5 poor customer service examples (and how to avoid them)


No company – no matter its size or success – can claim to have a perfect customer service record. Poor customer service can strike anywhere, through any communication channel, across any industry.

As a customer, being on the receiving end of poor service is frustrating. But as a business, serving up that poor service is actively harmful. Bad customer experiences make for more negative reviews, less brand loyalty, and competitors winning the market. 

So, where do brands go wrong? Here’s a look at 5 poor customer service examples from the real world, what caused the problem(s), and how to avoid making the same mistakes.

1.      What responsibility?

The story:

In 2018, an Amazon user was charged a whopping $7,455 for shipping on a toilet paper order. When she reached out to Amazon to amend the problem, she was repeatedly told to take it up with the third-party seller directly.

Amazon wouldn’t help, and the third-party seller (The Ideal Company) was unreachable.

The exorbitant shipping price wasn’t just excessive — it was against Amazon’s policy. And yet, until she reached out to media outlets, Amazon representatives shifted the blame and avoided taking responsibility for helping the customer resolve her issue at all.


  • Not taking responsibility for obvious errors and mistakes


Know when to apologise.

Customer service teams cannot be afraid (or unable) to take responsibility for errors on their side.

Taking responsibility goes a long way towards mending fraying customer relationships. It shows a team able to make a difference and truly help customers — and boosts the trustworthiness of your brand.

So, ensure customer service teams know how to apologise, and when to accept blame on behalf of the company.

2.      As flexible as granite

The story:

A Walmart customer went into a bricks-and-mortar shop in search of a LEGO set that he had seen on the Walmart website. However, he noticed that the price was 35% higher in the store than the online price.

Upon asking for the price to be matched with their online offer, he was informed that the price match guarantee didn’t apply to Walmart’s own website.

The customer ordered the product online to get the better price but then wasn’t allowed to pick up his order that day. Despite seeing his order get reserved, he had to wait for the order confirmation to come through and pick up the set the following day.


  • Strict adherence to policy, to the detriment of service
  • Not respecting the omnichannel approach

Other poor customer service examples demonstrating flexibility failings include forcing phone calls (i.e., making the customer sit in an IVR queue), agents too glued to their scripts, and so on.

In the above example, Walmart’s policy misled and confused the customer. To boot, it caused reps to be unhelpful and actively put hurdles in the way of the customer. The customer later pointed out that this was “bad customer service”.


Be flexible, empower your agents, and embrace omnichannel consistency.

The whole problem behind this entry in the poor customer service examples list started with a poorly managed omnichannel offering. The customer had two options — store or website — yet got very different information from each.

So, the first step to avoiding this problem is making sure that no matter the platform or contact channel, the information you provide remains consistent.

The omnichannel shortfall aside, even the best customer service rep can create a poor experience if they aren’t empowered to make decisions that best help the customer. (Even if it isn’t the usual policy.)

So, empower your agents. Give them the training, tools, and support to make decisions that will actually help customers. Give them flexible policies and teach them how to use them.

Doing so won’t just create better customer experiences, it’ll help boost employee morale too.

3.      Is anybody there?

The story:

For poor customer service examples showing the impact of wait times and lack of reachability, look no further than Qantas airlines.

Multiple customers called into a radio show to air their disgust at being on hold for between 6 and 15 HOURS before finally reaching a customer service representative.


  • Poor queue and volume management
  • Reliance on only one channel


Manage your queues.

The issue here is largely related to supply and demand. Scale up when you need, manage queues, and use the technology/omnichannel capabilities available.

For instance, enable callers to switch to live chat. Don’t forget to provide self-service options, such as a chatbot to answer small questions. Make email and ticketing options available, with clearly stated reply timeframes. And so on.

Unfortunately, poor queue and volume management can impact any communication channel. Emails sent to the void, long unanswered chat queues, and of course, telephone hold queues. But depending on the channel in question, the acceptable wait time varies. Live chat users will only wait a few minutes (if that), while email users may be happy to wait a day. The key is to offer a sufficient mix of options, with effective resource balancing.

4.      Bewildered bots and AI

The story:

An Etsy customer using PayPal was left bemused when they had their PayPal account suspended. Their crime? Purchasing a mouse mat made in Leicester, UK, that looked like a tiny Persian rug. This, PayPal insisted, was in violation of international sanctions. The customer was threatened with account termination unless they provided proof of the origin of the product. (Leicester.)


Be sure not to forgo human intellect in customer-facing roles.

Automation is a powerful tool, and so are chatbots. But overreliance pushes them past their function. It’s like expecting to use a screwdriver to saw something in half.

Make sure you aren’t trying to replace humans across all processes and interactions in your service. Have humans regularly check on your automated processes, your chatbots, and any other type of computer assistance you use.

5.      Data distribution AND no empathy

The story:

This story is a double whammy in the list of poor customer service examples.

A father whose 17-year-old daughter recently passed away in a car accident received a letter from OfficeMax, with the line “Daughter Killed In Car Crash” included in the address. This naturally caused distress to the grieving family. (And not the desire to purchase more office supplies.) The customer service agent they contacted then refused to believe the letter existed.


  • Lack of empathy
  • Poor data handling


This example really had everything in it: no responsibility from the company, mishandled personal data, no empathy, and no quality checks.

Avoiding this kind of mistake starts with clean, well-managed data policies. Invest in keeping customer data both safe and well-organised. That means up-to-date, and in a consistent format.

Aside from the data aspect, there’s also a lesson here in the need for empathy. Poorly conceived messages, language use, and mistakes can trigger heightened emotions. Empathy allows agents to help the customer not just with fixing the issue, but to feel better, too.

Poor customer service examples

The good news is that it’s rare that bad customer service is so intense that it makes the news, like the above examples. But poor experiences still happen regularly.

By being aware of the most grievous poor customer service examples, (and knowing how you can avoid the same fate,) you stand a much better chance of keeping your customers happy.

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