15 April, 2024
by Jean-Pierre Mercier

The worst customer service practices

It’s said that technology helps improve customer service – sometimes true, more often false. There are two types of malpractice: those caused by humans and those caused by machines. The worst human practices I’m sure you’ve all encountered them. I don’t blame these agents, if they’re not trained in customer service they can’t know, it’s […]

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It’s said that technology helps improve customer service – sometimes true, more often false.

There are two types of malpractice: those caused by humans and those caused by machines.

The worst human practices

I’m sure you’ve all encountered them.

  • You’re laughing in a store, the sales assistant is on her phone and doesn’t notice you.
  • You arrive at a counter, the attendant is working on her screen, pretending not to see you in order to finish her work.
  • You ask a service agent for information, and he tells you that it’s all written on the sign next to it.
  • You’re in a restaurant, trying to call the waitress, who looks everywhere but at you.
  • You make a request to an agent who cuts you off: “I’m not in charge of that, you’re in the wrong place”.

I don’t blame these agents, if they’re not trained in customer service they can’t know, it’s the managers who are cutting corners in the wrong places.

I met the CEO of a major women’s clothing retail chain, who told me he had no budget for training salespeople. Then we’re surprised that some stores are closing. He lost his job and is still wondering why.

The difference between in-store and online sales is customer service: you’re willing to pay a little more for advice, otherwise you might as well buy at the cheapest price on the Net.

The worst practices on websites

Many claim that technology makes things easier, but this is not the case in these examples.

  • Suppliers find it more convenient to stop sending you invoices by post, understandably, or even by e-mail. All they do is inform you by e-mail that you have received a message or an invoice in your customer area. The problem is that we can have up to dozens of suppliers, that for security reasons we need a different password for each platform, and that identifiers vary: sometimes it’s your name, sometimes your e-mail address, sometimes an assigned number. Everyone has their own system, their own procedures, their own validations, their own “security” blocks, so you hesitate to go and check, you forget, then you get urgent reminders, interest for the delay, penalties.

Here are a few examples:

  • My accountant’s assistant reminds me in an imperious tone that I must pay my bills. That’s right, they don’t send them by e-mail anymore, you have to go and look for them on their site, where it’s as easy to find information as a needle in a haystack.
    • Desjardins cards, which I always paid on receipt of the mail to avoid interest charges, no longer send out invoices, either on paper or by e-mail in the virtual mode. You have to go and get them after a lot of validations on a site that’s completely outdated compared with international banks like Wise.
    • Worst of all, the Revenu Québec site is an example of anachronism – you’d think you were back in the early days of the Web. To register a business, for example, you have to spend hours with the help desk. Fortunately, the advisers are friendly and provide impeccable service, but they themselves admit that the site is not very user-friendly – to put it mildly! You’re constantly blocked for multiple reasons, and it defies all logic. You hesitate to try to identify yourself when you receive a letter informing you of a communication, but then one day you receive a letter, on paper this time, telling you that you’re late with your registration and that you’ve been hit with a penalty. You go to the website to pay the penalty, only to be blocked…….., after payment! You’re told to come back 24 or 48 hours later to try again.
    • Amazon is just the opposite: the site’s simplicity is what makes it so effective, but you end up with the Prime version without even knowing what you’ve ticked or not ticked, which generates substantial additional revenue for the company.
  • The Revenue Canada site, in addition to its many French mistakes, is sometimes unavailable in the evenings, as it is undergoing “maintenance”.
  • I’m not talking about the SAAQ system that made the headlines, or even Phoenix, for which the Canadian government paid billions of dollars.
  • Some suppliers have two sites, like Videotron, one for telephony and another for Helix. Problem: it’s not the same ID, not the same password. Statistically, we’re wrong one time out of two, we get stuck, when there isn’t a breakdown. The question is whether it’s our mistake or their site that’s blocked, and if so it’s almost impossible to talk to anyone. The agents provide impeccable, smiling service, but their system is inconsistent.
  • Vimeo, a video hosting company, is a disaster. For example, I host my training videos there. I try to add a video, but due to technical problems with the site I try to download it several times, without success. I sent a message to customer service, who told me that I had exceeded my quotas. When I explain that the problem is theirs, they say the same thing. A few days later, they told me that as I hadn’t replied within three days, they were going to close my ticket, in their great hurry to do so. Later, one of their agents informed me that I was dealing with automated responses by bots. Too late, I quit, I found better and cheaper elsewhere.
  • Artificial intelligence is said to improve service, but it comes with its share of errors, and it’s a mistake to put too much faith in it, like that American lawyer in court who cited case law that didn’t exist because it had been created by ChatGPT!


Some will say that among the systems mentioned there are some very simple ones, but it’s possible, everything’s simple when you know. But when you’re dealing with dozens of sites, in Quebec, in France and internationally, it’s pretty frustrating, especially when you can compare with good systems.

Each organization believes itself to be unique, indispensable, and that everything can be found on its website. The most anachronistic systems always justify their multiple validations on safety grounds. In fact, ridiculous questions like “what’s the name of your first mistress” are only there because the site is poorly designed and susceptible to fraud, so they compensate with dozens of questions to try and protect themselves from their site’s initial weakness.

Those who have no competition like government services can afford to think like that. Companies need to get up to speed, and it’s by looking at international sites that we can see best practices.

Avoid time-wasting, anachronistic sites if you can – there are some that are simple and pleasant to use.