Customer Service Hall of Shame

March 2, 2010

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing columnfor MinnPost. To view the original, go to

Can you feel sorry for a jerk? I’m talking about Steven Payne, the theater executive at Evergreen Entertainment who told a customer to go [expletive] herself after she complained of a bad experience at a movie in St. Croix Falls, Wis.

Payne demolished every rule of customer service and public relations in his angry reply to the complaint. As someone who advises companies on public relations, I cringed at the thought of having to deal with a situation like this.

Not only did Payne drop an f-bomb on his customer, he insultingly suggested that she should get a better job and invited her to take her business elsewhere.

The verdict is clear: He acted like a complete ass.

Payne realized his error and sent an apologetic email to the customer hours later. But in the meantime, the object of his wrath posted the original, profane email on her Facebook account.

Social media took over, and Payne’s email was soon the object of heated discussion on dozens of blogs and websites.

Most of the comments I read were critical of Payne, although some pointed out that the original complaint was on the caustic side. Still, it’s impossible to defend his response.

But many comments went beyond criticizing Payne, calling for him to lose his job. I have trouble with that notion.

I don’t like the idea of a person losing their job for one mistake, no matter how much of a whopper it was. I feel the same way about the idea that a company wouldn’t hire someone because of an embarrassing picture that appeared on Facebook.

Technology has made our lives an open book, and I don’t think we’ve learned how to gauge our responses. Every day, it seems, brings news of some screw-up or scandal that becomes an Internet sensation– until the next one comes along.

Just last week, a U.S. Olympic medalist– snowboarder Scotty Lago– was sent home in disgrace after embarrassing photos surfaced of him partying at a Vancouver nightclub. I could name dozens of similar incidents.

As a former reporter, I understand that these are juicy stories, sure to grab eyeballs. But they’re the kinds of incidents that, until recently, never would have seen the light of day.

Now there are camera phones everywhere, email trails– and the means to make them visible to anyone with an Internet connection. We’re all losing privacy in the interest of feeding the Web’s insatiable need for fresh controversy, our bad days and embarrassing moments potentially available to the world based on the whim of a stranger.

I’m not arguing that Payne doesn’t deserve the criticism he’s getting. But I can’t help but think this would have been better handled privately. The offended party could have complained to Payne’s boss, and Payne could have delivered a private apology.

By making his actions public, she escalated a situation that, while admittedly offensive, needn’t have become an Internet cause célèbre– and a potential threat to a man’s livelihood in a historically bad economy.

President Harry Truman used to vent his feelings on paper. He’d write scathing letters about the things that bothered him then file them away in a drawer. It gave him a chance to cool off before he was tempted to send them.

In this era of instant communication, perhaps we also should learn to think twice before we hit send. And we should give a little thought to the relative importance of f-bombs and partying snowboarders in a world that has a few larger problems to deal with.