The Gut-Wrenching Reality of "World Class Service"

Poor customer service is a pain in the arse.  Bizarrely, it is so often delivered by companies and brands that claim to have “world class service”.  And that is when we know instinctively that “world-class service” is a platitude, the boilerplate for lazy executives who feel they should make some reference to the people that pay their salaries.  But poor customer service is real and it is costly.  New research from, cloud contact centre vendor, NewVoiceMedia reveals that UK companies who give poor customer service are losing approximately £12 billion a year.  Yup, that is a lot of money by any standard!

As customer experience professionals we rarely get to study the thoughts and feelings that come with a poor experience.  We can intellectualise it but poor customer service is a visceral, personal experience that has implications far beyond the offending transaction.  But this week I had that very opportunity.

The offending company? T-Mobile, Everything Everywhere, EE – whatever.  The name isn’t that important.  What is important is their ambition “…. to deliver a world-class service to our customers - better than our competitors, better than other industries”.    Over the course of 72 hours I had the opportunity to assess that statement, dissect the service that I received - to understand what went wrong, the micro-interactions that failed, how they made me feel and whether the feelings could be used to predict my future buying behaviour.


On Sunday morning my faithful Samsung Galaxy S3 finally let me down.  It flickered a little then stopped being a phone – it metamorphosed from my constant companion, my communication, my diary, and my network and became a lump of plastic.

What I was thinking?  Oh no, this could be a pain.  I wonder what the worst case scenario could be for getting my phone back?  I should be able to fix it myself though.

How I was feeling?  Wow, I hadn’t realised how dependent on my mobile phone I had become for work, texting, twitter, quick google searches and so on – I can feel you nodding.  There was something deeply visceral in my response, something deeper than anxiety.  Panic!

I asked Michele Armstrong, MD of the Acorn Principle Plus and applied neuroscience enthusiast, to help me understand what was going on in my brain at each stage.  “There are two parts to our brain - the executive function or 'thinking' brain and our non-conscious emotional regulation function where a small almond shaped part called the amygdala sits.  It is interesting that you list your thoughts first – the feelings and intuition actually came first, before the executive part of your brain could kick in and rationalise.  In this state of emotional hijack (also known as an amygdala hijack) you will be unable to think and function at your best. Your ability to weigh up options, to consider consequences, to identify multiple solutions diminishes and access to your intelligence or reasoning have literally been hijacked.  You are unable to think from a clear, rational perspective and you will probably default to your ingrained habits – doing what you usually do by default rather than making a well informed choice.  It will also impact your ability to think clearly and rationally for hours afterwards. However, if you are aware of your emotions and you can identify and name the emotion, in this case ‘panic’, the emotion will cease to have such an impact on your thinking.  The brain is a predictive machine so when you thought that ‘this is going to be a pain’ – it will turn out to be a pain.”

Customer service organisations should be aware, therefore, that the customer in need of help, whether they are conscious of it or not, is not thinking clearly.  Surely, as a consequence then, they should make it easy for the customer to seek help, and they should constantly reassure them to calm that rampaging emotional part of the brain?  With that insight it is interesting to see how the T-Mobile customer service organisation actually handles their customers.


I am still positive - I'm a self-help kind of guy.  Especially on a Sunday afternoon when call centres never resource for their demand.  I tried a soft reset, a hard reset and a data wipe.  I resorted to forums as the Samsung and T-mobile support sites were weak.

What I was thinking?  This must be more serious – everything is normally cured by a reset.  I need to get myself ready for a call and work out the quickest way to get my phone working and back in my hands.

How I was feeling?  A sinking feeling.  As a customer experience professional I knew I was about to have “an experience” of some kind.  Then, WOW, I was offered webchat on the T-mobile website – an offer rapidly withdrawn as it was only for new customers.  Oh! That actually hurt – I am your customer and I pay you every month; you hung up on me for a prospect.  I notice a sense of being antagonised, I feel of little consequence or value to my behemoth supplier.

