Customer Service Case Histories

We followed up on some stories from our readers to illustrate what typically goes horribly wrong and to show how easy it can be to get service really right

As helpful as sales data, consumer surveys, focus groups, and other indicators may be in judging how well a company treats its customers, the complete picture never really emerges until the firsthand experiences of the buying public are told. But one problem persists: Few businesses take the time to actively seek out these stories.

In advance of BusinessWeek's second annual Customer Service Champs ranking, we asked readers to share their most recent stories—good and bad—in an online forum. If you walked away from the checkout counter or hung up with the tech support line with all your problems resolved and a new feeling of trust in that company, we wanted to know how they pulled it off. On the other hand, if a company treated your issue like an annoyance, wasted your time, didn't fix your problem, and drove you to seek out business with one of their competitors—we wanted to know where you think the chain of support broke down, and what you did to find a solution.

It's no surprise that most readers used the opportunity to vent. Of 108 reader responses covering more than 60 different companies, 75 of the posts were negative and only 33 were positive. While most of the companies nominated for title of "best customer service" impressed readers for different and highly individual reasons, some common themes echoed through the tales of poor customer service: poorly trained call center workers, airline-induced limbo, and surprise charges on cell-phone contracts.

Four Exemplary Stories

The good news for most of the companies panned by our readers is that many of the problems appear easy to fix. At Charter Communications (CHTR) (, 2/21/08), for example, the problem seems to be poor hiring standards: One reader caught the cable guy digging through the refrigerator. Another reader suggests Linksys gives its employees insufficient training: After two different tech support people couldn't figure out how to switch a customer's setup menu from Spanish to English, a third simply checked a manual and fixed the problem right away. And at AT&T (T), stricter privacy measures could have prevented a customer's new landline number from being distributed to telemarketers.

We decided to give four anecdotes in particular a closer look: a Sharp (SHCAY) success story, a disappointment with PayPal (EBAY), a tale of American Express (AXP) picking up the slack left by Delta Air Lines (DAL), and a blown sale at Brookstone. Customer service managers, take note: These instances exemplify the most common ways companies get service seriously wrong, and the surprisingly easy ways they can leave a lasting positive impression on the customer.

Tech support lines have such a poor record of providing friendly, knowledgeable help that customers often dial them with few or no expectations. That's what M3 Sweatt of Seattle was expecting when he called a Sharp support number to remedy a problem with a brand new, 37-inch Aquos HDTV. Eager to experience hi-def on his new $600 set, Sweatt set it up on a Saturday, only to find that it had sound, but no picture. He called the toll-free number "expecting to get a message saying 'call back as we're off for the weekend.'"

A Sharp Repairman

To Sweatt's surprise, a person answered the phone and quickly took him through a checklist to determine whether he had damaged the TV or set it up incorrectly—he hadn't. So the representative took down his information, assigned him a case number, and gave him a number to call on Monday, when a trained staffer at Sharp could more accurately diagnose the problem.

"Sure enough, I was on the phone with a rep on Monday morning who had already triaged the problem and had a set of things for me to try," he says. That didn't fix it, so Sharp sent over a repairman the following Monday (Sweatt declined the option of bringing the TV back to the store immediately). The repairman got to the heart of the matter: a faulty backlight, which required a replacement TV. Less than a week later, a serviceman arrived to take out the old set and install the new one.

It was a long process, Sweatt admits. But at every stage, Sharp's representatives moved him up the line as soon as they realized they couldn't help any further. As a result, the electronics maker will likely benefit. "I don't think that any specific competitors will lose our business…, but we will certainly consider a Sharp over another brand given similar specifications, warranty, and pricing," Sweatt says.

Few Pals at Paypal

Judging by the accounts of our readers, technical support is more frequently a reason for business lost than business gained. That's the case with Steve Prouty of Anaheim, Calif., who closed both his and his mother's PayPal accounts after a particularly exhausting bout with the online-payment company's customer service department.

Longtime PayPal users with no previous complaints, Prouty and his mother shipped four Apple (AAPL) iPhones to friends in Germany and had the friends transfer the cost—$1,600—through the online service. The iPhones crossed continents intact, but Prouty became concerned when PayPal red-flagged his mother's account as "limited access," barring access to the funds the friends had transferred.

Since this was what PayPal considers a "person-to-person" transaction, where both parties knew one another (as opposed to an eBay sale, for example), it was unnecessary for Prouty and his mother to describe what goods were changing hands. Still, they figured it couldn't hurt. It did. Customer service representatives told Prouty the red flag was the result of suspicious activity, but wouldn't be more specific. A spokesperson from PayPal not familiar with Prouty's case, says that consumer electronics—particularly expensive, high-demand items like iPhones—are sometimes considered a "high-risk category" because they can be used as bait to rip off consumers.

