Customer Service: More Brickbats Than Bouquets

You interact with various customer service personnel throughout your day, and most of the time it’s acceptable – the store clerk who points you in the right direction, the pleasant and efficient cashier, the telephone customer service agent who sorts out your billing problem – but it’s not really memorable.

The really memorable encounters are either really bad, or exceptionally good.

Related: What’s happening to the service industry?

When thinking about the customer service I’ve received lately, I was dismayed to realize that I could recall dozens of examples of terrible service, but only one example of exceptional service.

Do companies simply not care anymore?

My brickbats go to the following companies.

My Customer Service Hall of Shame

1. Fitz’s Carpets and Flooring

We had our basement carpet replaced. At almost 1500 square feet it wasn’t a small job. Apparently the sales associate wasn’t used to dealing with women in his manly world of flooring because he either ignored what I was saying, or was so condescending – “Well, thaat’s okaaay.” – I was expecting a pat on the head.

Once we had sorted everything out I spoke to him on the phone to make the final arrangements for installation and payment.

Salesman: “Maybe you’d better get Mr. Boomer to call me back first to confirm all this.”

Are you kidding me?!?

Several months later we received a telephone call advising us to take advantage of their great spring sale prices –  NOT!!

2. Rona

I like to patronize Canadian stores, but to keep my business they still have to beef up their customer service. Do they not train their staff? Are they so disinterested that they don’t know what their store even sells?

Related: What I learned from working retail

A group of sales associate at my local Rona were milling about in a corner chatting. I asked them if the store sold kitchen appliances. Blank stare, shoulder shrug, glance at each other – “I dunno.”  Unlike Home Depot, Rona does not sell large appliances so they would have saved me the time and trouble of wandering around a giant store if they could have answered my question.

Giving them another try, we went back to purchase some recessed light fixtures for the kitchen. The box included light bulbs. A few days after my husband installed them, one of the bulbs burned out. We went back to the store expecting to get a free replacement bulb. Again – blank stare, shoulder shrug, “I dunno”.

I got my replacement bulb alright – after paying an additional $16.99 – and I definitely won’t be back anytime soon.


When we moved from Alberta to B.C. our car insurance premiums nearly tripled. When I (barely) got over the shock, it was determined we could receive a 25% discount with a 5-year good driving record.

What follows is a prime example of why government should stay out of businesses that are more efficiently run by private enterprises. I have never run across agents that are as rude, incompetent, and uninformed as these.

Related: My loyalty never got me a free 42″ TV

Six months later I’m still in correspondence with them over the discount. Apparently we should have only received 20%.

  • They didn’t receive the letter from our previous insurance company that I personally handed to them.
  • After I resubmitted it, they didn’t like the date on the letter. I obtained a new letter.
  • They didn’t get this letter either, even though I sent it in the pre-addressed envelope they had provided. Sent it again.
  • The driving record was not for a full 5 years. (It’s four days short.) I have to get a letter from the insurance company before that one. They’ll leave the file open until a date 2-days before the date of the letter they sent.

That’s enough! I’m not getting a new letter! Send me a bill already – you’re making me use up all my expensive stamps.

My Customer Service Hall of Fame

1. Keurig

The digital display lit up, the pot made the hissing noises it does when it’s heating the water, but the coffee did not brew.

The customer service agent at the 1-800 number patiently talked me through possible remedies – but nothing worked.

She put in an order for a replacement to be delivered to me, even though it was past the one-year warranty. Even though it happened during the busy Christmas season, a new coffee pot arrived just a few days later. I was impressed.

Final thoughts

What are your memorable customer service experiences, either in person or on the phone?

How often are you genuinely delighted with the level of service you receive in a store or on the phone?

Or is it more likely that you want to shriek in frustration?

Related: Good customer service – finish what you start

A survey asked Canadian consumers what constituted good business service. Customers said they wanted to deal with friendly, competent staff who treated them as if they were important, listened to what they had to say, and dealt with their requests quickly.

Is that too demanding?

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  1. Tawcan on March 3, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Man don’t get me started on ICBC. They’re just terrible. BC should really allow privatizing of the car insurance business and allow more competitions.

    • Boomer on March 3, 2015 at 6:40 pm

      @Tawcan: I totally agree. I don’t understand why they don’t privatize.

    • max on March 4, 2015 at 6:20 am

      You really do NOT want to be in our situation in Ontario! It’s unbelievable to me how private insurance companies have been given a free hand to exploit motorists especially new immigrants….And the customer service is even more atrocious than what was described in the article above…..If you don’t believe me, just move to Ontario

    • Jon on March 4, 2015 at 6:38 am

      Privatization is not necessarily the answer for getting better performance or better prices. The key is to get some form of real competition in to the market, whether you have the private sector, public sector, or both involved in competing for business in that market. It’s challenging in competitive markets however when suppliers don’t prioritize customer service. If no supplier is offering good customer service, there is less incentive for any supplier to offer good customer service. A smart supplier would better off recognizing their competitors’ poor service as an opportunity to get ahead, by offering an alternative.

