Customer Service Is Not Rocket Science, Part Two

I find it irritating, but not surprising, when I get absurdly bad customer service from a business whose business model is based on volume and high margins. But I find it quite surprising, and indeed, greatly amusing, to get absurdly bad customer service from a business whose business model is entirely based on quality of service.

This was so amusing to me that I thought I would share it with you all. A little fun for the first work day of the summer.

I have difficulty keeping up with my lawn and gardening. I decided to go to an internet based company which recommends and rates home service contractors. We'll call them "Referral Service". I used "Referral Service" to find a lawn guy in my area, who we will refer to as "Lawn Guy".

After arranging an appointment time and a reasonable price, I got a phone call from "Referral Service". The guy on the phone was polite, enthusiastic, and asked me all kinds of questions about what other projects I might have going on around my house that they could help me with. I told the guy that yes, I have lots of projects -- I have a fence that needs rebuilding, I have some rooms that need painting, I have an unfinished renovation project in my basement. I told the guy that I would likely use their web site in the fall to arrange contractors for these various other projects.

Fine. Seems like everyone is pretty competent so far. But as it happened, Lawn Guy didn't work out, for reasons which will rapidly become apparent.

A few days later I got an email -- clearly a form letter -- from Referral Service, asking me to fill out a form to say how well Lawn Guy did. I thought about it for a minute and realized that my concern was sufficiently outside of the normal experience that I was not comfortable just filling out a number on a Likert Scale. I wanted to clearly express to Referral Service exactly what my problem was so that they could deal with it appropriately. Here are the emails, slightly reformatted to make them easier to read in this medium, and with names changed to protect the guilty.


Good afternoon [Referral Service]

[Lawn Guy] made rude and deprecating comments about Poles to my housemate on his first day on the job. That he did not know that she was of Polish descent is hardly an excuse. I've fired him.

Eric Lippert


Dear Eric,

Thank you for your email. Ratings & Reviews are perhaps the most important service we offer to our members. This area of our web site includes valuable word-of-mouth feedback from [Referral Service] customers. For all requests you place with [Referral Service], you'll be asked to submit Ratings & Reviews for the service professionals you are presented. When you do, you not only help other people make their choice, but you contribute to the overall quality of service we offer.

To submit a Rating and Review please visit our site [there then follows a list of the nine different things that you have to click on to submit a review]

Please let us know if there is anything else we can do, and we hope you tell others about our service. We look forward to helping you with all of your future home improvement needs.
Best Regards,

Andrew Throatwobbler
[Referral Service]


Mr. Throatwobbler,

You asked that I let you know if there is anything else we could do. What you could have done is respond to my concern with something other than a canned form letter -- a letter, which I note, asks me to do work for your benefit. My job is not to provide content for your website; I don't care a bit about your website. I care about my lawn. If you want my business you really ought to be concentrating on that.

You said that you hoped I would tell others about your service. No, no, you don't. You ought to hope very much that I do not tell others. Responding to a report of a gross, offensive, personal insult with a form letter is the very depth of poor service.



Dear Eric,

Thank you for your email and reply; we appreciate your taking the time to provide your feedback. Please know that we take these matters seriously and this is not the level of professionalism we have come to expect of our professionals. By providing your rating it additionally notates their account and should we ever notice a negative trend we do reserve the right to remove them from the service.

Thank you for your time and for using [Referral Service].

Nicole Otterbach


Ms. Otterbach,

I care not a bit about your policies for deciding who gets to be part of your service or not. I already told you that I don't care about that, and yet you go on about it.

You seem to have completely forgotten that you are in the business of recommending someone to mow my lawn! A lawn which is now going unmowed because I had to fire the racist you sent me after he insulted my housemate to her face.

The smart thing to do would have been to concentrate on the fact that you have failed utterly in what ought to be your core competency -- supplying me with a competent lawn care person. Instead, you've concentrated on sending me emails about how my doing work for free on your rating system benefits your business.

Eric Lippert



Thank you for your response. Both Ms. Otterbach and myself have expressed to you the improtance [sic] of submitting a rating on this service provider. If you submit a negative review about this service provider, then it will be followed up by our Ratings department and the necessary steps will take place. At this time, I can not locate your account in our network and am unable to see if you have this submitted. If not, please do so. Thank you.

