of toilet paper. Even more outrageous, it took more than two months to deliver the cartons.

You’d think that Amazon would be quick to refund excess shipping fees. Instead, Amazon claimed a third-party seller was responsible for the colossal charge. The company argued it wasn’t within its purview to refund the money.

It wasn’t until the woman made the matter public through the press that Amazon agreed to refund the extra shipping fees.

What to do instead: take responsibility

When a customer buys from your brand, you’re responsible for everything that may go wrong from that point onwards.

A customer won’t care if you have a behind-the-scenes agreement with a third party. All they care about is that you deliver on the promise you made when they gave you their money.

Ironically, things would’ve been so much better for Amazon if they had just eaten the cost and refunded the fees.

Instead, they got dragged through the mud in multiple news cycles. Apologize and make amends. If that doesn’t retain the customer, it will at least help you avoid bad publicity.

2. Reluctance to respond

Over a third of consumers using social media to complain or question a brand expect a response in less than 30 minutes. Further, according to a Verint report, consumers want almost instant responses. 

In a PRWeb survey involving more than 2,500 customers, nearly 60 percent of participants said waiting for more than one minute is too long to be on hold. 

Another research by Velaro found that nearly 60 percent of customers will hang up if put on hold for one minute. 

With such high expectations, even the slightest delays are unacceptable to the modern consumer.

What to do instead: speed up your service 

Thankfully, technology is evolving on pace with customer expectations. There are lots of tools that can help you automate and expedite your service times. These include:

  • Providing as many self-service options as possible (chatbots, for example)
  • Identify pick call times and have more agents 
  • Offer to call customers back
  • Equip customer service agents with a detailed and updated knowledge base to get answers quickly 
  • Set benchmarks like average time on hold, the number of calls an agent can handle, and so on

3. Rigid policies

Rigid or outdated policies are often a recipe for bad customer service. Sticking to such policies can expose your brand to the risk of falling behind or becoming irrelevant.

From awkward, complex return policies to clumsy sales processes and lack of authority at the front line, rigidity can harm your brand’s customer experience.

Rigid policies often exist because they’re historical, comfortable to the business owners, or just too difficult to change.

For example, let’s say you have a service level agreement of getting a response to the customer within 48 hours because, well, “that’s how we’ve always done it.” 

You should ask yourself: why 48 hours? With all the technological advancements in automation and AI-powered customer service, why not 24 hours? Why not 12?

What to do instead: be flexible

Each policy should put under a microscope and assessed. If the policy is causing unnecessary friction in customer service interactions, figure out how to alter or remove it.

Adopt policies that are in the best interest of your customer. In fact, you’re better off with policies supported by customer-centric processes.

These policies will help create positive, seamless processes throughout your business.

Some strategies to consider include:

  • Minimizing all possible friction in your customer’s journey and experience.
  • Giving your frontline the latitude to bend the rules if it’s in the best interest of the company and customers.
  • Rethinking you policies.

4. Failure to assess the quality of customer service

Many brands are reluctant to evaluate their customer service — and that’s a fatal miscalculation.

In part, that’s because most companies perceive customer experience assessment as an unnecessary undertaking. 

But while good or bad customer service may not have a direct monetary value, it’s directly tied to your organization’s bottom line.

And if you don’t measure your customer service against intelligent KPIs, you certainly can’t improve it.

What to do instead: evaluate customer service experience regularly 

As a forward-thinking business leader, you want to give your customers the best service possible.

You’ll want, therefore, to regularly evaluate your customer service efforts. While it’s no easy task, it’s well worth it.

The data you’ll glean from these evaluations while highlight which areas of your customer service need fixing or refining. 

To do this, you must know how to quantify customer service success and the metric to track.

Some crucial metrics for measuring customer service performance include:

  • Customer effort score (CES): This allows you to assess how much effort your customers feel they have to put in toward resolving a problem.
  • Customer satisfaction score (CSAT): This enables you to measure your customer’s feelings after interacting with a service agent.
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS): This allows you to gather insights with survey questions like — “would you recommend our brand to a friend?” The higher the likelihood score, the better.

5. Ignoring customer feedback 

In this age of social media and instant communication, the last thing you want to do is ignore your customer’s feedback, especially if the comments are about a negative experience with your brand.

These days, people vote with their wallets, taking their money elsewhere based on their peers, friends, and strangers’ comments.

In a Qualtrics survey, 1,700 online shoppers said they believe their feedback is ignored 40 percent of the time.

In theory, negative feedback should make it simple for businesses to deliver an experience that makes customers happy and have them lining up to buy again.

On the contrary, many brands don’t pay negative customer feedback the attention it deserves, leading to losses. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

What to do instead: listen to what your customers are saying

Collect, analyze most importantly, act on the negative feedback. Reach out to the customer to see how you can solve the problem amicably.

Some strategies you can use to gather customer feedback include:

  • Customer feedback survey
  • Using email and customer contact forms
  • Conducting customer interviews
  • Giving instant feedback to customers on your website and Google Business Profile reviews

6. Lack of empathy

In customer care, empathy is the ability to foster meaningful interaction with customers and connect with their feelings even if you’re unable to solve their problems.

