5 Lessons You Can Learn from a Breathtaking Customer Service Fail

FAILOh Paul Christoforo, what would we have done last week without you?

Twas the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There wasn’t much to read, not much going on other than the whole annoying “real life” thing.

Just when we were nearly reduced to checking out our weird cousin Lenny’s 120-part Facebook timeline of meringue sculpture, we were blessed with a stunning social media fail.

An irresistible account of arrogance, cluelessness, and incompetence described in a post on Penny Arcade — appropriately titled Just Wow.

If you didn’t see it, the post outlines an email exchange between an increasingly frustrated customer and a rude, belligerent company representative who isn’t much of a master of written English.

Now, you’re much too smart to actually act like Christoforo. But even for those who know how to spell both marketing and strategy, there are some lessons to be learned.

Here are my thoughts on five (with a bonus for you):

Lesson 1: There are a lot of stupid, incompetent people calling themselves social media marketing experts

Christoforo billed himself as a social media, SEO, and marketing expert. (His website also says he can handle reputation management for you. I would suggest you not use him for this.)

He sold those skills to the company N-Control, which makes the video game controller that was the subject of that ill-fated customer email exchange.

It’s tempting to think you can completely outsource your customer communication, from support to content to social media relationships … that you can “let someone else think about that.”

And it’s almost always an awful idea.

Which leads quite directly to lesson #2:

Lesson 2: You have to understand the basics

Yes, you can get help with social media. Yes, you might benefit from someone teaching your organization how to improve your real-time communication with customers.

Yes, there actually are some very smart, helpful social media consultants out there.

But you have to know how it works for yourself, so you can tell good advice from terrible advice.

You don’t have to learn how to update your timeline on Facebook or what the heck to use Pinterest for. You don’t necessarily have to know every specific tactic.

You do have to understand the overall strategy.

Hiding behind “I don’t have time to learn about social media” is like hiding behind “I don’t have time to learn how to use the telephone.” Social media is how your customers talk with one another (and with you) about your company.

You need to know enough to set effective policies, to know what to look for in an employee or consultant, and to integrate social media (as well as all the other ways you talk to customers) into your company’s way of doing business.

By the way? All of this goes for SEO as well. There are probably even more incompetent, unethical SEOs out there than there are bad social media consultants. They can destroy your reputation much more quickly than you can rebuild it.

Lesson 3: Oh yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity

Bad stories spread. Horrible stories spread really quickly.

And social media makes it so much easier to spread a juicy horrible story.

People used to say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Only very foolish people say that now.

Sure, Christoforo now has a Wikipedia page. You can read the full (dusty, dry version) account of the story there. Or you can get juicier versions on any of a dozen other high-ranking blogs.

In none of these does Christoforo sound like a person anyone should hire. For anything.

Dan Kennedy said a long time ago that if your business sucks, great marketing will get the word out really quickly about how wretched you are.

Some people think Dan doesn’t understand the internet, but I think he’s got it in a nutshell there.

Lesson 4: Bad service gets attention

Take a look at your own Facebook account or Twitter stream. On any given day, count how many people complain about a bad business experience.

Pay special attention to what gets people angry enough to start throwing social media mud:

  • Uncaring customer service
  • Customer service people who don’t know the product
  • Customer service people who don’t have the authority to fix problems
  • Rude service people
  • Condescending service people
  • Service people who lie

Notice something missing?

Most of the complaints you’ll find have nothing to do with products. If a product isn’t very good, customers will return it, but they don’t usually complain too bitterly about it.

They start shouting in social media over lousy service much more often than they shout about lousy products.

(Obviously I’m not saying you should have lousy products. But they won’t kill your business as quickly as bad service will.)

The gaming community has grumbled in the past about N-Control not hitting product deadlines, and that’s a challenge their company will need to address. But it wasn’t until a really good rude email “service” experience that the story went viral.

Lesson 5: 9 problems out of 10 can be solved by good manners

Because it was a slow week and because we’re talking about the computer gaming community, which is tightly networked and good at finding things on Google, all sorts of personal details emerged very quickly about Christoforo and his company.

As it so often does on the internet, things got out of hand, with personal information being published not only about Christoforo but also about his family.

No, that is not a cool thing to do, but you can’t count on everyone on the internet being cool. Any time you feel tempted to doubt this fact, go read some comments on YouTube.

If Christoforo had answered his customer’s request with normal good manners, the story would have died quietly. An annoyance, worthy of some twitter griping but basically within the boundaries of things we put up with every day.