So Michele, what was happening in my brain?  “Your positive thoughts about being able to self-help kept your thinking, executive function on track towards a positive outcome, however, your feelings came first – what were they?  You noticed a sinking feeling followed by social pain when the webchat offer was withdrawn.  Interestingly, social pain is experienced in the same part of the brain as we experience physical pain but the impact is very different - physical pain can be seen, for example a broken leg, and people feel compassion for you.  Social pain, on the other hand, is not so socially acceptable– ‘big boys don’t cry’; ‘man up’ and so on – the world is less understanding of social pain and so to our social hurt is added the pain of loneliness – you’re on your own and no-one cares! ”

“The other interesting fact about social pain is that you recall it in a different way from physical pain.  When we feel social pain – rejection or being made to feel inferior, for example – the feeling stays in our memory and when we recall it we feel that hurt again; we could even cry.  Social pain is encoded in our memory so when your mobile contract is up for renewal despite your thinking brain weighing up all the rational thoughts – price, handset, network coverage, contract duration - your fast, intuitive system will be feeling the hurt from the last experience and it will be shouting out for you not to go there again.  Your transaction with T-Mobile made you feel isolated and inflicted social pain which your non-conscious brain will churn up whenever you recall the situation.  It certainly doesn’t mean that you will never deal with T-Mobile again, as you could over-rule your non-conscious brain, but your intuition is designed to keep you safe from situations your brain classes as dangerous to you.” 

So, there we have it.  The brain is actually wired to protect you from cunning marketing.  Just one poorly handled social media contact, or a promise on a call this isn't followed through could be enough to make that customer immune to even the most deep pricing offer in the future.  They might not even be aware what it is that is driving them away from your company - intuition is powerful.


I have a problem with my landline that means my home phone doesn’t hold a charge.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep a connection for a long queue – after the debacle of the IVR I had no desire to test inbound support.  So, resourceful as ever and with the added hazard of a little contact centre knowledge, I turned to the contact channel of last resort – I pressed the Twitter panic button.  My intention was to short cut the IVR and the inbound queue and to get a callback directly.

Boom – the illusion of a service culture was shattered.  The social media customer support that was being constantly promoted on Twitter was as inadequate as you could possibly imagine.  Over the course of 50 hours from the point that I first tweeted customer support pleading for help, the sum total of "support" that I received was:

  • Could you describe the problem? – received 7 hours after initial contact, no offer of a callback
  • Have you tried a reset? – 27 hours in, no offer of a call
  • Visit a store who will help you  - 46 hours in.  (Keep this one in mind.  It arrived after the punchline below, a double punchline if you like)

For the first few hours I studied their Twitter feed - the lights were clearly on – I kept getting automated promotional messages telling me they would be there from 8 to 8 - but there was little evidence that anyone was home.  During 6 hours of studying their timeline I noticed about 4 outbound messages per hour; and I noticed they were typically responding to messages from 28 hours previously.  They were clearly slipping from the generally accepted customer expectation of between 20 minutes and an hour turnaround time.

What I was thinking?  My analytical brain was working overtime.  The throughput of messages, even assuming there was a huge amount of Direct Messaging and offline work going on in the background, was pitiful. This is clearly an under-resourced channel, with a poor strategy.  I also noticed they were deleting tweets - what was that about?  Why do T-Mobile even bother with it?  For them, Social Media is a liability of a channel.

How I was feeling?  This was probably the point when my relationship with T-mobile hit rock bottom.  I went to the channel of last resort and watched the few tweets that were being posted joking about the weather. I didn’t feel valued; I felt like an inconvenience; I felt resentful.  And then my brain went somewhere really interesting.  It had never crossed my mind before but I started to question my contract – I went for the top of the range, "all inclusive" option – but that is never what is taken from my bank account.  MMS messages are not included, 0844 are not included – my “small print exclusion” frustrations that had never previously crossed my mind were boiling to the surface.  

What did it mean?  In the course of 7 hours I had lost trust in T-Mobile, one negative experience amplified others that hadn’t previously bothered me.  Over to Michele "each negative experience will register in the feelings part of the brain even if we are not consciously aware of it. These ‘hurts’ – even though they may seem slight – will be stored in our memory so when this ‘biggie’ came along they all connected and the message to the brain is – 'you are under threat; protect me'.  The role of your ‘thinking brain’ is to weigh up all the information and make a decision.  On the other hand, if you felt T-Mobile had treated you fairly on more occasions then the decision based on all the input may be different."


After 30 hours with no outbound contact and precious little movement, I went out bought a cheap phone, called the support number, navigated the IVR like a polar explorer and chatted to a very nice guy in the Philippines. He advised me that I needed to visit a company store and they would sort the issue. 

