Industries that hate their customers

by James Duthie on September 2, 2008

We interrupt our normal programming… because today I just gotta get my rant on! Rather than the usual SEO/social media banter, I’m talking relationship marketing. Or more to the point… industries that totally suck at it! The topic is of sudden interest to me after a particularly bad experience with my telecommunications provider. Few people will be surprised to hear of my ‘pull your hair out’ experience with a telecommunications company. After all, Sprint received the top gong for providing the worst customer service in the USA in 2007 (with AT & T and Verizon also rounding out the Top 10). And here in Australia Telstra and Optus are hardly renowned as customer service kings. Indeed, my experience was enough to make me wonder if the old mantra of ‘The customer is always right’ had been replaced by ‘The customer is a complete pain in the ass, and I’d rather stab myself in the eyeball than actually help them’.

When relationship marketing goes wrong…

My own personal version of Dell Hell unfolded recently after my mobile/cell phone was disconnected by my telecommunications provider. The tumultuous chain of events are described below:

  • As part of an internal system upgrade, my telecommunications provider changed their online billing code. Consequently, online bills could no longer be issued from the original source.
  • As a savvy online consumer I willingly opted-in to receive my bill notifications exclusively via email a long time ago. But the change in payment process meant that bills could no longer be issued from that source. Indeed, customers were required to opt-in to the new payment process (a new online payer code). Which is all well and good… except they never told me.
  • Despite having both my email address and mobile/cell phone number, I never received a  communication advising of the change to the payment process. They may have attempted to send a postal letter my way, but my address was outdated as a result of recently moving house (the only part of the saga that I accept responsibility for). So much for communicating with customers in their preferred format…? I’m lucky to check my mailbox once a week. And by the way.. in case you hadn’t realised, email and text are a hell of a lot cheaper than postal mail…
  • After failing to receive a bill for two months, my account lapsed into an unpaid and overdue status. A short time later my service was disconnected (despite the fact that I have never missed a payment in 4 years). I discovered this fact when I attempted to call a client to inform them a colleague was running late for an impending meeting. I was on the road, but my phone was dead… and I had no way to contact the client or my colleague… grrr!!!
  • In my first attempt to rectify the situation, I called the customer help desk for ‘assistance’. However, it seemed that all was not well following the system upgrade. The operator was unable to access customer data, and consequently couldn’t help me. I was told to call back the next day for assistance. Urgh… another day without a phone!
  • The next few days were busy for me and I didn’t get around to calling back for another week (somehow managing to live without a mobile/cell phone). Despite this, I was greeted by an operator who advised that the system was still down. He listened to my frustrations and advised that he’d remove the block from my phone once the system was fixed. Finally… a resolution awaits.
  • I waited… and waited… and waited. Another 7 days passed without a mobile/cell connection. So I called in again… and what would you know… their system is finally working. I recall the tale of broken promises, but to no avail. There is no record of any customer interaction on my file… On the positive side, now that the system is up they can belatedly resolve the problem – “I’ll just put your through to someone who can help you”. Seven transfers and half an hour of my life later, the block is finally removed.
  • I am just about to hang up, relieved that the whole episode is over, when the operator gives me one final hurrah – “We’re going to have to charge you a $45 late payment fee”. At that point I finally lost the plot! After copping an earful the operator decided it was a better idea to waive that charge…

My biggest beef throughout the saga was that no attempt was made to contact me prior to disconnecting my phone, despite my excellent payment record. The company knew enough about me to piece it all together – I received my bills exclusively via email, I’d never missed a payment & they had changed their payment system. Look at the clues… A simple email or text prior to disconnection would have resolved the problem.

However… every cloud has a silver lining. And in my case, that silver lining is the fact that I’m out of contract with my current telecommunications provider. Interestingly, I would have thought that would have made retaining my business a high priority. It’s far cheaper to retain a current customer than to find a new one, particularly in a market as competitive as mobile telemcommunications. And it’s even harder to find and retain good customers (like one who has remained loyal for 4 years and never missed a payment). Seems like the marketing team skipped their classes in relationship marketing. And for that… they can kiss my sweet ass goodbye.

Other industries that hate their customers

The telecommunications industry is certaintly not alone in their treatment of customers. Here’s a few others that spring to mind:


There’s so many reasons to hate the banks – inflexible operating hours, exorbitant fees (for transactions that cost them nothing), excessive waiting periods for customer service & many, many more. But perhaps the most poignant example of the general disdain banks feel for customers has been demonstrated via interest rate movements. For six years, the banks of Australia have raised interest rates in line with moves from the Reserve Bank of Australia. However, with the economy now taking a dip, the Reserve Bank finally moved interest rates in the negative. In the lead up to the rate reduction, the banks refused to confirm whether the cuts would be passed on to customers, stating that the effects of the US sub prime crisis were still affecting them. Because sometimes, it seems record profits simply aren’t enough… Only after after extreme government pressure did the banks fall in to line. Thanks for your concern…

Public Transport

Perhaps this is just a Melbourne thing, because I know public transport networks in other parts of the world are first class. But our train network completely sucks ass, as proven by the performance indicators. In July, 93.5% of services were on time, which might not sound too bad at first glance. However, the classification of ‘on time’ is somewhat creative, including any train that arrives within 5 minutes of the scheduled departure time. Remove the 5 minute buffer and I’m certain delivery falls well below 90%. How many industries can survive when one in ten products fails to meet quality standards? It seems even the government has given up on public transport by introducing a new penalty structure that limits fines for service delivery failure… sigh.

The spending habits of our friendly public transport provider gives us the concrete proof needed to confirm that they do in fact hate their customers. Rather than spending precious funds on improving the quality of the service, they find it more appropriate to:

  1. Pay for ad campaigns that belittle fare evaders
  2. Employ more hired goons to bash passengers

Real estate

An industry in which lying, manipulating and downright deceiving customers is not only accepted, but taught and promoted. The less said about real estate agents the better.

Notice the common theme between the industries listed above? They’re all essential services. We need banks. We need telecommunications. And we need public transport. We can’t live without any of them. Unfortunately, it seems the companies operating in these industries realise this. And as a result they take us for granted.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Neil Mattingley September 3, 2008 at 2:24 am

I think your a bit tough on the real estate industry James. I have been in the industry for over two years and attended many seminars as well as listened to countless others on audio.

The industry is aware that there is a credability problem and seems to be at pains to empahasize values such as ethics, integrity, honesty, service.

I have never been shown how to deceive people. I have no doubt that it goes on but to suggest that it is taught and promoted, at least in the big scheme of things, is wrong.

James Duthie September 3, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Thanks for your comments Neil. It’s nice to know there are some honest real estate agents out there. My article is part tongue in cheek, but also part truth based on personal experiences. Indeed, the agent I bought my house off was one of the slimiest characters you’re ever likely to meet. Think every bad cliche of a real estate agent rolled into one. Perhaps that’s clouded my judgement… perhaps not.

If it’s any consolation, we online marketers often face the same stigma based on dodgy snake oil salesmen. Just ask any SEO…

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