Particularly with a small business, customers understand that problems come up. They understand that no one is perfect. And they’re surprisingly willing to forgive.

Treat people kindly and with respect. Good manners will buy you more than a million-dollar ad budget. And they’re free.

Bonus Lesson: If you’re going to be an ass, try not to be too entertaining about it

Social media attention spans are short, and most information addicts have already moved on to whether or not their football team embarrassed themselves this weekend.

But a lot of digital ink got spilled over Christoforo last week. It’s a bummer when hundreds of sites are publishing stories that combine your name with the phrase “train wreck.”

I think about 2/3 of these would have passed on the story as just another troll doing troll-like things if Christoforo hadn’t been using the userid @OceanMarketting. (He then abandoned that identity and grabbed @OceanStratagy instead.)

A social media expert who can’t spell his company’s name correctly in his twitter account. How often do you get to see that?

All of which points to the probable final word about Paul Christoforo.

He’s just too perfect, too magnificent a combination of elements. The bad spelling and insane grammar, the belligerence, the dating profile, the scraped business website content, the remarkable consistency of persona no matter what events unfold.

The words “I couldn’t make this up” come up again and again when people talk about Christoforo.

I’m stealing my friend Maureen’s explanation for that.

We couldn’t make him up — that would take the work of a masterful team of professionals working at the top of their game. Yes, I think Paul Christoforo is a character invented by The Onion.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and CMO of Copyblogger Media. Share your favorite social media train wreck stories with her on twitter.

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Reader Comments (58)

  1. says

    Wow indeed!
    Paul Christoforo has just killed that companies business, his own business. He’ll never work again.
    Only a name change, personality change and plastic surgery can save him now.

  2. Mudhooks says

    You forgot to mention failing to ensure that if you do hire a third party to deal with customer service, you have a contract that covers and provides penalties for egregeous behaviour that damages your company’s reputation.

  3. says

    Just Wow…
    “Welcome to the Internet ? Son Im 38 ” – Great one. 38 but nothing learned in the last years…
    @Sarah: you’re right. That’s like a business headshot…

  4. Steven Gibbs says

    Wow! Shaking my head while slowly clapping my hands, it’s a shame that people gotta be that way. Karma’s a *****!

  5. says

    Unbelievable. Really, really unbelievable. Mind boggling, actually! It kind of sounds like kindergarten playground banter with grown-up language.

    So true that an ounce of respect and decorum can go so far in resolving conflict. And I love your point that most complaints have nothing to do with products. So true. Great lessons here – thanks for the synopsis.

  6. says

    While looking for reviews on a Copyblogger product, I stumbled upon a comment section fire fight between Brian Clark and the blogger. I didn’t even agree with the primary assertion of the blogger, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from Brian’s increasing agitated response. I also saw that other blogs picked up the story.

    I actually still purchased the product, and I love the product, and I referred people to the product…

    But it’s hard not to forget that blog dustup!

    • says

      Different situations, but you make a good point that when you lose your temper, you lose power.

      Happens to all of us at times, but it can’t happen in a customer support setting like this one.

  7. Enoch Fung says

    Christoforo named dropped to get his way to the top but he didn’t actually know any of the people. That’s another lesson.

    • says

      Absolutely, thanks for the reminder. Lame at the best of times, guaranteed FAIL if you do it online where it’s easy for people to see you’ve done it and disavow any relationship.

  8. David Pederson says

    Thanks Sonia,
    I love stories and this was a dramatic one; a great twist on the premis that we never grow up. The mudslinging and bullying created traits for a terrific villian, especially when they originated from an adult who almost gleefully used them against a child. I look forward to building a new character from this material and perhaps using it in my next conference. Such moral bankruptcy is worth a long term study to see when he completes his inevitable self destruction. Hopefully, he will have ground his company into the ground first so that the impact is limited to him.

    You post was a new year’s gift.
    Thank you.

  9. Dani says

    It’s pretty hard to imagine how one small email exchange could ruin a person… still, Paul deserved it after being such a bastard!

    Also, as a grammar nazi… my eyes burnt from reading it on penny arcade, god awful spelling!

    • says

      The email just snowballed into revealing a lot of other behavior that was easy to find on the web once people started looking.

      You can have a really, really bad day and go off on someone and have things turn out ok. This was more like a pattern of behavior that finally caught up with the person.

      • Dani says

        I see your point. Dave was tolerant at first but after Paul repeated himself a couple of times and then ended with a big rant, that’s when Dave exploded. Check mate Paul, you cornered your own king there.