I arrived 45 minutes later at a shiny, newly refurbished store.  I clearly interrupted the guy in the shop during his siesta – he reluctantly took the phone from my outstretched palm, pressed the on/off button a couple of times and then asked where I got the phone. 

“”, says I. 

“Your problem is with them then, not us”, says disinterested shop guy.

“But I don’t give them any money, I give it to you.  Quite a lot, every month without fail”, I reasoned.

“Yeah, it doesn’t work like that”, as he slumped further below his screen.

“So how does it work?  Are you telling me you won’t help a “Full Monty” customer, standing right in front of you with a phone that doesn’t work still covered by warranty?”, I plead, certain that saying how ludicrous the situation is out loud will jolt him into action.

“I can’t.” he slurred as he pulled his own fully operational phone out of his pocket to indicate my audience is over.

What I was thinking?  Initially, I was impressed by the slick call centre/retail integration.  Until I realised the integration was smoke and mirrors.  I marvelled at the efficiency of the customer acquisition machine that brings new customers in through any channel with any offer but then makes up rules for service that simply don’t make sense to the average customer.  Inside-out thinking at it’s most destructive.  Why would I think for a second that a company I have an ongoing relationship financial relationship with would send me away to speak to a company I had a one-off transaction with 6 months ago – all over a product that was still covered by warranty?

How I was feeling?  If you could layer any more misery on a broken man it happened in that shop.  I was foaming at the mouth angry once this conversation sunk in – all objectivity was lost.  I felt like the innocent victim of a ruthless sales machine chasing customers and a hapless support organisation that couldn’t keep up with it.  Whether by design or by accident, poor customer experience is hard coded into the DNA of T-Mobile.  This perception is borne out by a survey last week confirming that Everything Everywhere is amongst the worst customer service on the high street.  All very sad - it could have been so much more.


  • T-Mobile wasted my time.  A lot of it.  If they wouldn’t take back my handset why wasn’t the first question they asked me “where did you buy your phone and when?” – there were three opportunities to do that – webchat, twitter and on the phone.
  • If a high value customer is in a store, for the first time, holding an in-warranty handset is it not worth just owning their problem?  Customer trust is fragile, churn is pernicious, replacing a customer is costly.  Do the sums.
  • The customer service channels are completely disjointed – they could be so much more especially with the retail presence.  But in reality every channel was a “start-over” conversation, handled completely inconsistently.
  • T-Mobile have dived into “e-Strategy” and they have done it really badly.  Webchat exists – but only for new customers.  That makes the people that are paying their bills feel reeeeaaaaal good.  Twitter support is only marginally faster than white mail – it seems to fulfil only two purposes – some executive can tick-off that they have a social presence and to frustrate customers.
  • T-Mobile don’t seem to understand that the products they sell should inform their support strategy.  T-Mobile sell packages appealing to “always on”, heavy social media users.  Why not give them always on, social media support?
The Brain.jpg


Well, according to Michele “Throughout the whole experience your negative feelings have been reinforced and your thinking brain has been trying to make sense of it to minimise danger to you.  Our brains move us away from things that threaten our well-being and we move towards things that balance out more on reward.  We need to feel we have been treated fairly and relationships are very important. If we feel there’s a connection with the company we are dealing with there is less chance of us leaving but we will move away from a faceless company that does not acknowledge us as a person, a living customer.  The brain is fired up to predict the future – if it weighs up this recent experience and predicts that it will happen again then that sets your expectation.  These feelings have now set up your brain to go into fight or flight mode to protect you from further social pain.”

Six months into a two year contract I have had a disappointing support experience.  Any illusions that I was valued as a customer have evaporated.  My brain can’t rationalise the experience any further.  I turned from a neutral customer into a detractor; I have now written a blog about it.  People will probably read it and have their own emotional reaction to my experience and make a judgement about it.

Every micro-interaction a brand has with its customers, whether it be a letter, or a TV ad or a really poor call, has an impact on the customer’s feelings.  Ultimately those feelings will influence a purchasing decision – even if the company claims to have “world-class service”.

Now, here’s a question - what if there were no more customers out there to be won?  Would T-Mobile still be as careless with its existing customers?

Michele Armstrong is founder and Managing Director of Acorn Principle Plus, dedicated to developing professional coaches from foundation to executive level.  She is an applied neuroscience enthusiast studying for a Masters in NeuroLeadership.