Andrew Throatwobbler


Mr. Throatwobbler,

Yes, you certainly have expressed that this is important to you, just as I have expressed that it is not important to me. Yet you continue to concentrate on it! An important principle of customer service, or, for that matter, life in general, is "when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging", yet you continue to dig. I find this interesting from a psychological point of view. (However, though interesting, psychological musings are certainly not getting my lawn mowed.)

As for the "necessary steps" -- my filling out a form is not a precondition of the necessary steps; I think you and I have a different view on what is "necessary" in such a situation. When I was in the service industry I was taught that the necessary steps for dealing with an upset, angry or disappointed customer were these three:

1) First, and most important, express regret that the problem occured, particularly with regard to the actions you took that precipitated the situation. As yet, no one in your organization has said that you in any way regret referring a boorish racist who insulted my housemate, a racist whom I had the unpleasant and upsetting task of firing. I would have thought that you would sincerely regret that your recommendation caused several people pain and distress, but apparently not.

2) Second, take this as an opportunity put a good light on the organization by distancing yourself from the situation. Ms. Otterbach did that, by saying that this is not the level of professionalism you would expect.

3) Third, take steps to make the customer's problem better. You've certainly not done that. You've concentrated solely on your issues -- your web site content, your rating system, your policies, your strange inability to find a customer in your own system. I really don't care whether you continue to refer Lawn Guy to others; that is not my problem. That's your problem. I've told you repeatedly that I don't care about that; I care about getting my lawn mowed. And yet you keep on telling me about your rating system.

One out of three is not good, particularly since none of these steps are difficult.

Studies have shown that customers who have a negative experience that is dealt with rapidly and respectfully have a higher opinion of an organization than customers who have never had any problems! Customers who are angry, upset or disappointed are actually a gold mine for you, because when you go the extra mile to solve their problems, they turn around and advertise your business to others for free.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Customers who report a problem and get back form letters, no apology, and repeated requests to do work that is to your benefit, not theirs, also tell others.

However, one good thing that has come out of this is that I now have an article for my blog.

Eric Lippert


I haven't heard back from Mr. Throatwobbler yet. I'm in so much suspense, as I am sure are you all! Will he and Ms. Otterbach continue to attempt to tag team a former customer into submitting to their bureaucratic policy machinery? If they ever get back to me I'll post an update.

Comments (28)
  1. Jeff says:

    That is wonderful; thanks for sharing. Having had a rather poor customer service experience myself just yesterday (which had me stranded in Chicago, getting wet in the rain for far longer than I wanted – and has me extremely tired at work today), I can sympathize entirely with your ordeal. The customer service in question for me was that of a bus service who repeatedly told their customers to call a different number, which either hung up or offered wildly different advice from "it’s cancelled" to "15 minutes" to "we’re experiencing delays"…really? Hadn’t noticed.

    I hope your lawn gets mowed. 🙂

  2. Eric Lippert says:

    And of course actually it should be "YOU are experiencing delays".  The customer service guy is not experiencing any delay.

  3. Peter says:

    They’re obviously trained in some form of customer service, otherwise the flowery language in their responses wouldn’t have been quite as, um, flowery or polished. What makes this interesting/unique is that you’re not complaining here on your blog about the specific incident, but about how flawed their system is.

    And when we start talking about systems, we’re back in familiar territory 🙂

  4. Clinton Pierce says:

    Good service to your readers would include naming names.  I doubt we’ll all wind up with the same Lawn Guy, but it would be nice to know which Referral Service is a customer service nightmare waiting to happen.

  5. Eric Lippert says:

    A number of people have pointed that out.

    It is of course tempting to name names. And this is a major multinational referral service we’re talking about here, so yes, it could be you next.

    I think what I’ll do is allow Referral Service some time to respond to my concerns. I want to emphasize that I’m not particularly angry or upset by this whole ridiculous situation — I am amused. I’ve obtained another gardener and apologized to my housemate and all is well. I just think it is funny how I can specifically say three times what it is they need to do to win their customer, and yet they obstinately refuse to do so.

    If I don’t hear back from them in the next while, I’ll forward this on to their CEO and see if senior management has anything to say.

  6. daniel says:

    Too funny!  Thanks for posting.