        • says

          Right — and Dave didn’t lose anything, he didn’t get any bad karma when his patience ran out.

          Sometimes we do lose our tempers and it would be silly if I tried to tell people never to get snippy on the internet. :) But people who have a pattern of being nasty online have a way of attracting failure.

  10. says

    I was a little late in reading this story, only did a couple of days ago and found it funny, the spin people had put on it, and then the stupidity of this person came to mind.

    If you run a business, I don’t how you would think you would ever get away with being so rude to a customer. It isn’t hard to show some good manners after all. Even if he felt angry at the time, it was an email, he could have calmed down and thought about what he was going to say. But who can say what was going through his mind at the time.

    Good manners cost nothing.

  11. says

    I look at social marketing like this — if you wouldn’t plaster it on a billboard for your mother to see — don’t put it out there for the internet.

    I have a feeling “going Christoforo” is going to be the next meme – similar to “going postal” – but for the social web.

  12. says

    That email exchange was hilarious. Love the “bonus lesson” too.

    Being polite goes a long way. And it’s amazing how two nice people can blow up in each other’s face with the right ingredients. I became good friends at Blog World with people I’d offended in this virtual thingy.

    And it’s looking like 2011 is static HTML, Brian. :)

  13. says

    Wow. Good manners are so important. This is true of writers promoting their novels, like I am. There was a terrible dust up last year with a writer unhappy with her review. 1400 posts later… Worst publicity for a book. You just have be polite and listen. In customer service, take the critiquer seriously.

  14. says

    Hi Sonia,

    If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything nasty.

    The quickest way to absolutely crash and burn in social media – or life – is to be a jerk. It takes a bit of self control and a wide, toothy grin, but you can take just about any complaint in a positive light. Be nice. Smile. Be courteous.

    The second you get snippy, or nasty, or low energy, karma becomes a problem. Quickly. A little while back another individual wrote a pretty low energy comment on 1 of my posts. Mind you, no business relationship exists between us, but does this person realize how poorly said comment reflects on their brand? Once you hit “enter”, it’s up for social consumption, and when someone gets their cyber paws on your snippy commentary, forget about it.

    Thanks for sharing the cautionary tale Sonia.


  15. says

    Wow. I never thought a professional would stoop to name calling with a customer. And I thought I had bad customer service last week. An impatient cashier pales in comparison to what Dave had to endure.

    • says

      Of course he’s not a professional service rep (um, good thing) — he was “helping out.” Which leads me to another lesson I could have put in there — communication with your customer (whether private like email or public like twitter) isn’t an afterthought you can leave to some dude who happens to be hanging around your office.

  16. says

    Great post, Sonia – “just wow” is right! And I thought my experience with Verizon was bad (the story’s on my blog if you’re so inclined) – at least they never descended into verbal (or grammatical) abuse!

  17. Brad says

    As my boss says; good customer service goes unsaid – bad customer service always gets spoken.

  18. says

    I agree this is a powerful story that can teach a lot, and I’d be interested to know more of Christoforo’s life-experience. I don’t think people are just magically born assholes, and I like to think he’s grown from this experience, and sometime from now, he’ll be more… solution-oriented. :)

    My favourite part from this post Sonia, is:

    “Dan Kennedy said a long time ago that if your business sucks, great marketing will get the word out really quickly about how wretched you are. Some people think Dan doesn’t understand the internet, but I think he’s got it in a nutshell there.”

    LOVE this. :)

    Dan has a brilliant mind, and is quite the personality, and has generally stayed away from most of the internet — but he most definitely understands a cornerstone of the internet: communication.

    • says

      One of Kennedy’s great strengths is that he doesn’t get distracted, he focuses on fundamentals. He understands that a powerful underlying message remains powerful no matter how it’s delivered. A lot of more allegedly “sophisticated” social media pundits don’t get that.

      • says

        yes, Yes, YES.

        Preach on 😉

        I may quote you on this, if you’re cool with it.

        “A powerful underlying message remains powerful no matter how it’s delivered. ” – Sonia Simone (Google says no one else on the net has said this exact phrase :P)

        I’d love more people to understand this concept so clearly.

  19. says

    This was great. I needed to hear some of these things as well but I can relate to some of those bad “social media consultants.” Some of these individuals are not quite so great in terms of what they actually do and can hurt you more than help you. It is alway important to look at the work that they have done first before checking out with them.

  20. says

    I have never thought of it that way, you are so right people don’t usually complain about a broken product but they will about bad customer service. I guess customer service can be rectified very quickly whereas a product will take more time to rectify.

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