The PayPal rep asked Prouty to send in a photo ID, proof of shipping, his Social Security number, and various other forms of identification. "I kind of got the impression they were treating us like criminals," says Prouty. After none of this lifted the limited access status, he took the only path available: He electronically refunded the $1,600 to his friends and had his mother pick up a check on her next trip to Germany.

After doing this, he immediately closed both PayPal accounts. Prouty has yet to take his business elsewhere. "I've looked [for alternative services], but I think PayPal has a good monopoly," he says. In the future, any money that changes hands between Prouty and his German friends will travel by check or wire transfer.

Delta Bungles, American Express Scores

Many readers shared nightmare stories about airline customer service—from hours spent waiting on the tarmac to lost valuables and abruptly canceled flights. But in the case of Bob Keefe of New York, when Delta dropped the ball it became an opportunity for another company to provide stellar service.

After purchasing a ticket from Delta for a personal trip from New York to Richmond, Va., using his American Express card, Keefe decided to move the trip up a day. He agreed to a $100 fee for the change. But on the earlier date, the flight was canceled due to bad weather, and the best option Delta could offer was to put him back on his original flight the next day. That wasn't so bad, but what irked Keefe was that he had to send a fax to their office to get the $100 fee refunded on his credit card.

Even after sending this fax, the fee appeared on his American Express bill. So Keefe wrote and called Delta, to no avail. At one point, he says, the airline even claimed the earlier flight had never been canceled—a "ludicrous and easily disproved claim," he says.

That's when Keefe wrote to American Express, thinking there was little they could do, but trusting the credit-card company based on positive previous experiences. It took six months of the company hounding Delta, but American Express finally retrieved the funds and refunded them to its cardholder's account. "What impressed me as much as Delta's hoodlum-like behavior was AmEx's willingness to be persistent," he says. Delta did not return calls seeking comment.

Keefe says these experiences will stay with him and reflect on his business with both companies. Still, there are limits: He's about to fly another trip on Delta because, he says, he "couldn't avoid it."

The Brookstone Shuffle?

Only a small number of readers in our customer service forum addressed retailers. We heard minor gripes about big-box behemoth Best Buy (BBY) and mixed opinions on department store Nordstrom (JWN), but most intriguing was a story from a reader who believes she may have been the victim of a bait-and-switch ploy by the mall fixture and gadgeteer, Brookstone.

After a full year of shopping for a new massage chair, Lakshmi Viswanath jumped on what looked like a great deal for a Panasonic Realpro Elite on Brookstone's Web site sometime around last Thanksgiving. The chair, which normally retails for $4,400, had been marked down to $3,400 for the holiday season. (The chair was discontinued, but that wasn't clear from the sale Brookstone was offering, Viswanath claims.) After placing an order online, she called the store closest to her home in a Dallas suburb to see if they had any chairs in stock that could be delivered sooner than the 5 to 10 days that was promised to her online. Viswanath was in luck: A store salesperson said he could have one of the chairs shipped in only a couple of days.

Viswanath claims that weeks went by and no chair arrived, though the same eager salesperson called periodically to assure her to keep waiting. One day she returned home from work to find three "frantic" voice mails from the Brookstone rep, informing her the store had sold out of the marked-down chair. Viswanath says she was told that if she was interested, they could offer her a refurbished model for $3,500 (the same price she had paid for the new model), or a better, and more expensive, Panasonic model for $4,700.

Viswanath felt twice-cheated and tried to take the matter up with store managers, district managers, and regional vice-presidents, to no avail. She says one district manager told her: "You can speak to the CEO for all I care, I don't think much is going to happen." After she requested a full refund, it took over two months—and a couple more phone calls—to get the $3,400 to reappear on her bank statement.

Brookstone spokesperson Robert Padgett admits that the company took more orders for that model chair than it had in stock. "We apologized for that," he says. But Padgett contends that the store representative broke the bad news to Viswanath within only a few days, and offered as consolation a $500 discount on a better model or the refurbished model for $2,999. Brookstone says a full refund was offered immediately following the mix-up, but that Viswanath declined an immediate refund.

Viswanath now refuses to shop at Brookstone. She believes the company made a big mistake by handling her the same way they would a customer who bought a $50 pillow. "There's a value you attach to a customer, and that value comes from what kind of purchase they are making," she says.

She and her boyfriend Amit are disappointed they missed the chance to buy a chair during discount season, but they're not deterred: The couple is thinking buying a similar Panasonic chair at another retailer for $4,700.

If you would like to share your customer service experiences, visit our ongoing forum on the Best and Worst Customer Service.

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