  7. Tim says:

    At risk of beating a dead horse… By telling us who the service is you would A) be doing everyone a service by holding them more accountable and B) taking a step in the direction of providing more fertile ground for a competitor to rise up and fill the demand for decent service in this area.

    We should know who this company is so we can vote with our dollars and go somewhere else. This is the beauty of a free market system, it punishes those who fail to provide what people want and rewards those that provide what people want.

    Go ahead and punish!! They obviously deserve it. Help us give our money to the better company.

    (I’m speaking in terms of principle. Your blog post probably won’t have the affect I mention directly, but my point is that we should not be shy about delivering market punishment to those who provide bad service)

  8. Lisa says:

    Interesting customer service story:

  9. Matt C. Wilson says:

    It’s sad that the human beings in this tale can’t reach out from their bureaucratic stranglehold and make a better result happen.

    Not to play devil’s advocate, but I wonder if, policywise, Ms. Otterbach and Mr. Throatwobbler are in fact powerless to de-list Lawn Guy without an actual, documented customer dissatisfaction rating.  The flowery language and lack of obvious sympathy regarding the racist remarks may simply be the manifest result of a CYA policy set up by Referral Service’s bigwigs.

  10. Eric Lippert says:

    Yes, I imagine that is the case.  

    But I DON"T CARE whether he is de-listed or not. I’ve said that a number of times now. I have no interest one way or the other in either the further adventures of Lawn Guy. I have an interest in my lawn being mowed, and I would think that a business whose purpose is to recommend solution providers would glom on to that tenaciously and make sure that they recommended someone who was really good.  But no matter how much I try, I can’t seem to get these guys back on the topic of my lawn!

  11. Matt C. Wilson says:

    Sure, but as an engineer my inclination is to look for root cause and fix it there.  Not deal with the unmown lawn.

    That’s for support to figure out.  🙂  j/k!  

    In all seriousness though, it is a surprise they didn’t at least try to comp you a lawn service, offer a discount, send you a fruit basket, or some such gesture.

  12. David Reich says:

    There really is no excuse for poor customer service.  I just wrote about it at my 2 cents.

  13. Mark Shiffer says:

    I am going to enter on the dissenting side of this argument. For the patch of emails that you sent it appears you immediately went on the attack with this company, and, in my opinion, were a bit unfair about it. They run a website that enables users to share their experiences with contractors for the general good of the community that uses that web site. Asking you to submit your negative review is by no means a reflection on their customer service. It is the core of their business model to have users writes both positive and negative reviews.

    Should they have apologized for your bad experience up front? Probably, but they maintained a much higher level of professionalism in their responses to you than you gave to them.

    Sorry. I enjoy your blog, but I’m on the other side of this one.

  14. Eric Lippert says:

    As I’ve stated numerous times, I do not care about either this nebulous “good of the community” or their business model. Nor do I care about fairness. I care about getting my lawn mowed, and I am willing to pay too much money to have it done; a smart company would extract profit from my willingness to overpay.

  15. Eric Lippert says:

    And on the subject of professionalism, a few things come to mind.

    First, I’m not the professional here, I’m the customer. I’m not required to be professional.

    Second, these guys seem to think that we’re all on a chummy first-name basis, which I find unprofessional. We are not on a first-name basis.

    Third, is it _really_ professional to avoid responsibility for a problem, to avoid extracting profit from the solution to that problem, and to repeatedly berate an irate customer for not putting the business’s interests before their own? Do they work for me or do I work for them?

    Professionalism is not about adherance to the policies of a bureaucracy. Professionalism is about having the integrity, honesty, and sincere regard for the personhood of the customer, in the context of always doing what is best for the business. Those two things do not need to be in conflict.

  16. Tibon Lawrence says:

    I really hope this story is made up… Honestly, someone making Polish jokes? What is this… 1942?

  17. mikee says:

    how about this: drive around your block until you find some landcaping (lawn) that pleases you.  Knock on the door(s) and ask who does the lawn.  Not a bad way to meet some of the neighbors too. Just a thought.

  18. Mark Hurd says:

    I’m on your side here, their reaction and followup is flawed, but would you contact eBay about a bad seller, or leave negative feedback? How much of a business model can you ignore?

  19. gunther says:

    I’m assuming you wanted them to refer another lawn service, but that wasn’t clear from your email. Certainly their rep should have apologized and if he/she was on the ball, offered to send a different lawn service company. They probably "flipped the bozo switch" a little early on you. But the tone of your emails certainly made me wonder what exactly you were angling after?

