Liar, Liar, House on Fire: What I Learn from Complaining Customers

Each week I hear directly from about 15-20 complaining customers. They mostly Google me or find me through the list of PR people on Sometimes reporters contact me on their behalf.

For the most part, I funnel these folks straight into customer care so the experts can immediately begin to solve their problems. This frees up my time so I can deal with reporters and it gets the customers in the hands of the customer service pros — BTW, I’m not one by any stretch. I know just enough to be dangerous.

Almost to a person, I will say the vast majority of customers who contact me are polite and easy to deal with – they just want their issue resolved. But every once in a while I hear from a customer who yells, has unreasonable expectations of what we can do to fix their issues or simply lies to try to get what they want.

My all time favorite was the guy whose house burned down in 2005. His local morning paper did a story about it and the local TV station decided to cover it for the evening news.  The man, who was our customer, claimed to the TV reporter that he wasn’t able to call 911 from his Nextel phone and that’s why his house burned down — the fire department was slow to arrive because he had to use a neighbor’s phone to call 911.

Because of our “failing” network and “faulty” phone, the TV reporter was planning to say on the news that night, this man lost his home. (The newspaper didn’t cover that angle with their story that morning, BTW.)

Here’s how I spent the next 6 hours:

  • Within minutes, I dispatched the network team to physically inspect the cell tower which would have handled the 911 call — everything was in working order.
  • They then pulled the maintenance records for the cell tower — we had regular inspection paperwork like clockwork going back 10 years in our warehouse.
  • Then we pulled his call detail records from our computer database — we had records of a 911 call being made from his phone and handled by that tower at the time of the fire.
  • Then we contacted the county 911 dispatch to see if they could pull the audio tapes of the call. They could and they emailed me the WAV file of the customer calling 911 from his Nextel saying that his house was burning down. The dispatcher stayed on the phone until firefighters arrived.

What motivated this customer to lie to the TV reporter that a “faulty” Nextel phone was responsible for his burned down house? A lack of adequate homeowners insurance? A desire to be on TV? I don’t know.

But the TV reporter in question did not believe a word I said despite frequent updates through the day. He was preparing to run a story blaming us for the fire up until I produced the 911 WAV file about 2 hours before air time.  Even though I had shared Call Detail records confirming the call had been made and I had shared all the earlier evidence, he still wasn’t convinced until I emailed the WAV file.

Then, after hearing the WAV file, he didn’t even apologize for making me jump through hoops. He just dropped the story altogether on the customer, who I dubbed, “Liar, Liar, House on Fire.”

So what did I learn?

  • That occasionally some customers lie rather than admit the whole truth of a situation.
  • That local TV news reporters in small markets are under incredible pressure to produce sensational news and they won’t let the facts get in the way if the pressure from the boss is too great.
  • And that as a huge corporation, the general public presumes we’re guilty until proven innocent in most all cases of a complaining customer. Seldom does the public begin with the assumption that there two sides to every story.

Granted, this example is extreme, but I share this one, to show that sometimea, the big bad company has to work awfully hard to prove its innocence.

I wonder if I still have the WAV file?


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