      • Diane on March 4, 2015 at 7:12 am

        I am totally satisfied with our insurance company. The phone is always answered within a few rings and whoever answers the phone, they are always able to deal with my requests, quickly and efficiently. On those rare occasions where they need to get more information, I receive a return call the same day.

  2. Chantal on March 3, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Your carpet and flooring story is one I encounter all too often. When last shopping for a vehicle, I found that at each car dealership I visited the salesman inevitably directed their questions at my husband, despite the fact that we had clearly indicated it was me who was buying a car (and my husband would indicate they should be addressing their comments to the purchaser, which was not him). Although he likes to come along for the test drives, I ended up going to the dealership for the actual purchase by myself, simply to avoid this syndrome.

    • Boomer on March 3, 2015 at 6:44 pm

      @Chantal: I encountered this gender bias when I was in my 20’s but I thought we were over it in this day and age. I’ve been the invisible woman when buying our latest vehicle, washer and dryer, mattress and even a tie for my husband (where I was almost knocked out of the way).

  3. Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet on March 3, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    When I go into any major bank I’m disappointed pretty much all of the time with the level of knowledge in terms of products, investments or mortgages. They’re geared towards one thing – selling, and it’s so obvious they aren’t looking out for the best interests of the customer.

    Regarding ICBC – not great service and even worse that some ICBC employees in 2010 had fraudulently flipped cars for a profit that were previously written off

  4. Northmoon on March 4, 2015 at 7:42 am

    I have a good service story to share. I ordered two tops from Adea, a US company, during an on line 50% off sale. When they arrived the size on the second top had defaulted back to size 2, not the size 5 I needed.

    I returned the top. Soon an email arrived saying that they were out of my size in the navy that I’d ordered, but they would send me the right size in another colour or give me a refund. None of the other sale colours in my size appealed to me, so I asked if I could have the white top (which hadn’t been on sale). The customer service rep asked her supervisor and then sent me the white top, even though it was never in the sale and technically the error in size was mine.

    I call this pretty good customer service, but I wonder if it was because it was a United States business, not a Canadian one.

    Your carpet store interaction is shocking in this day and age. I deal with contractors regularly and haven’t seen that type of condescening manner for many years. Sad to hear the chauvanists are still out there!

  5. Mike Collins on March 4, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Best customer service I remember getting lately was from Weber. I bought a grill and had it assembled in my backyard. First time using it I noticed the gas wasn’t very strong and when I looked more closely I noticed the installed a piece upside down which resulted in the hose carrying gas from the propane tank to the grill was crimped and had actually torn. That meant I had a gas leak dangerously close to the fire.

    I called up Weber to order a new hose and I was amazed at the service the provided. They service rep spent a ton of time with me explaining various features and offering me some useful tips. He went way above and beyond and left me very impressed.

    • Boomer on March 4, 2015 at 11:20 am

      @Mike Collins:

      Thanks for sharing your examples of good service. Apparently, all is not lost 🙂

  6. David on March 4, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Bad service? Try a restaurant in Italy. After 2 weeks of abysmal service, exhorbidant prices and awful food I was delighted to get back to Canada. I am talking about the Milan, Florence, Rome and Venice.

  7. Ken on March 5, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Funny how we can generalize about a company’s customer service based on one or two personal incidents. Can you imagine how well a company would do, if they treated everyone the same as those related incidents. I imagine that these are exceptions to the general rule and I would give those responding the benefit of the doubt that they are good customers.

    Getting good service is an art, along the lines of negotiating. Establishing a personal connection, understanding their limits and thinking of the long term are basic tips. It is easy to recount bad experiences Far rarer is hearing of experiences where someone has been able to turn a bad experience into a good one. Article such as this become self fulfilling prophecies by leading other to believe they will get poor service. Some of us like sunshine, others like to complain that they will get skin cancer. Choose your path.

    • Beth on March 8, 2015 at 8:26 am

      I agree! It’s a different story when it’s patterns of bad behaviour or it’s a small business where you can’t help but deal with the same person over and over again.

      My worst customer experience was at a car dealership where a salesman treated me and my friend like little children. The experience was bad enough that I was tempted to write a letter to management, but decided not to do them any favours. I know from working in customer service that the worse case scenario isn’t a customer who complains and allows you to make things right — it’s the person who quietly goes away and never comes back.

