Sweat the Small Stuff! Those Little Things You Do Can Win Fans or Tick People Off


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There’s an old expression about human relationships: It’s the little things that count. That goes for customer relationships, as well.

You’re not as good a customer as you think you are.

While marketers spend billions on branding, SEO and SEM, modeling and offer crafting, it’s the way customers are treated—the customer experience—that counts most. According to Gartner, nearly 60 percent of customers will leave after a single bad experience; Jupiter Research says it’s as high as 80 percent.

I’ve been doing some anecdotal research and have come up with some winners and losers when it comes to proactively doing the little things that are so important to building customer loyalty—or doing the little things that cause customers to leave. Some of the best are retailers, both online and offline, and some of the worst are service providers, many of which come from the oligopoly worlds of telecom, cable and satellite companies.

In my non-scientific survey, the companies people really rave about are those who put it all together to create a superior customer experience, and deliver a combination of service and value that is personally relevant to the customer.

What are the key elements of that kind of experience?

  • Smart and respectful use of customer knowledge
  • Ease of use when shopping online
  • Integrating the online and offline experiences
  • Great follow-up
  • Proactive communications

One shoe shopper lauds Zappos.com for helping her save gas and find exactly what she wanted. She was able to view only products that met her detailed criteria for size, color, exact heel height and price—and which were and in stock. (You’d be surprised at how many e-tailers will still display products that aren’t available.) Add free overnight shipping and an easy, free return policy, and you have one delighted fashionista.

Starbucks, praised by several survey subjects, gets my personal nod for some of the very best practices today when it comes to delivering the little things that make people loyal. We know the chain is currently challenged by over-expansion and an economy that makes us all think twice before shelling out four bucks for a Venti latte. But the caffeine purveyor’s response to those challenges has been broad and deep, from developing value-oriented promotions that take the sting out of high-priced brews to offering a range of rewards designed to win hearts and minds. One of those rewards is the Starbucks Treat Receipt, a promotion that rewards your morning coffee with a deeply discounted cold drink after 2 p.m. It’s a great way to drive traffic in the off hours, while delivering so much value one person told me, “I feel like I’m cheating them!”

Little irritations

On the other end of the spectrum, little things can rile people. “Freakin’ ridiculous,” said one survey respondent about a particular wireless provider, but his evaluation could apply broadly across the industry.

Our wireless connections are our primary interface for everything from conversation to news to email and text gossip. And increasingly, wireless is becoming a key tool for targeted marketing communications. Families and businesses stay connected by wireless; and each family or business unit can spend hundreds of dollars every month on combined wireless bills. You’d think wireless companies would work hard to keep such lucrative customers loyal.

Think again.

Consider my own experience. I’ve been a Verizon customer for 15 years. Between the personal needs of my family of four and my business needs, my account totals one business voice service, two broadband accounts and a three-person Family Plan. Through my own online banking error, I paid a bill late once and was immediately subjected to multiple dunning calls. When I suggested that the value of my business might make Verizon want to cut me a little slack, I was told, “You’re not as good a customer as you think you are.” Seriously.

When I reached a vice president, I was assured that I was a very valuable customer, and proper apologies were rendered. Why can’t that attitude be taught to the folks on the frontline of customer service? (In Verizon’s defense, I have to say that the company seems to be improving a lot; all of my recent interactions have been with very nice, helpful service reps. But then, I haven’t paid my bill late.)

One respondent to my survey related a horror story of being stuck in an endless loop of canned options and responses when she tried to resolve a problem on the phone. She could not get connected to a live person, and finally decided to go to a local MetroPCS store … where she was charged a $3 service fee to talk to a human. Does the company really need the three bucks more than the customer’s loyalty?

One more worst practice in the wireless world, which virtually all of the major companies follow: feeding what one colleague calls “negative loyalty” by giving new customers better deals than longtime loyalists. One of my survey subjects identified Sprint as the company that miffed him most. He cited failure to help resolve billing issues, offering the best deals to new customers and the strategy of introducing new plans that won’t work with older equipment or older plans, forcing customers to constantly buy new hardware and switch to plans that deliver less value.

Finally, DirecTV was the target of one subject’s ire. He wanted to order new service; you’d think a satellite TV company would have that, if nothing else, down pat. But this customer—who only wanted to buy—was transferred multiple times, placed on hold for five minutes with each successive department and finally, after 30 minutes … was disconnected.

All of these “little things” are what adds up to the customer’s experience. It is these elements of daily interaction that drive customer satisfaction—or drive customers up the wall. When it comes to building customer loyalty, there is no small stuff.


  1. Howard, My father had an expression he used to express what you’ve written concerning the little things that cause problems or that can help create or promote sales. His expression was, “All trivia is important but what is important is not trivial.”

    While many people, not just with web sites, but with stores and all working environments, look at the big picture, it is the little things that are overlooked or not even know that they should be looked at.

    An example of looking at the big picture and not taking care of the little things: Today I went to a new open mall layed-out in a large triangle property to with 75 to 80 stores. Placed in just a few places but not in enough places, there was a map with a plot of the buildings with space numbers and list of the stores with numbers relating to their space on the map – blocks A, B, C, D, E, F, G. However, nowhere are there any street signs or arrows pointing to the direction of each block nor were there numbers on the store fronts. Add to this that all store names were on the facade of the buildings and not perpendicular so that one could see the names when at the head of the street. The store I was looking for was at the far end of a block and set back from the street where it could not be seen until I went to the end of the building. I was ready to go back to the map to make sure I was in the right street. But, two steps more and I saw there was something further than I had been looking at so I did find it.

    I went to concierge booth on the way back to my car to make a complaint. The young lady said that she was not to pass on my comment unless I was willing to write out my complaint. She added that this is a constant complaint but, as the policy is, unless someone is willing to write it out, it is not something they wish to hear about.

    As you can guess, my anger was growing. It turned to rage when I tried to find an exit sign from the property that would send me back to the freeway.

    In the overall picture, to management, little things are trivia. Maybe when the leaseholders begin to hear the complaints, they’ll be aware of the little things.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected] http://www.sellingselling.com
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network
    Member, Linkedin.com & Xcite.com


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