On Being Rude

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Customer service calls will always escalate when the individual who is representing the brand attempts to either control the conversation or treat the person complaining as if they are stupid. It’s a huge Marketing faux-pas. It happens way more than it should.

A personal story: the other day I lost it on the phone when speaking to the customer service center representative of a very large brand. It’s not in my character to lose it. It’s a brand I have a strong affinity for, and a brand I am very loyal to. So much so, that the outcome of that call (which was not in my favour or to my satisfaction) will not stop me from choosing this brand over their competitors. The fact is that in my frustration I hung up on one of the supervisors. Upon calling back I was informed that there was now a note in my profile (it’s like an episode of Seinfeld). And while I did not raise my voice or lose control, my perceived spleen-venting plea and hanging up was not taken lightly. Between us, anyone who has heard the full story (including senior executives at this company) not only agreed that I got the short-end of the wishbone, but have tried to intervene. The outcome, the brand and the guts of the story aren’t as relevant and what pushed me over the edge.

It wasn’t the commercial injustice, it was the passive-aggressive tone of voice of the supervisor. Like a kindergarten teacher scolding a child for not knowing an answer in the classroom. The sad part is, this is how the majority of these reps are trained and – as Marketers – we’re doing a huge disservice to our industry and the customers we serve if we keep this up. 

We need to be able to acknowledge and separate who our elite customers are from the ones that are clueless, and we can’t treat them both the same way. It’s not fair. Let’s use a consumer electronics company as an example: you buy a brand new 42-inch plasma TV, you haul it home, unpack it, plug it in… and nothing. You try a couple of obvious things (make sure the plugs are secure, that there are batteries in the remote, that you did not blow a fuse, etc…). You then call customer service. During the introduction, you inform the rep that you are experienced with consumer electronics and have installed many similar TVs before. At this point, the rep asks you if the TV is plugged into the wall. You try to maintain your composure and remind the rep that you have checked everything obvious before calling. The rep them asks if the plug is properly placed in the back of the TV. You know where this conversation is going. As the rep either continues down the line of basic questioning, or begins talking to you like you are a child when you get frustrated by the line of questioning, that is the exact moment when consumers get rude, aggressive, yell, scream and push.

It’s when we are informed consumers, but being treated like we have never purchased anything like this before and know nothing about it. Nobody likes being spoken to like they’re stupid… unless they are stupid (those people, however, will never get upset). 

In our ever-speeding race to lower the cost of our call centres (and we’re not just talking about outsourcing here), we are quickly arriving at a very dangerous destination where our most important consumers (or the ones who have the potential to become lifetime customers) are being tossed aside because brands will focus on a "one rule fits all" model that is distilled through painfully weak customer service rep scripts and rules of engagement that leave the more sophisticated consumers either biting their tongues, Blogging about these indiscretions, or simply loosing it on the phone (like I did).

On the other hand, many customer service reps spend their days dealing with irate customers and are constantly dealing with rude people. What they fail to understand, believe or grasp is that most people do not start off rude. They become rude because they’re being spoken down to. They would know this if they were trying to create real interactions between real human beings, instead of just following protocol or reading a script.

It’s something that Marketers need to think about and act on.

Don’t you feel like listening in on some of your customer service calls right now?

Here’s a tip: assume the customer is right, being polite and wants a simple resolution (most people are not trying to take advantage of a situation). How well are your reps able to keep the customers feeling like they are getting some kind of resolution throughout the entire call?


  1. I agree that customer service is almost seen as a commodity, which is unfortunate. I often think about Zappos and their ten core values. “Delivering WOW through service is simple”, but too simple that it’s easily forgotten as the reason why they serve.
    Customer service is a selling point, and not a after-thought. Position itright, build a culture that is unmatched, and the chances of winning becomes much greater.
    Thanks Mitch!

  2. Mitch, you couldn’t have been more timely with this post. I have had a horrible time with customer service from many companies and industries lately. For the most part, the situations have been similar to the type of poor customer service behaviour you’ve outlined above.
    I used to dread the idea of having my calls recorded when speaking with a customer service rep. Now call recording is one of my new best friends. Poor customer service is costing companies ridiculous amounts of money and we’re going to end up paying the price in higher fees for products and services.
    Just last month, Air Canada refunded my non-refundable pair of tickets because a customer service rep was rude and condescending. The whole call was recorded. As an apology, I was given a full-refund within minutes. Here’s a link to my story: http://bargainista.blogspot.com/2009/07/air-canada-makes-save-and-happy.html
    After wasting close to 6 hours trying to either renew or replace two mobile phone contracts, I was offered a ridiculously cheap plan in an attempt to keep my business. In the end, I opted to pay a bit more and change carriers for one that seemed much easier to navigate and made the purchase through a dealer who seemed to care about providing the best customer service. The whole transaction took about a half-hour! That’s 5.5 hours less than the first company where I have been a customer for 29 years! Bottom line: I hope my service and phones will be fine however, when I got home and tried to use them tonight, I learned the dealer had programed the numbers in both phones in correctly and once again, I had to get in touch with a call centre. Why is it so hard to get a phone?
    Anyway, you wrote this post just as I needed to vent. I hope every marketer who reads this post listens and takes your advice. It’s so simple and something that’s been ingrained in me since childhood. Thanks!

