Three Lessons I Learned From ‘Ping Pong’ Customer Service

Andrew Stanten


Disclaimer: This is not kvetching for the sake of kvetching.

For any company – big or small, local or global, B2B or B2C – customer service is the ultimate marketing tool.

This may sound like blasphemy coming from the president of a company that specializes in branding, positioning, and digitally-centric integrated marketing, but the reality is that in today’s age of social media, give someone a great experience and they will tell friends. Frustrate customers with poor customer service after the sale – even if the product is exceptional – and you run the risk of losing them.

Your customer service strategy doesn’t start and end at the point of sale. It must follow through the entire process – from initial inquiry to post-mortem. Losing a customer for life and the bad will generated cannot be overcome by the best, slickest or most omnipresent marketing. Period.

When handling customer complaints, pawning them off on another involved company only furthers the frustration. How much damage can one angry customer do?

Below are three reasons why you should never drag your customers through a game of customer service Ping Pong. But first, my story of frustration to set the stage…

The Dell Debacle

I recently bought three new PCs much to the chagrin of my all-Mac, all-the-time team here at Altitude. Dell is a brand I’ve been with since starting Altitude so they were naturally my first – and only – stop. Surfing the company website, I couldn’t figure out how to configure the exact machines I needed, so I engaged with the “live chat” feature.

After taking down my information, the person on the other end was very helpful. Then, right as we were about to do the deal, my Wifi connection burped and the chat session got disconnected. Twenty seconds later, my phone rings with a Dell customer service rep ready to finish the order. I was thrilled. Order complete.

Next, the Dell rep asked if I wanted to bundle in a three-year subscription to McAfee anti-virus – another company with whom I did business for years. I said, “Sure” – easier to do it now, than install it myself once the units arrive.

“This is great customer service,” I thought to myself.

Getting played like a ping pong ball

But that’s exactly where the customer service ended – and, as a result, Dell has lost me as a customer for life.

When the units came, they didn’t have the McAfee subscriptions.

I contacted Dell expecting the same stellar customer service that guided me through the purchasing part of the process.

The customer service rep, while polite, stuck to the script and basically told me it was user error. The subscription activation, she said, was probably in a folder where I wasn’t looking. User error? A hidden folder?

She tells me to contact McAfee. Nothing more she could do to help. I call McAfee.

After more than a 30 minutes on the phone, and giving them my order number, customer number, service tag number, they had no record of the subscription, gave me a case number and told me to contact Dell.

Ping. Pong.

I try email. After two emails to Dell in which I tell them McAfee had no record of the transaction, I get zero response.

So I call Dell with the case number. The rep tells me to contact McAfee.

Meanwhile, my computers are vulnerable.

Two more emails to Dell and it’s like crickets. Not a peep. Dell’s gone dark.

My request for a refund and offer to buy direct from McAfee falls on deaf ears; I don’t hear boo.

So, why should Dell and McAfee have been more responsive to me as a customer? Here are your three reasons…

1. Customers are social

Naturally, I took my Dell/McAfee debacle beef public. To Twitter. Within two hours, Dell responds offering to help. At least Dell got that part right – someone was monitoring Twitter. No one from McAfee responded to the Tweet.

But …

Twenty-four hours later Dell tells me to … wait for it … contact McAfee.

Ping. Pong.

Now, I have copies of the order clearly showing I paid Dell for the McAfee subscriptions. McAfee has no record of any of it. Dell won’t respond to my voicemail messages or emails or my request for a refund and to simply let me buy the anti-virus direct.

Lesson learned:

For companies that rely heavily on referrals or word-of-mouth to kindle marketing buzz, what I did in response to Dell should be your worst nightmare. One tweet, just 140 characters, may do more damage than you’d think.

Customers are social beings, and will not hesitate to take their frustration to Twitter, Facebook or their favorite social media site. In this case, negative publicity is not always good publicity. A blemished customer service reputation could cost your company their credibility and trustworthiness. And, passing the buck is not a good customer service strategy.

2. Customers have a one-strike policy

After spinning my cycles on trying to get a hold of Dell and McAfee to problem-solve with zero results, I was on the verge of sucking it up, dropping another $200 or so to purchase a McAfee competitor product when I decided to give it one more shot by calling McAfee. After 45 minutes on the phone, and after sending all the order details again to McAfee, I finally get the subscription downloaded.


Somewhere along the line, Dell must have done whatever they needed to do to let McAfee know this was indeed bought and paid for.

And while I appreciate that my issue was finally resolved, I remained unsatisfied with my experience. Not once did Dell apologize for screwing up my order. Not once did they offer to make me whole for the hours invested. Not once did they admit they screwed up (remember, I was told it was user error).

Lesson learned:

Companies need to see customer service all the way through the customer life cycle. Dell’s reps were great on the front end – during the sale – but not empowered to waiver from the script post-sale. No one seemed to care that a loyal customer for years was getting bounced around like a Ping-Pong ball.

How much easier would it be for Dell to have simply issued me a refund, or even assigned someone to my case that could actually help see it through than to have to replace me as a customer?

Customers are stubborn and spiteful by nature. And one small bump in the road can leave customers with a sour taste. Understanding that bad experience trumps loyalty, and micromanaging every aspect of your customer service plan will ensure that you don’t strike out.

3. Customers hold life-long grudges

In the end, Dell’s customer service fail – and a lack of willingness to say, “Sorry, we screwed up your order and we recognize this has taken hours of your time; here’s a flipping Starbucks gift card as a token of our gratitude for you sticking with us through this” – has cost them me and my purchasing power. For the rest of my life.

Lesson learned:

The next time you’re looking at revenue projections, examining sales strategies and reviewing your marketing plan, look beyond your website, advertising, email marketing and SEO efforts.

Instead, take a look – a good, long, hard look – at customer service. It’s an integral part of your marketing mix. You can start with these 10 tips.

If you don’t, you can send me – or any other prospective client or customer – the best catalogs, brilliantly crafted emails and run ads during the Super Bowl all in an effort to influence our purchasing decisions, but once we’ve been played, we’re not coming back.

You’ve lost us. And winning us back will not be easy … and maybe not at all possible.

Andrew Stanten

Andrew Stanten co-founded Altitude Marketing in 2004. As CEO, he ensures the right people are on board, delivering world-class marketing services to Altitude’s global client base, and staying true to Altitude’s mission, vision and values.
Andrew possesses an innate ability to process, organize and summarize massive volumes of client and market information and turn it into actionable, strategic thinking. This enables Team Altitude to get smart about a company quickly—and develop winning, integrated approaches that vault clients into a position of prominence and strength.
Andrew graduated from Syracuse University and earned his MBA from Lehigh University.