Creating a positive customer experience is all about understanding your customer. If your agents don’t know how customers feel, it’s hard to support them better.

Research shows that 52 percent of customers stop buying from a brand due to poor communication, with 17 percent citing insensitivity in engagement as the primary reason.

What to do instead: encourage a culture of empathy

Customer service agents can build empathy using the following strategies:

  • Actively listening to what the customer is saying
  • Learning to put themselves in the customer’s shoes
  • Keeping their attitude in check
  • Avoid making things personal
  • Always being reasonable
  • Take extra caution when there’s a language barrier
  • De-escalation training for angry or frustrated customers

Empathy flows from the top down. When management is customer-focused and empathetic, employees are more likely to follow suit.

7. Failure to offer real-time support

According to research, 92 percent of customers are likely to continue with a brand if they solve their problems on the first call. Of these, 83 percent are likely to recommend the business, and 88 percent will share their positive experience.

Offering real-time customer support can lead to higher loyalty and advocacy. It also improves your brand’s perception.

Examples of failing to provide real-time customer support include having services available at inconvenient hours and taking too long to respond to customer complaints.

What to do Instead: Offer Instantaneous Support

Start by offering live chat on your website. You can also use AI chatbots to answer some frequently asked questions promptly.

Benefits of live chat include:

  • It can help increase sales and conversions
  • It enables your business to gain a competitive advantage
  • It helps build trust with buyers
  • It can help increase the average order value
  • It is an excellent way to keep in touch with visitors and prospects

8. Customers can’t reach you

No customer will want to deal with a business that’s hard to reach. In fact, if your customers can’t reach you, they’ll shift to the next available option.

As of right now, many customers are complaining about the unavailability of customer care support from many companies. Check out #OnHoldWith to see for yourself.

The two main reasons customers can’t reach the support desk is in a timely manner are:

  1. Understaffing, demonstrating a lack of priority on customer experiences.
  2. Outdated communication, demonstrating a lack of innovation in using tools and technology to solve customer issues.

What to do instead: offer omnichannel support

One of the must-haves of an excellent support experience is the ability for your customers to reach you easily for help, irrespective of the channel they’re using. 

A Zendesk report suggests that customers are using multiple channels, including messaging apps, voice assistants, chatbots, and SMS. 

So, apart from the traditional email and phone, provide multichannel customer support to make it easy for today’s tech-savvy customers.

Also, companies should ensure that they have enough customer care agents to attend to every customer. You can, for instance, outsource some of your staffing to give you the flexibility to add employees when needed. 

9. Poor automated phone prompts

I’m not sure which is worse, being put on hold for 20 minutes or repeatedly yelling “CUSTOMER SERVICE!” into an automated phone system that apparently doesn’t understand English.

These systems were the mid-2000s attempt at automation, but have quickly been left in the dust by more intuitive technologies like chatbots.

Most phone automation systems force customers through an agonizing menu of voice commands, only to leave them on hold waiting to talk to an agent before their call is dropped.

What to do instead: provide a call back service

Because customers don’t like to wait, don’t make them. Offer an option to call back instead of forcing them to sit on the line listening to hold music or yell out unrecognizable commands.

10. Lazy listening

Your customers want to tell you what they need. However, they don’t want to tell you twice.

Yet more than 50 percent of customers have to re-explain their problems when they call for help or answers, according to a survey carried out by Salesforce.

Sure, at times, customers have no problem re-explaining. They know that some problems are more complex and need an expert to intervene. Or questions end up in the wrong department and must be transferred to the right person.

Still, customers become annoyed when they’re forced to re-explain stuff because previous representatives either weren’t listening or didn’t take adequate notes.

What to do Instead: Improve the Listening Approach

Customer support agents should learn to engage the customer by becoming interested in the conversation.

Some communication strategies they can use include:

  • Asking questions that show you understand what the customer is saying.
  • Avoid trying to guess what the customer will say next. Focus on what’s being said and absorb the information.
  • Reduce distractions to help concentrate on the customer’s questions.
  • Study active listening. Watch TVs to understand how active listening works.
  • Avoid assuming you know where the conversation is heading because it leads to incorrect premature answers.
  • Use a CRM that allows you to take notes, or brief the next representative on the issue.

11. Being Transferred Multiple Times

Sure, transferring customers to other agents is sometimes unavoidable.

Still, if your call transfer rate is high, you are frustrating your customers, giving them a reason to switch camps.

Transfer calls occur when a customer care agent routes an inbound call to another agent. This often happens when the first agent cannot resolve the customer’s issue.

Other reasons for call transfers include:

  • Calls being routed to the wrong department or person.
  • Calls get transferred to a more senior employee.
  • The customer requires more specialized help the agent can’t provide.

While call transfers are unavoidable, you’ll want to fight to lower that rate for a few reasons:

Transferring calls multiple times results in frustrating customer experiences. Callers have to repeat information to multiple agents, waiting time unnecessarily. These are two activities customers hate

Transferred calls eat into your company’s resources. It takes longer to solve problems when multiple agents are involved in the process. Plus, it may result in the frustration of the previous point — re-explaining the problem over and over.