  20. David says:

    So with all this entertainment (from my POV), how much work did you spend with these emails vs how long would it have taken to actually go out and mow the lawn yourself?


  21. Mac says:

    I have to side with the dissenters as well.

    While I appreciate, sympathize, and ultimately agree with your point of view, I feel your emails sound hostile and escalate quickly. It’s not apparent what you were after in email #1, so a canned response is what peon x gave you. He’s following a prescribed script for ‘If it looks like a complaint, get customer to use website complaint process’

    And does the website pride itself on customer service, or as a referral service? If the idea is to build a public knowledge-base of useful casual contractors, you are supposedly buying into that, and psychologically they want you to help your fellow user and buy into that.

    If one considers their referral fee is likely small, they can’t afford to service everyone on a 1-1 basis. They may even have great touchy-feely processes in place, and had you gone to their website and reported it as ‘downright awful service’ they may have contacted you personally (from their email response it appears their Ratings department may do just that).

    As they say, you catch more bees with honey.

  22. anon says:

    Interesting.  I feel you.  You have all the right of firing the lawn guy.  And I dont condone racist comments.  

    However, it looks (to me) like you simply wanted to complain and stir up trouble.  In your first email, you failed to ask for anything to be done. You didnt ask for a refund, you didnt ask for the Lawn guy to be fired from the website, etc.  What do you want them to do about it?  You simply told them about a problem  What did you expect to get from that email?  If the customer fails to ask for anything, what is the company to do?  Were you looking for an "I’m sorry?"  Also, your tone in your emails is unprofessional.  You mention in your latest comments that you want to talk about your lawn?  Why?  It doesnt seem it from your emails.  

    Customers often complain but dont know what they are complaining about…and dont ask for anything to be done.

    My suggestion:  find something more productive to spend your time on, like fixing your lawn.  

  23. Eric Lippert says:

    I don’t want to complain. I don’t want to stir up trouble. I want my lawn mowed, and I want a household service referral company to help me with that.

    You say that I don’t ask for anything to be done. I do not understand why you’d say that. I say over and over again what I want to be done: I want someone to help me get my lawn mowed, which is, allegedly, their business. And yet they persist in refusing to do that.

    Also, again, I fail to see what "professionalism" has to do with anything here. I’m the _customer_, not the professional.

  24. Anon2 says:

    So, I still don’t follow – was "Lawn Guy" the only listing in your area that the referral service had?  Or, why didn’t you just continue down the list, since you didn’t care about the referral service or "Lawn guy" any more?   Or were you hoping that "referral service" would offer to mow your lawn themselves?

  25. Eric Lippert says:

    I had already phoned six other people on their list, only to discover that they were already all booked, or did not service my area, or whatever.  Ultimately, I found a suitable lawn service through another means.

    However, I think you’re still not getting my point.

    My point is not that I particularly wanted them to do anything specific for me. As you note, I did not ask for anything specific.

    Rather, I stated a need and gave them an opportunity to fulfill that need in exchange for money. Since that’s allegedly their business I would have thought they would have concentrated on that. I even told them explicitly how to win over this upset and disappointed customer — express regret, save face, focus on the customer’s need.

    If they don’t choose to focus on what I need, and thereby lose my business, that’s up to them. But it is certainly not up to me to tell them how to meet my need! That’s their whole business, they are the experts in meeting customer needs; I certainly will not tell them how to go about it. And frankly, I don’t care how they meet my need, so long as the result is that my lawn gets mowed.  But clearly their customer service guys show no interest whatsoever in meeting my needs.

  26. johnzabroski says:

    Sounds like this company needs to buy every employee a copy of How To Win Friends and Influence People.

    I sympathize with you, Eric.  However, my experience has been that it is my job as the customer to remind the customer service rep that they are my guardian angel.  I always end my e-mails to customer reps with "Thank you for being the watchful eye that watches over my purchases [or account, or whatever.]"  It works like a charm.  I don’t know why, but the better rhetoric I use in the initial e-mail, the more likely it is that I get good service.

    Hope your lawn stays healthy,


  27. ells says:

    Really funny. He’s got an Boston humor. Good reading.

  28. Cesa says:

    Intresting read. So, did they ever contact you again?

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