  8. Shawna on March 5, 2015 at 9:54 am

    My Hall of Shame business is Best Buy. We went to buy a new iPad and a set of Bose headphones. They didn’t have the colour of iPad in stock that we wanted, so we ordered it, and kudos on that as it shipped quickly to the store. But the headphones were a problem. We picked the empty box of the model we wanted and the store clerk had to go in the back to get the product, but unfortunately we didn’t notice that he brought the headphones designed to work with a Samsung Galaxy, not the iPhone ones we wanted. I guess we were too busy trying to decline the extended warranty the clerk was trying to sell us.

    My husband noticed it was the wrong headphones after the package had already been opened in the car on the ride home. He went straight back and they refused to change them out because the package had been opened. The clerk when we made the purchase didn’t say anything about them not being returnable once the package was opened, and when my husband explained this he was told that info is located on the receipt. Who is going look that closely at the receipt before opening their product?? We called Best Buy customer service when we got home again and were told someone would get back to us within 3 days. 5 days passed and no one called, so we called again. Again they refused to do anything to rectify what was their mistake = a poorly trained staff member.

    Hall of Fame = Bose!! My husband went to the Bose store with the headphones, explained what happened at Best Buy and they immediately swapped them out for the correct ones, even though we didn’t buy them there!

    • Boomer on March 5, 2015 at 10:48 am

      @Shawna: I’m glad it worked out for you.

  9. I am the point with Saskatchewan large department stores and chains I just wont go there. I try on clothes on trips to the US / Toronto etc and knowing the sizes buy online in sales. Otherwise small local boutiques where you meet the owner.
    The big stores have lost the plot. I was pleased “Laura” a ladies clothes shop had opened here having found some good pieces in it in Winnipeg and Alberta but the changing rooms were filthy , the assistant kept disappearing so I couldn’t get sizes to try ( no one else in shop though )I brought two long skirts and when I got home 3 hours away they had put the same skirt in the bag in two sizes. I called and was told it was my fault for talking to the cashier and distracting her. I could return but had to pay postage etc and they would send me back a gift card. Wont bother and wont bother going there again. It was the crack about talking to the assistant : so they would prefer we are rude or ignore them? I always make a point of being friendly , I did that job in college and know they don’t usually earn much so I feel at least can treat them with dignity. Usually it elicits a positive helpful response though.

  10. N on March 9, 2015 at 11:40 am

    Over the years, I’ve found the following to be generally true: When a customer has a good experience, he tells a few people. When a customer has a bad experience, he tells several people, and if you really upset him, he will tell everyone who will stop to listen.

    For myself, a few bad incidents stand out. At Tiffany & Co., a simple resizing of an engagement ring turned into massive damage in the engraving (scratched in with a blunt object), setting (crooked prongs), and polishing process (left sharp and unfinished) that lasted well over six months, and four one-hour-long trips to the store during business hours. What was supposed to take a few weeks turned into over half a year, plus time off work to go to the store, only to leave empty-handed. I photocopied receipts and service tickets, documented dates, people, etc. to have a complete record to show to the manager. When I received the scratched and not lasered engraving, I took it straight to the manager. Thankfully I did so there was no question that I inflicted the damage. The manager called to personally apologize herself for their mistake.

    I was glad they took their service seriously and even had meetings about my purchase. After six months though, the process was taking way too long for what and I gave up on what should have been a simple task. Thankfully, they refunded the money (outside of the return period) and offered a small gift for my troubles. Because of their response, I would buy from them again, as long as nothing went through their service department.

    In another case, I overheard a muttered comment from an M&Ms Meat Shop employee who made a racist statement about the customer making a purchase several feet away. I reported her and her manager said they had issues with customers from a specific ethnicity bringing several coupons into the store when it should be one per person. They also had had many customer service issues with this employee. When I said it didn’t excuse the employee’s comment, I received a $20 gift card. I passed along the gift card to someone else and felt terrible for anyone who spent their money there.

    With all that said, I have received amazing customer service at a few places. One is my local Shoppers Drug Mart who lets me exchange diapers I’ve purchased there for a larger size, even without the receipt. I know the manager is bending the rules a bit, so I make sure to say hello to him every few weeks when I’m in making another purchase.

  11. Sylvain Robitaille on March 3, 2016 at 12:53 am

    I would like to add to the customer service hall of fame: Lee Valley stores. Tools for woodworking, gardening, and the like. We’ve “tested” their returns policy rather infrequently, but never had any difficulty dealing with staff at any of the stores we’ve visited. At one point, they even refunded a purchase for a defective item that we hadn’t complained about (I believed I’d been using it wrong). As the item had consequently been discontinued from their catalog, we were told there was no need to return it. We simply had been issued an unsolicited refund! That particular type of service hasn’t recurred (most products we buy from them are well beyond satisfactory), but we always have a positive experience when dealing with them, either for purchases, returns, or simply a question. Absolutely a customer service hall of fame candidate!

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