Bad customer service goes a long way

I had originally written this piece because I wanted to vent about why I won’t donate to my undergraduate institution. It’s an okay rant, as far as rants go, but I find it serves as an excellent example of how corporate goodwill can be successfully sabotaged by a bad customer experience.

There are really two experiences here, employee malfeasance, and the customer quagmire. The first is not something you can really prevent. When it happens, you do right by the customer. (An apology helps, too.) The customer quagmire is often institutional and potentially more dangerous if you believe it’s easier to retain a customer than acquire one. Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot more quagmires when I’ve dealt with top-heavy organizations.

For example, I recently applied for a position with Company X, whose product I’ve used for years. The opportunity fell through, which was disappointing, but all my interactions with Company X’s Human Resources department were so negative that I have switched to a competitor’s product. I have heard other accounts that lead me to believe companies don’t realize HR is also a customer facing group much like my undergraduate institution didn’t realize the Financial Aid department is customer facing.

It’s been 15 years since I finished my undergraduate degree. Tradition suggests says crystal is the appropriate level of donation for my alma mater.

Ha hah ha ha ha. I can’t keep a straight face. Had you going for a moment, eh?

I’m still not going to donate.
I have generally positive memories of my time at Small University. I was certainly there a long time — 4 years for an undergraduate degree and another 2 1/2 years working on a Masters. Included in that are all those hours I worked in the labs and computer rooms paying my way through school.

The fundamental problem is the non-fond memories. But Jim, you say, “Pisces aren’t supposed to hold grudges.” True, but we also don’t place much credence in astrology. (Sorry, I’ve been saving that one up for weeks.) The issue: The Financial Aid Department.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I was in the financial aid office for something, I forget what. While I was waiting, a friend and I were bitching about classes. It became very Four Yorkshiremen after a while, but I made an offhand comment about how stressed out I was with the requisite science-track coursework and questioned whether I wanted to be a chemistry major after all.

My comment was merely venting frustration at being away from home, the change in academic workload, and the reality that 100-level courses are known as “weed-out” because departments don’t want 100 enthusiastic chemistry majors.
Courses corral students into a large cave, and then suck any remaining enthusiasm about the subject from them. Because the classes have a huge student-to-teacher ratio, the onus of teaching is placed upon the teaching assistants. The TAs are all first- or second-year graduate students who’d rather be working toward completion of their coursework rather than trying to help freshthings with their introductory material. Most are brilliant, few know how to teach.

Six days into summer, I received a harshly worded letter from the scholarship sponsor that “I should have told them.” They said my scholarship was cancelled effective end of the year. Huh? I didn’t connect the dots until later, but one of the financial aid people had taken it upon himself to report my
to the organization that was sponsoring me for a chemistry scholarship. Even though students don’t formally declare majors until second semester sophomore year, the damage was already done. I complained, and some funds materialized to make up the difference.

Scene II: The state had a “tuition equalization grant,” which was intended to level the costs of tuition between state and private schools. At the suggestion of the Financial Aid dept, I wrote my representative. I was pleasantly surprised when the amount was increased. As a special thank you, they decremented my supplemental aid by the equivalent amount. Yes, they kept a straight face when telling me this. Instead of relief, I got the smiling screw. The tuition equalization grant was merely another teat from which financial aid sucked.

But overall, the thing that really, really, really grated me
the wrong way was the same routine each year:

  1. Fill out the personally invasive financial aid forms
  2. Wait for the printout of “MSRP tuition”
  3. Spend the next two months begging and pleading for munificence
  4. When final humiliation was complete, funds would grudgingly materialize.

From a customer perspective, I already had emotional equity at stake. I wanted to use their product, but they were essentially making me fight for it each year. So now, 15 years
later, they’re (still) asking me to donate, but I’m (still)
disgusted enough that I can’t overcome the minor reasons not to donate:

  • I don’t want to be on any recurring donation plan.
    Another lesson from the salesperson in my sales parable: “it’s easier to sell an existing customer than it is
    to find a new one.” In the donation world, this means they’ll sign you up for $10 today, with the expectation that once you’re in the “habit” of donating, it’ll be easier to get you to cough up $1,000 later on, especially when you’re feeling nostalgic and humming the fight song to yourself.
  • Or those mailing lists. Back in my hippy days,
    I donated to a behemoth environmental corporation who I shall not name. In return for my contribution, thousands of trees were cut down, run through wood mills, and pressed into paper that would become more solicitations, not just from them, but anyone who would share a mailing list with them. It took me quite a while to remove my name from mailing lists.
  • I live very far away. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s even heard of my alma mater, let alone know where it is. The alumni association is not particularly strong in this nook of the country, not that I’d fit in anyway. I tried soliciting the campus recruiting department to get better representation, but there was little interest.

(Disclaimer: I worked 30 hours a week, full time during spring and summer breaks. I lived off-campus because it was cheaper. I seriously gamed the “double coupons” system at Safeway. I drove a shitty car and got really good at repairing it. However, at no time did I not walk uphill to school, through the snow, both ways, fighting grizzly bears. Just to set the record straight 😉


  1. Amen, brother! I am doing a post/link to this and are 100% in agreement, although I do end up giving a small amount to the biz school (which is separate from the undergrad fund) due to networking reasons.

  2. I totally agree. While I haven’t had an experience as negative as yours, some of my experiences in undergrad/grad school have definitely left a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to donations.

  3. I knew I shouldn’t have read past the first paragraph of this thread; now my corpuscles are cooking.

    No – institutions of higher learning don’t feel accountable to customers – because customers don’t require it. The media reports people driving around trying to save $.02/gallon of gas. When is the last time it reported a student challenging the value of his or her college investment? And at $48k average for an in-state undergraduate degree, it’s an investment. Surly staff, teachers with no formal training, inconvenient office hours, sky high prices. If someone were selling burgers under this business model, would you buy? Stop into a university some time. Count how many people are actually working. Does it look like a business to you? Exercise your consumer rights financially and vocally: maybe these institutions are capable of higher learning about the basics of capitalism – and fundraising.

  4. Your post makes perfect sense. Why pay someone posthumously (so to speak) for putting you through hell? I missed all of the fun with financial aid, due to having parents who would take care of all that for me, which I didn’t appreciate enough to actually GRADUATE. Some day…

  5. Rice is much more liberal with its financial aid than any of the top northeastern schools. Imagine what you would have gone through had Rice not been there for you to attend.

    I didn’t go to Rice, but it seems strange to hold one office worker’s actions against an entire institution that has over a thousand employees and educates thousands of students at any given time.

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