Are You Seeing Customer’s Lightning or Just Hearing Their Thunder?


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It was a stormy night and our three granddaughters were awakened by loud, shake-the-rafters thunder. They quickly descended the stairs to our bedroom, eager to sleep with us. Their arrival triggered a discussion about the difference between thunder and lightning, including how to count the delay between sight and sound to know about how far away the lightening was. When they began taking turns counting, they came to discover the lightning was a long way away and was moving further away. They went back to their own beds and slept soundly the rest of the night.

Angry customers are a lot like thunder and lightening. You only hear lightening as a crackling sound if you are nearby. The sound we typically hear is thunder created by air rushing back together after the electric bolt of lightening slices through the air. In the same way, customers start their separation from a service provider—think of it as their zone of indifference—long before the noisy rancor over some tipping point causes their explosion. Generally by the time we get to the point of the thunder there has been lightning we missed or ignored. Smart service providers learn to respect the customer’s lightening as a time and place to learn more before they are forced to deal with thunder.

Why do customers leave? The conventional wisdom is the belief that either the price they had to pay got to high or their needs for the offering changed. And, that is the certainly the sound of their fury upon exit. We also believe that what we hear at account closing or a departing huff is the whole story. It is only thunder—the air rushing back together after their departure. Assume customers’ stated reasons for departure represented only 10% of the whole truth.

Why Customers Leave

If price and changing needs are only a small part of the cause of a lost customer, what is typically the lion’s share of the lightening? Research tells us it is their perception of the experience—and, most likely, a part that contained betrayal. Professor Leonard Berry at Texas A&M did years of research to ascertain the foundational attributes of customer satisfaction. Reliability—keeping your implied or direct promises—ranked at the very top of Berry’s list.

Trust is an ethereal and subjective quality. My trust is tarnished when the restaurant bathroom is unclean, I get transferred more than twice, or there is an error in my statement. My trust is jeopardized when the employee with whom I am dealing seems less than competent or indifferent to my needs. Anything that erodes (or threatens to erode) my confidence in the ability of the service provider to meet my needs is a cause for a loss in reliability.

Customers leave because of dissonance. It might be a series of events that amplifies the spread between the experience customers were expecting and the experience they received. Customers enter every service encounter with a set of expectations and aspirations. However, sometimes the sales job has been too zealous, the ads a bit too exaggerated, or the service providers promises too over the top. The customer’s reality now is set up for disappointment.

Sometimes the dissonance comes from a clash between the customer’s fair play value and incidences that seem unjust. A fair play clash might be a draconian returns policy, senseless bureaucracy, hidden fees, or communications that say, “We don’t trust you, customer.” As the dissonance gets more pronounced, the customer reaches an emotional tipping point and, as the thunder rolls, exits the relationship. But, the zone of indifference (that wandering eye in pursuit of an alterative) had been entered long before we hear the roar.

Listening for Lightning

The secret to avoiding thunder is attentiveness to every incident in the customer’s encounters with the organization. It requires a perpetual pursuit of customer intelligence that yields insight into what matters most to customers. It takes a focus on the emotional relationship with customers, not just the arithmetic of the outcomes they seek. Fast food customers returning with an incorrect order, for example, only get partially mollified by a corrected order. If the counter clerk is surly or indifferent, the perfectly corrected order does little to satisfy the customer.

Just like the sound of lightening can only be heard if a brave or unfortunate bystander is close at hand, the lightening of the customer’s disenchantment is best spotted by those directly serving customers. It means positioning the frontline as valued scouts who are trained, resourced and constantly polled for their customer insights. It takes leaders who do sit-alongs and ride-alongs in order to directly experience customers’ angst and issue. Customer listening is a contact sport and leaders must join that game as a participant, not as a spectator.

Instead of getting defensive, smart service providers use the encounter as an opportunity to learn—like counting seconds between lighting flash and thunderbolt. They are quick to apologize…not in a self-deprecating admission of guilt sort of way…but as a communication of sincere caring and genuine concern. They show humility and empathy in order to lower the customer’s wrath for a collective quest for rational problem solving and resolution.

Customer thunder should not be the cause for anxiety; customer lightning should be our focus. Before the clap of the thunder, the customer has already felt the spark of lightning stemming for some disappointing incident. How can you unravel the emotion of the thunder in order to learn the origin of the customer’s lightning?

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


  1. I agree that friction, disappointing incidents, and aggravation contribute mightily to customer defection. The lightning-thunder metaphor often fits. But, to the dismay of marketers, satisfied customers are vulnerable to jumping off product bandwagons, too. For example, how do you explain that I had no quibble with the manufacturer of my previous vehicle, and liked everything about my dealer experience. I just wanted something different when I went to buy my next car. I suspect that somewhere at Daimler’s Jeep Division, there’s a red-faced product manager tearing his hair out over this.

    Great to see you mention Len Berry at Texas A&M. He was my marketing professor at the University of Virginia, and taught an outstanding course, Product-Service Strategy. I still refer to my notes from time to time.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Andrew. Verdi’s opera Rigoletto has a great aria entitled, “La Donna e Mobile” (Women are fickle). He could have been writing about customers! Len is a long-term friend and was kind enough to write a great endorsement to my book (with the late Ron Zemke) Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service. His wisdom is timeless!


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