A Customer Experience Emergency: Call 911!


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On August 5, 2008, Reginald Peterson entered his local Subway and ordered two sandwiches. When he realized that the sandwiches were prepared without his favorite sauce he preceded to call 911! Reginald was so upset at this sandwich debacle that he demanded that the police impose justice by forcing Subway to return his money. When the police (and justice) failed to arrive, Reginald made an additional two calls to 911 – all to rectify this travesty of sandwich justice. When the police eventually arrived, the irate customer was arrested for inappropriate use of police resources. While many of you might be chuckling and dismissing this customer as loon, I posit that this anecdote is instructional and merits closer attention on the following aspects.

  • Customer Sense of Urgency – The customer in this story demonstrated a major sense of urgency. His willingness to call none other than 911 was clearly evident of the urgency and importance he attached to his sauce. Our story’s customer was unwilling to wait very long and decided to get the quickest service available, through 911.
  • Customer Sense of Severity – While rational people deal with sauce challenges by calmly explaining the situation to a cashier, Reginald felt compelled to call 911 three times! While the response of our customer was clearly unorthodox (to say the least), today’s customers are paying attention to the smallest details and are demanding perfection from the companies with whom they conduct business.
  • Customer Dismissal of the Vendor Response – Mr. Peterson did not give the Subway personnel an opportunity to address his sauce problem, and opted instead for the police to provide a sandwich remedy. He believed that Subway would be unable or unwilling to address his lack of sauce, and felt that only the men in blue would be able to rectify the situation. Clearly Mr. Peterson like many customers lack trust and faith in the ability of companies to address their challenges in a comprehensive and timely fashion. These customers are often jaded by a history of false promises and negative experiences. Companies have to not only live up customer expectations but need to often exceed these expectations to overcome a history of past customer disappointments and poor experiences. Mr. Peterson clearly had little confidence in Subway’s ability to address the absence of sauce on his sandwiches.
  • Scope of Dispute – If this story was about a new car or a home, I could identify with the challenge, empathize with the customer and (on some level) understand the customer’s subsequent actions. Yet the “Subway customer” was upset over some missing sauce in a couple of sandwiches that cost roughly $10. Customers increasingly expect perfection and companies have steadily declining room for error – irrespective of product or service price.
  • Customer Persistence – In the subway story, our irate customer continued calling 911 until the police arrived. While the first and even second call might be dismissed as an action in the heat of the moment, the third call was indicative of a planned course of action. Customers will increasingly persist to achieve redress for the absence of product or service perfection. They will pursue every angle to get what they think is right.

So what does all of this teach us? It teaches us that we operate under a new paradigm – “Excellence (now) or Nothing.” The story, while easy to dismiss, should be seen in the larger context of increasingly demanding, persistent, but less patient customers seeking every opportunity to receive the perfection that they have come to expect. Next time, a customer might call the FBI or his congressman (think “passenger bill of rights” on airlines. The European Union already established one, responding to their citizens’ requests). Customers have come to realize that if after airing their grievances to the company or on the web, they receive no redress, they will escalate their challenge to higher and more powerful authorities. The Subway story is an alarm, and companies should ignore its lessons at their own peril. Organizations need to pay attention and respond to customers effectively and rapidly before it is too late. (and build their customer trust in their ability to do so without authorities involvement).

Lior Arussy
One of the world’s authorities on customer experience, customer centricity, and transformation, Lior Arussy delivers results. His strategic framework converts organizations from product- to customer-centricity. It is drawn from his work with some of the world’s leading brands: Mercedes-Benz, Royal Caribbean, Delta Air Lines, MasterCard, Novo Nordisk, Walmart and more.Arussy is also the author of seven books, including Next Is Now (May 2018)


  1. Lior,

    It is tempting to dismiss this incident at an isolated case of over-reacting. However, as you point out, there is a lesson here.

    There is increasing evidence that as a society we are pushed out of our psychological comfort zones and this leads to subliminal stress, anxiety and frustration. Subliminal meaning that it is just under the surface and related behaviors may not be manifest, that is, until something acts as a trigger. This means that customer may arrive on a businesses premise in a “hair-trigger” state and seeming little events can trigger what seems like an out of proportion reaction like the one you described. The business might not be responsible for the “hair-trigger” but it will suffer the consequences.

    Stimulating positive emotions can serve to defuse negative emotional states. This is another reason for businesses to focus on enhancing the customer experience. A friendly face, a smile, a genuine greeting are simple things that will help in the short-term and set-up an emotional affinity.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Addicted Customers: How to Get Them Hooked on Your Company.

  2. Lior

    Your attempts to justify this appalling behavior disappoint me.

    What you have is a self-important idiot wasting public resources on some peurile pretext. That’s the important lesson, and Mr Peterson desreves to be penalised not treated as a customer-service icon.

    Good story, though.

    Francis Buttle

  3. My article was not attempting to glorify him but rather to illustrate a growing trend of impatience leading him to contact the authorities. Although the wastage of emergency services time is unacceptable, asking congress to establish a bill of rights is happening. It is happening because customers gave up on vendors being fair, honest and delivering sufficient value. That is the trend I was pointing to. It is a dangerous trend where vendors are losing more power in the relationships all due to originally billitelling customers. Think do not call lists, another case where vendor’s hands were tied by government because of misbehavior. The actual losers are the vendors at the end of the day.

    Lior Arussy


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