Customer Service: Admit You Have a Problem

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Jan 29, 2003

Last year, I wrote a column describing a horrible customer service experience with Virgin Atlantic Airlines. Last time, I detailed some user experience nightmares I had with other companies:,, and I've never received as much reader feedback as I did following those two columns. In addition to sharing their own horror stories, readers made an overwhelming request: “Let us know if they ever contact you, and tell us what happened.” Today's column is about how these companies did (or did not) follow up.

My friends told me however these companies responded, it wouldn't be representative of how they'd respond under “normal” circumstances. That is to say, most irate customers don't have a column about CRM and user experience they can use to vent their frustration. So what is there to learn if they respond to me? When I might “besmirch” their reputations to a large audience?

Although I understand the logic of that argument, my experience shows the manner in which a company treats customers has nothing to do with any particular customer. The vast difference in how these companies addressed my complaints prove to me that within a company, customer service is an ingrained mentality. Across the board, all customers are treated more or less the same.

Remembering Virgin

Some of you will recall I sent Virgin a letter complaining how uncomfortable its seats were. (In case you're reading this, Virgin, I received hundreds of e-mails from people who felt the same way.) Virgin's response was a one-page letter telling me how “surprised” it was. It thinks its seats are very spacious. The company denied I could have been uncomfortable.

A few weeks after the column ran, someone from Virgin called. Not the woman who sent that letter, but someone who works with her. She told me she was sorry my seat was uncomfortable, and she would send my complaint to the seat manufacturer.


That would have been a fine response in the original letter, some six months earlier. But the call this woman made was not about my initial complaint. It was about my column. My point was not the uncomfortable seats, but how Virgin's brand was besmirched by clueless customer service people devoid of the same brand values as their marketing departments. I'm not sure what an appropriate apology is for brand mismanagement, but surely it isn't sending my chair complaint to the manufacturer.

What kills me is I spent two hours on the phone explaining (free consulting time, basically) this woman's department mismanaged the brand and how important it is she and her team be more aware of branding issues when speaking with customers.

She clearly didn't understand my point and just kept apologizing for the uncomfortable chair. After repeated attempts to explain the conversation wasn't about the chair, I gave up.

If you're wondering if there was a “reward,” she offered a few thousand miles for my frequent flyer account. I asked what the miles were good for. She replied, “After you fly with us again at full price, you'll have enough miles for a free flight.” A different topic (not particularly relevant to the point of this column), but I explained the perceived value of miles I couldn't actually redeem for a reward until I spent considerably more money with Virgin. She eventually gave me more miles, but I've never again flown with Virgin.

ShopNBC Listens

Last week, I wrote about unsuccessfully trying to obtain price credit on a ShopNBC item. The price had changed right after we bought the item. Company policy is to give you the lower price.

I got a phone call from a VP at ShopNBC the same day the column ran. The VP was sincere in his willingness to understand what went wrong. He had a hunch what the problem was (a policy change a few months earlier concerned this same issue, and a few loopholes still weren't closed). After I supplied him with more information, he came back to me with exactly what the problem was. As I'd thought, no one had updated the messaging on the Web site or informed customer service of the change. I had written the experience was not an example of poor customer service but of poor interdepartmental communication.

A more telling sign concerning how ShopNBC views its customers was something this VP said. In a nutshell, he admitted everyone tries the best he can and must own up to, and learn from, mistakes. He said, “Admitting you have a problem” is his first step to solving the problem.

He is 100 percent correct.

Corporate Hubris Equals a $0.60 Stock Price

I remember the CEO of a major retailer telling a story. His marketing department had commissioned an extensive user survey. With a big smile, he told us when they gave him a report containing the feedback summaries, he threw them in the garbage because “I know what my customers want!”

That brand of corporate hubris trickles down to every level within a company. It's clear Virgin Atlantic doesn't really want to listen to its customers. It is too impressed with its own brand image. It is also clear ShopNBC is genuinely interested in becoming the best site it can. It shows real concern for its user experience and wants to learn from its mistakes.

At deadline, Amazon and Sony haven't been in touch. I don't expect they will be. It's not in their corporate culture to think others may have answers to their problems.

The number one way to be a success in business is listen to your customers. How many of you really have your ears open? Most companies talk about listening. But they talk about it too much to actually hear anything.

Are you impressed with any company's willingness to learn from its mistakes, or do you remain disappointed? Let me know!

Until next time…


Reprinted from ClickZ.

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