Making a Charlie of themselves: The Darwin Awards for customer service

12th Feb 2014

Today is International Darwin Day. So, what better way to celebrate the feats of one of the world’s greatest thinkers than by showcasing the evolution of the technologies, philosophies and practices that our very own customer service industry has advanced since the ‘Origin of Selling’, many moons ago?

Or….perhaps what would be funnier, given that we tend to showcase the development of customer services pretty much every day, would be to instead take a leaf out of the Darwin Awards’ book, and celebrate those who have done everything in their power to set the evolutionary process back a few years. Some of the finest and most comical examples of extreme customer service failure known to man.

Here goes.

(P.S. feel free to add links to your own examples in the comments page below. If this proves successful, we might just make these awards an annual feature.)

Darwin award: How not to treat a customer

We’re always banging on about the importance of the customer experience here at MyCustomer, but in this sales rep’s defence, he took this particular phone call way before this concept was ever conceived. At least that’s how it seems. Either that or he’s mad. You decide. Go ahead little girl. Get out of here…  

Darwin award: How not to treat all of your customers   

It’s nearly 30 years since Coca-Cola delivered one of the greatest customer fails in history, but it’s still worth giving page space to the story one more time.

Imagine delivering the same product for 100 years to millions and millions of people across the globe, with little or no complaint, and then deciding one day to change the product for a version you think is better.

That’s what Coca-Cola did in 1985, when it released ‘New Coke’ to the surprise of its adorning public. The company believed it was the right time to change the magic formula of its age-old recipe, so swapped it for a sweeter, tastier, focus group-tested version it was convinced would enhance sales.

Unfortunately, this didn’t go down as well with the public as the focus group. After months of uproar the old version of Coke was reintroduced as ‘Coca-Cola Classic’, and New Coke was, eventually after a few years of rebranding, canned (boom-boom). The event went down in business study folklore.   

A Coca-Cola statement about the failure says it all: “To hear some tell it, April 23, 1985, was a day that will live in marketing infamy... spawning consumer angst the likes of which no business has ever seen.”

Darwin award: How not to treat a nation's entire cultural identity

In 1997, what did people hold aloft as a symbol of true Britishness? The Queen? Big Ben? A pint of Boddingtons?! Or was it the tailfins of British Airways (BA) planes?

BA found out the hard way, when it decided its planes’ good old-fashioned blue-white-and-red tails were too nationalistic for ‘Cool Britannia’, with its Brit Pop, New Labour and Damien Hirst installations. So it paid £60m to rebrand its entire fleet to a variety of different world art designs. "Perhaps we need to lose some of our old-fashioned Britishness and take on board some of the new British traits,” said then-CEO, Bob Ayling, upon unveiling the new planes to the expecting public.  

Unknowingly, he’d just p****d off an entire nation, who still saw the Union Jacks on the back of BA planes as a British product to be proud of as they zipped from country to country. The Independent’s Hugh Aldersey-Williams reported it perfectly, saying: “Two things afflict corporate identities as they mature: failing consistency of appearance and, if the original work was successful, a growing number of imitators. When it unveiled its new identity, British Airways solved both problems at a stroke.”

The airline had destroyed its own identity. Customers disappeared from BA faster than music lovers at a Spice Girls gig. The final nail was hammered into the coffin when former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher covered a model of one of the new designs with a handkerchief, declaring: “We fly the British flag, not these awful things.”

BA soon returned its planes to their original style. But some might argue the company never recovered. It certainly isn’t seen as a pillar of British culture anymore.   

Honourable mention: How not to prepare for logging a complaint

Just to prove that it’s not all one way traffic, here’s a fantastic little video about why, as a customer, checking and double-checking your story, and the injustice you feel it wreaks, is vital before logging any kind of complaint. And also, try not to be as thick as two short planks:

Honourable mention: How not to save a sinking ship

In 2005, Blockbuster Video was being attacked from all corners in the US, notably from new internet services like Netflix who could offer the same home video product at the click of a button.

Blockbuster reacted by deciding to give the customers what they wanted – they ditched their “no late fee” policy for rentals. Customers were overjoyed. Did this mean no longer being charged for keeping videos a little bit longer than the 24 hour limit they used to be so stingily presented?!

Not exactly. In fact, not at all.  Blockbuster just rebranded the term “late-fee”, but the charges still remained, since films not returned by a certain date meant being debited for the entire cost of the film. When a customer did eventually return their rentals, they were refunded the money, but minus a $10 restocking fee. Ouch.

The new ‘deal’, openly celebrated through marketing channels by Blockbuster, was investigated by trading standards across the US. The video rental provider was hit with big reimbursement charges, and would eventually file for bankruptcy in 2010. A customer failure of epic proportions.

So there we have it. Happy International Darwin Day to all those customer-focused people out there! We hope these examples have proved entertaining for you. And of course, educational.  

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