What to do instead: adopt better call routing

The key to avoiding call transfer to multiple agents is routing the calls to the correct person in the first place. You can leverage technology to achieve the following:

Location-based routing: Identifies the caller’s location and routes them to the appropriate department

Status-based routing: Uses the customer information to route the customer to the correct department 

Campaign-based routing: Routes customers to the relevant agents when they call regarding a particular marketing offer. 

12. Inefficient customer support team

The last thing you want in your company is a customer support team that doesn’t understand what it’s doing.

Imagine calling your insurance company, for instance, asking about the status of your policy.

At the very least, you’d expect them to pull out your data from the system in minutes and, most importantly, interpret the information. If the agent struggles to answer the basic questions about your policy, that’s a sign of disaster.

If your company has an incompetent customer service desk, it cannot offer proactive support. The result? Damage your brand’s reputation and more customer complaints.

What to do instead: create a knowledgeable team

You can empower your customer support team using the following strategies:

  • Training your staff about your products regularly. This should happen across all departments.
  • Share important business info with your entire customer care team. Make sure that everyone knows about common customer problems and how to solve them.
  • Encourage transparency in your customer service team to meet your customers’ needs and expectations.

13. Careless of context

Picture this.

Company X offers live chat customer support on its website. However, for whatever reason, the website is offline today, so you decide to call the customer service desk.

You’re now stuck in a phone queue for over 30 minutes due to the company’s website being offline.

Even more frustrating, you keep getting prompts asking to try the company’s website every 30 seconds by an automated voice. That’s a lack of context-awareness.

If you need real-life evidence, look no further than Bank for America’s tone-deaf Twitter robot. 

In an attempt to automate customer service, Bank of America created a Twitter bot that repeatedly sent generic, supposedly helpful replies to a customer complaining about the institution’s behavior.

Ironically, the attempt to save money through automation backfired and made BOA the laughing stock of a few internet news cycles. 

What to do instead: ensure your customer care agents know what’s happening around them

Sure, bots make work easier. They help save time as well. But, if you’re using bots, you shouldn’t trick the customer to think that they’re engaging with a real person.

14. Hiding humans

In today’s digital era, you may think that concept of having human customer care agents is outdated.

Why bother having your customer speak to a real person at all? You can simply swap your customer service agents for an online system to boost efficiency and cut costs, right?

Maybe. But one thing that hasn’t changed about customers is that they still prefer to talk to a real person instead of an automated answering solution. And statistics reflect this.

A PwG survey found that 80 percent of participants would rather connect directly to a real, human customer service agent.

If you think about it, these statistics make sense. Think about the last time you called a large institution. Did you like the experience of navigating touch-tone menus trying to get answers? Probably not.

What to do instead: invest in customer service

Customer calls are essential, and it is a good business practice to invest some of your profits in paying a human to answer them and offer solutions.

Other strategies you can use to bring a human touch to your customer service desk include:

  • Work on your contact points to direct customers on how to get help easily
  • Invest in self-service resources that can help your customers get answers without calling

15. Deceptive Designs 

Deceptive designs are tricks used by unscrupulous websites and applications to get customers to do things they wouldn’t do, like buy merchandise or sign up for a service.

Another term used to describe deceptive designs is dark patterns, a phrase coined by Harry Brignall. Brignall regularly tweets some examples of dark patterns and congratulates businesses striving to offer a good and honest user experience.

Deceptive designs show up as frustrating mazes, tricky color schemes, and confusing language. Websites and businesses using these techniques aim to influence the visitor’s behavior in a direction that benefits the website more than the user.

What to do instead: stay on the light side

Apart from generating profits, your business should exist to genuinely help people through innovative solutions and not to arm-twist prospects into spending money on your products or services.

So, any business that claims to be customer-centric should stay away from deceptive designs. On top of that, you can hire a usability expert on sites like Upwork.com to review your website and sales copy to ensure it provides the best possible user experience.  

The bottom line

Good customer service directly affects your CAC and LTV, which in turn impacts your bottom line. One bad customer service experience is enough to ruin a reputation, especially if a brand refuses to take responsibility.

If you don’t have a means of measuring your customer service, make that a top priority. Even if it’s a simple email to users or customers with an NPS survey.

If you’re an eCommerce business that regularly ships physical products, you know the power of a poor customer experience. Delays and stock-outs happen, and how you handle them will determine whether or not you can turn a frustrated customer into a happy evangelist.

But stopping those inventory issues upstream starts with having a robust inventory management platform. That’s where Linnworks solutions come in. Click here to learn more about how Linnworks helps streamline your entire inventory management workflow.

Matt Kenyon

Matt Kenyon


Matt has been helping businesses succeed with exceptional content, lead gen, and B2B copywriting for the last decade. When he’s not typing words for humans (that Google loves), Matt can be found producing music, peeking at a horror flick between his fingers, or spending quality time with his wife and kids.