  3. I am sure that I am mis-remembering this wisdom and that I have some of the details wrong, but I am sure it was from “In Search of Excellence”. The lesson I learned from that great book (that seems to have never caught on) was that organizations need to empower their front-line workers to solve customer problems. Further, those front line workers need to make it their mission to not only solve the problems, but identify them. The example cited in the book was the Disney Corporation and that the workers in the theme parks (from the ride attendants to the garbage pickers to the cashiers) were empowered to identify and solve any ‘guest’ (their terminology) experience that was anything less than optimal. They could ask the magic question “what would it take to make this right for you?” And they did not need anyone’s approval to make it right. And as you pointed out Mitch, customers want a simple resolution, and what ‘makes it right’ is usually that … a simple resolution to their concern.
    Your tip should be adopted by every company!

  4. Karen, agreed, yet empowering employees is only part of the solution. Companies need to hire the right people in the first place. So few people on the front lines seem to care about and take pride in what they’re doing. As an example, when I worked part-time in retail during my university days, if a customer entered the store 5-10 minutes before closing and seemed serious about shopping, we’d welcome her.
    The other night, I arrived at a store that was open until 11. The mobile department closed at 9 p.m. I was talking to the sales guy and I was serious about purchasing phones. At five to 9 he said, “Sorry, I can’t help you. I’m closing in five minutes.” So much for that carrier getting my business.

  5. Ah! Customer service – why does it seem so difficult for some people?
    Customer service 101
    1. Listen and fix the problem to the customer’s satisfaction and thank them for taking their time to bring it up. Offer something extra to show how much you appreciate their feedback.
    2. Then offer an explanation for what happened.
    Do not mix Step 1 with Step 2.
    Recently I made a mistake and purchased the same book twice from Amazon. My mistake entirely. Amazon made it very easy for me to return one of the copies and they actually paid for shipping it back! I am now talking about Amazon and have become an ambassador for their superb service.
    I made another mistake. I bought an electronic product (not from Amazon) and it was not compatible with my computer in spite of what what said in the store. I wanted to return it of course. The message I received by email was IN BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS: NO RETURN. THE PRODUCT WORKED WHEN YOU BOUGHT IT. Even after I explained what the problem was the seller told me he resented my asking for a refund and that I just had to think about it before making the purchase!
    Talk about being rude! I will never do business again with that place. I must refrain from mentioning the name for legal reasons but they have lost an opportunity to create a new positive ambassador for sure.

  6. Customer service reps need to ask the simple questions sometimes. We’re all human and we all makes mistakes. I am in the IT field and I made a stupid mistake. I turned off the WiFi while I was at work and did not think of turning it back on when I got home. Guess what happened when I got home? Called my service provider, blah ,blah, blah screama nd bitch and made an ass of myself. Yes, I was working long hours on a project with little sleep and I made a stupid mistake. It happens to best of us … yes, everyone. I say got through the 5 – 10 minutes of scripted questions and keep your cool.
    Thank you.

  7. Hi Mitch,
    Thanks for sharing the story.
    It is pretty amazing that the rudest person in the
    organization is often times the one with the most front line contact.
    I’ve recently had two experiences with completely different organizations
    that took the condescending tone route and simply quoted policy instead
    of actually listening enough to understand my problem and help me work
    through the problem sensibly in an effort to satisfy a long time customer.
    Guess what, I’m a former customer in both instances.
    If upper management wants to hold onto enough business to manage,
    they ought to see their way clear to getting the level of service that gets
    it done to the place where service is actually being provided.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Mitch:
    This story illustrates why (unless you’re Zappos) it’s so dangerous to stake your company’s key differentiator on customer service. For two reasons:
    1) People expect great customer service. Unless it is knock it out of the park, take your breath away great customer service, people just see it as expected and move on.
    2) No matter how great your service is as a whole, one rep can ruin your entire branding effort.
    Maybe the people you talked to were having a bad day – not an excuse but it happens. If that company’s position is that the reason to choose them is their great customer service, they just told you there is now NO reason you should choose them going forward.
    I think that too many companies are so worried about getting their company on Twitter, Facebook, etc, etc that they forget to get the basics right. Like you’ve said before – don’t get in social media until you have a great website. I think the same can be said for shoring up any issues you may have in your call center too.

