Sunday, April 21, 2024

When Customer Dissatisfaction Is a Tech Business Model

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A new trend has emerged where technology companies have realized that abusing and harassing users pays big.

Here’s how customer service is supposed to work: The company that thrills its customers by doing unexpected good things for them eventually gets a reputation as a good company to do business with and, as a result, wins more business.

A perfect example of great customer service occurred in the car industry last week. Tesla CEO Elon Musk posted a note on the official Tesla blog that the drive unit warranty for the Tesla Model S has been increased from 4 years and 50,000 miles (whichever comes first) to 8 years and infinity miles (whichever comes first). Further, Musk said Tesla is applying the warranty to all previously sold Model S cars retroactively, and that there is no limit on the number of owners.

That’s the kind of thing that makes Tesla the hottest car company in the United States, and makes their customers super loyal.

If only it worked like that for all industries.


Twitter this week implemented a new feature that puts other people’s tweets into your timeline for the first time ever.

The posts might be those “favorited” by some of the people you follow, or maybe simply popular tweets from the Twitter Discovery tab.

Although you can delete your own posts from your timeline, you cannot delete the posts you didn’t ask for and that Twitter puts there.

What’s interesting about the change is that Twitter tested it in advance. And most people who tried it hated it.

Basically, Twitter asked users — do you like this idea? Users said no, so Twitter’s response was: Who cares? Here it is anyway. Twitter wants to increase engagement and ultimately exposure to advertising. User happiness doesn’t pay the bills. Only user engagement.

It’s become clear recently that some technology companies have figured out that bad and even exploitative and abusive “customer service” is the way to win.

I’ll give you some more examples.


Comcast has quickly gained a reputation for abusive customer service after customers shared evidence online of their experiences with the company. The high-profile cases here are just two among many, if a special subreddit that exists to chronicle bad Comcast customer service is any indication.

The first came from Ryan Block, who’s a journalist and entrepreneur and the former Editor-in-Chief of Engadget. He posted a recording of the last 8 minutes of a roughly 18-minute phone call in which his sole aim was to cancel Comcast service. But instead of canceling, the customer service rep harassed and cajoled and bullied and pitched and pushed for Block to stick with the service.

Then, a couple weeks ago, a Comcast customer posted a 14-minute video of one call in which Comcast promises to not charge for a service call, then a second call where they insist on charging him. After a grueling ordeal, the customer service rep admits that the only reason they’ll not charge him is that he had a recording of their blatant fraud.

What’s clear from the larger collection of recorded Comcast customer service calls is that Comcast has determined as a company that harassing and abusing customers pays. Although the two examples above show very strong-willed, knowledgeable and assertive customers were able to eventually get the service requested or promised, obviously the vast majority of customers won’t stick it out and push back so hard, and Comcast profits from those customers.

South Korean telecoms

A TV station in South Korea recently broadcast a report based on undercover video showing telco store employees physically harassing and even pushing or pulling women into their store to subject them to a sales pitch. In some cases, employees literally grab a woman’s phone and run inside, refusing to give it back until they listened to the sales pitch. In others, women are literally pulled inside by their arms or pushed into the store by male employees.

This is another case where a technology-related company has somehow come to the conclusion that harassing customers pays off.


Facebook’s Data Science group published in June a research study showing that “mood” was contagious. Once the press read the details, the outraged reports started going online. It turns out that Facebook was withholding positive posts and messages from test subjects’ family and friends in order to deliberately make them feel sad and to see if their sadness translated into the writing of posts that were more negative than usual.

Two years ago Facebook conducted another experiment where they locked some users out of Facebook. Those users were told that Facebook believed them to be either software robots or people using fake names, even though Facebook didn’t actually believe that. The lie was just a test to help improve Facebook’s anti-fraud system.

These are just two of hundreds of tests in which Facebook appears to have concluded that the abuse of users and the lying to users was worth the information gathered, which they claim is all in the service of improving the service.


In the wake of the outcry over the Facebook experiments, OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder published a blog post bragging that “We Experiment On Human Beings!” OKCupid is an online dating site.

Like Facebook, OKCupid explained that the tests were all in the service of understanding users and providing a better service.

In one experiment, OKCupid lied to a group of users, telling them that potential dates their algorithms had determined were highly incompatible were the opposite — highly compatible. In other words, they fixed people up who they expected would not get along.

Defenders of the Facebook and OKCupid tests have two defenses. First, that testing improves the services. Second, testing of this kind of very common. It’s so-called A/B testing. For example, some news sites show one headline to one group of readers and another headline to a different group to find out which headline works best to attract people.

The difference is that Facebook and OKCupid are actively and deliberately messing with people’s relationships and feelings.

In some of these cases, such as Comcast and Facebook, the public exposure of their shameless harassment of customers resulted in expressions of surprise, followed by apologies. In other cases, such as Twitter and OKCupid, no apology or admission of wrongdoing can be expected.

But in all cases, the companies appear to know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve all come to the apparent realization that beating the competition and separating customers from their money is more important than making customers happy.

If the trend continues as it appears to, companies will increasingly realize that customer satisfaction is often not connected at all to winning in the marketplace and making more money.

It’s a sad trend, obviously, but a real one.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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