Customer Service – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

This post, written a few years ago and updated, was prompted by a TV ad — yes, really.

It was an insurance ad, and although I have no idea of the quality of the company, the ad agency that created it definitely knew how to sell an idea – at least to me.

It showed various people trying to get through on the phone to other insurance companies and going through phone tree hell. The best part was watching a male caller repeatedly saying “Representative!” all the while getting more and more frustrated because he couldn’t talk with a real human. Of course, it purported to show that anyone could get through to the insurance company quickly and easily … and maybe that was even true. 

It reminded me of a post I had started a few months earlier… but hadn’t finished.

A while back I briefly became a raving lunatic, a “crankasaurus,” if you will. It all started so innocently; I saw in The Boston Sunday Globe newspaper that the French Open was on and being televised on ESPN2. Great! I could do stuff and watch some awesome tennis!


I couldn’t find out where ESPN2 was. I had recently moved (all of 30 miles), and the cable company’s channel numbers here are different. I spent about 20 minutes fruitlessly trying to find out on the Internet. I went up and down about 200 channel numbers on the TV guide, but I couldn’t find it (it was NOT the one right after ESPN; that would have been too easy). I gave in, aggravated (but not overly so), and called the cable company.

Whoever decided the cable company’s phone tree was an improvement needs to be locked away. Forever. Or be forced to use the phone tree to figure a way to get out of prison.

First of all, there was the overly chirpy voice asking idiotic questions and sounding SO HAPPY when I pressed 1 or 2. Then there was the issue of why I was calling; none of the options fit my simple need – to find out the channel number for ESPN2 – so we kept circling back to the “main menu.” Oh, yeah. That helped.

I could not get an agent. 
I could not get an agent.
until I called three times.

I did finally get an agent by talking gibberish in response to a voice prompt, and she turned out to be very nice, professionals, and helpful. In about 30 seconds, she answered my question, and then showed me how I could find the other channels.

Did I keep my cool? Yes, mostly. I knew the agent answering the phone hadn’t created any of the idiocy I was facing, and that I needed to help her help me.

And she did, starting with what she didn’t say.

She DID NOT say, “Hi, Ms. Rooks – how are you feeling/doing today?” Given we do not call when we’re happy, that phrase – well-intentioned but dumb as can be – sets my teeth on edge. And I’ll bet I’m not alone.

This agent did it perfectly by asking, “How may I help you today?” God bless her and whoever trained her. It helped enormously to keep me from getting any crazier.

So, finally, I was able to watch some tennis and get back to enjoying my Sunday morning. All’s well that ends well, right?

But the experience triggered a few thoughts that I hope all business owners will consider.

  1. Do your customers ever face anything like this? Do you even know?
  2. When is the last time you called your own company and tried to get help quickly? Could you?
  3. Have you tried to find the contact information on your company’s website? Is it easy to find, or does the lack of clarity make the customers even crazier than they were when they logged on?

Suggestions for the cable company …

  1. Provide customers with a channel listing in ALPHABETICAL ORDER, not in numerical order. With hundreds of channels available to most of us, we don’t even know where to look. If it were in alphabetical order, we could find the right channel in a flash.
  2. Now, in 2019, customers are leaving cable companies in droves, preferring to cut the cord and stream from other sources. You’re no longer the only game in town … can you afford not to be exemplary?

Suggestions for all companies …

  1. Give us a quicker way to reach an agent, so that we can remain pleasant and get our questions answered quickly and easily. It may cost more for staffing, but what is the cost of losing customers? With social media full of horror stories, do you really think we don’t tell everyone how you treat us? And with so much competition – so easy to find – why would we stay with you?
  2. Rethink the phone tree’s specific requests. Are they all necessary? Couldn’t you give customers the option of going directly to an agent when none of the options fits the customer’s need?
  3. Tone down the chirpy voice. Please. Fingernails on a blackboard come to mind …

All in all, customer service pros have a tough job; we don’t call them to say “thank you” or  “have a nice day.” We call because we need help. And most of them do the right job at the right time, even though they have to deal with frustrated callers. It’s not a job I would willingly take on, and I’m grateful every time I get a terrific CS agent who knows how to pull me down from the ledge and solve my problem.

What else would you suggest? Have you experienced either the good, the bad, or the ugly with customer service?


Susan Rooks
Susan Rooks
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented.

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  1. I feel your pain. I have resorted to social media every time I have an issue. Whether it be a broken computer or messed up order, put it on social media and see how quickly you at least get a response, Eve. If not a full solution.

  2. Really enjoyed this. One of my biggest peeves. I’m calling because I have a problem, not so I can solve your problem of saving money and telling your computer what I need.

    Oh…and give me a way to get to a person when I DON’T have an account number. Maybe I want to buy from you. Maybe I don’t have the account info handy. Or your damn system won’t recognize when I push buttons. Whatever it is, just get me help!

    It is what i call “Company Service” rather than “Customer Service.”

    • And I am SO with you on all that, Michael! Something that should / could be so well done, helping customers (or wannabe customers) and the companies themselves … isn’t always done. Honestly, I’ll likely never figure it out.

      And I LOVE that “Company Service”! Hmmmm, there’s another article brewing … one using that as a title (with full attribution). Hmmmm. 🙂

  3. Once again, Susan, you provoke so great thoughts. What perturbs me to say – in the same way a customer service representative says “how are you doing”? – the reason is because people cost more money than machines and profit is more important than people.
    I think that philosophy is beginning to change but it needs to be systemic.

    • Thanks for always being in my corner, John!

      And yeah. People cost more, but I hope that’s changing as companies realize the downside of CS agents either not being properly trained, or not having enough time to even do their job correctly. With the ever-present social media outlets just waiting for us to express our feelings over bad service … no one is safe. And sad to say, we’re much more likely to do that than to say something nice.