  9. Thank you for this article. I think the first principle of service CRM should be “Throw away the script and listen to the customer.” All too often, agents follow scripts mechanically, even if they secretly relate to the frustration of the customer. The saccharine sweetness they are trained to exude is another irritant, especially when it is an obvious put-on.

  10. In some organisations, especially larger ones, there is a tendancy for the marketing department to consider themselves separate from the messy business of actually dealing with customers, which extends to not caring about the customer service experience.
    Sometimes this is down to a badly drawn org chart or a company culture that keeps the marketers away from the CS teams – CS is put under operations, and the CS managers resenting meddling in their domain by the crayon-wielding marketing types. All very sad really but often it’s internal politics and structure that leads to sub-par experiences like this.

  11. Two registered letters, several hours on the phone, several department transfers, a $500 invoice, threats of collection “which can negatively impact my credit rating”, and still no resolution with respect to a product that I ordered and paid for, but was never delivered to me. You’d expect more from a major Canadian wireless carrier. (And I’m not talking about Bell Mobility.)
    With all due respect, I should not pay for the errors of another. It’s one thing to get the run around for a couple of hours, yet another to receive collection threats. I’m an entrepreneur, not a thief.
    Sadly we all have to live with these abuses. But one thing’s for sure: I went into Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood and definitely won’t stray there again. Even if they do have exclusive rights to the glorious iPhone.

  12. It has come to the point that whenever I get good – or even occasionally excellent – customer service, I am surprised.
    When that does happen, I try to be very grateful for the good service I received. I’ve even written a letter to the head of customer service to let them know about their stellar employee.
    I firmly believe that showing appreciation could also help nurture better customer service. Even if some big service providers seem waaaay past redemption already.

  13. Rule #1: Hire customer service reps who are worth more than minimum wage.
    Rule #2: Pay your customer service reps more than minimum wage.
    You get what you pay for. If companies continue to treat customer service positions as the bottom of the barrel, they can never expect to receive resumes from people who are of the caliber that can understand each individual situation and adapt accordingly. Who wants to work someplace where 500 call center employees are sitting in a giant warehouse in cubicles doing nothing but speaking into a headset and staring at a screen all day/night? There is very little that is rewarding or intellectually stimulating about customer service. Companies need to rethink the position all together.

  14. Bang on Mitch. I recently experienced that “tone” with a WestJet employee at the Edmonton Airport after attempting to file a claim over some baggage they had damaged. She had the nerve to say to me “Those are your only options sir, if you can’t understand what I’m saying I can get a supervisor to try to explain it to you.” Simply because i was quizzing her about my options she decided to insult my intelligence. I took the tool box they broke back to the store, which has great customer service, and got a full refund. Side note: Never, EVER check baggage that is not built to be nearly indestructible or you will be sorry!

  15. With respect to Kevin Behringer’s two points:
    I don’t think people expect “great” customer service. Friendly and competent would suffice.
    One rep shouldn’t make a difference. The real key to a company’s culture is what happens when you ask for a supervisor. They have the opportunity to make everything better, to apologize for the service you received from the first person. If they give you more of the same jive, you know it’s the company. That’s how they were trained.

  16. Hey Mitch,
    Solution is as simple as giving the CSRs a greater authority on making decisions ability to ignore scripts (More experienced reps seem to understand this principle). And always try to keep the client happy as we all know it costs a lot more getting a new client rather than keeping one.
    Feel better,
    Alex “Simple” Ikonn

  17. I don’t see why anyone should be reticent about “losing it” with inept customer service staff. Hell, when you fork over your money you’re not just paying for the gizmo in the box. You’re paying for the service too.
    Word to the wise: steer clear of customer service in South Africa. Seriously, here competence is the rara avis. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that businesses here employ people with little or no education and zero training to staff their call-centres – all in the name of keeping down costs and increasing profits.
    Mitch, next time you have an issue with product, just put it out on Twitter. Chances are you’ll get a lot more help from the people in your network than the people on the other side of that phone.

  18. Pure and simple – customer service is selling after the sale.
    The way we’re billed is selling.
    The way the product is packaged and delivered to us is selling.
    Companies forget that at their own peril.

  19. Mitch–
    All too true. It’s when customer service tries to fit every call into the same template that we get experiences like yours. And the truth is that 90% of the call DO fit into that template, so we need to listen to the reps on the front lines (our CTO blogged about it here: http://spoken.typepad.com/spoken/2009/06/want-to-improve-your-automatedspeech-recognition-system-ask-an-agent-.html) and train the service agents to recognize when the call is in that 10% that aren’t making a basic error and really do need some extra attention and care.
    Or, at the very least, patience!

  20. Very interesting post indeed – I will link to this on my blog. Customer service is an integral part of job and should not be seen as an extension of it. A company’s most vital asset is its customers. Without them, we would not and could not exist in business. When you satisfy customers, they not only help us grow by continuing to do business with you, but recommend you to friends and associates.
    Best Regards,

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