The TRIPPING Point: How To Avoid Relationship-Ending Moves


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I keep hearing of customer relationships with businesses that have been going along fairly well for some time, characterized by reasonably high levels of customer satisfaction, if not outright loyalty. Then, suddenly, something happens that is so disruptive and horrific that it causes the customer to not only stop doing business with the company and to vow not to go back, but also to begin spreading vitriolic word of mouth that is intended to ensure that friends and acquaintances know just how badly he or she has been treated.

What causes firms to trip up so badly, what is the TRIPPING point that puts the customer over the edge? What causes companies that presumably have been behaving rather well to start behaving badly? There comes a point where customers just won’t take it any longer; it’s the proverbial straw that fractured the dromedary’s spine.

In my experience, customers make decisions never to darken the door again because of something often related either to ill-considered comments from employees or to a failure on the part of the firm to realize the significance of the situation. Let’s examine the employee gaffe first.

The customer is looking for a dress for a special occasion; a family wedding, maybe. She opts for a high-end fashion retailer where she has shopped many times before and after 30 or more minutes of looking through the racks, selects an elegant black number. She brings it to the clerk at the front of the store and asks to try it on in a size 10. The clerk responds in a patronizing tone, “Oh no, my dear, you will need at least a 12.” Guess where she doesn’t buy the dress.

A similar response is elicited when a company simply lets a customer down, despite having been informed of the importance of delivering what was promised when it was needed. The customer is leaving on Tuesday for a two-week vacation and finds that the lock on the back door is not working properly. He calls the locksmith/security company that installed the locks in the house, explains the situation and is delighted when they are able to book a service call for Monday afternoon. He comes home from work to meet the service guy at 3:30 as agreed, but the technician doesn’t show. At 4:00 he calls the security firm and is told “we’re not going to be able to get to you today.” But, I told you I am leaving early tomorrow morning and will be away for two weeks. I really need that lock fixed.

These are two service scenarios that actually happened and that happen the world over every day, and that may well lead to the customers in each case never dealing with that company again. The first results from classic insensitivity on the part of the employee. Why would she say that? What’s to be gained? How has she made the customer feel? Where’s HR with some sensitivity training when we need them?

The second scenario results from a company not fully appreciating the customer context. They were told that the service would have to be delivered on Monday, yet chose not to show up (and hadn’t bothered to call), thereby leaving the customer with no choice but to leave his home with its insecure lock and worry for a full two weeks.

What should have happened in each case if these firms were truly customer-centered?


  1. Jim

    Great post. And oh so true.

    In the dozens of papers I have read about reasons why customers defect, a common theme running through all of them is that if companies had proper processes in place and had used them with a modicum of common since, most of the tripping points (great expression that deserves to become a customer service meme) would never had happened. Same here.

    Common sense would have solved the first one. All the clerk would have had to say was that the dresses were made to smaller European sizes and that her normal size 10 would be a size 12 in this particular dress.

    And proper processes would have solved the second. All the locksmith would have had to do would have been to inform the customer earlier that he couldn’t keep to his schedule and to have had an alternative locksmith available.

    Neither of these situations require rocket science to solve them.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Thanks, Graham

    I agree both situations that TRIPPED these customers over the edge and sent them to competitors need not have happened. In the case of the black dress, there was simply no need for the comment. It could have been handled as you suggest, or both a size 10 and a 12 could have been brought so that the customer could decide for herself. The customer is, after all, OFTEN right.

    The security firm could have had a back-up locksmith available, or could have sent one after hours so as not to leave the customer in the vulnerable position in which he found himself. Not rocket science at all.

    I continue to be amazed, as I interview customers, how many decisions to exit and never return have their origins in “little things”, most of which have nothing to do with marketing or with the core elements of the value proposition; product or price. Companies TRIP up and miss opportunities to make positive impressions because they don’t pay enough attention to the situation.

    Jim Barnes

  3. That great post reminds me of an experience when renting a car once at a local branch of one of the top car rental companies in the US.

    I showed up at the time specified in my reservation. Yet the lot was empty. Fewer cars had been returned to the dealer than they had expected. Other cars were returned with defects. It took 90 minutes before I was on the road to my client meeting. Ouch.

    All this could be excused as a freak accident. But it turns out that this car rental company had been purchased a few years ago. In order to reduce capital expenses the inventory of cars had since been reduced. Car rental agencies (not unlike other travel operators) run their business on assumptions not on exact inventory vs. reservations. They don’t know whether the cars that were taken out will really be returned on time or not.

    So the fascinating fact is that they can play around with how many cars to hold in reserve in order to avoid customer service blunders such as the one that I experienced. Turns out, the CFO is critical for a good customer experience too!

    What I like about this example is that it has everything to do with providing a good customer experience yet nothing to do with:
    * technology
    * employee training/morale

    I was fuming of course and vowed never to go back, yada yada. They are a block from me. So I have been going back there plenty of time since then. 😎

  4. Isn’t it amazing how service companies most often don’t provide service? Even more amazing, they don’t even understand what service is!

    One of the biggest problems as I see it (and I have used this in a response on the airline industry) is that management never (or very seldom) put themselves in the shoes of the client. Most companies these days are headed by bean counters, but very few companies sell beans. Revenue cost drivers are the most important item in almost every bean counters playbook. I was in a discussion with a senior manager at a large organisation regarding falling turnover recently when we overheard one of her senior sales staff complaining rather loudly to other colleagues that he couldn’t get his work done because of all the interruptions from having to take client calls. And if this wasn’t bad enough, everyone in earshot agreed with him.

    CTC seems to be the new yardstick by which all events are measured these days, with the result fewer people are employed to do more work. The end result is the client must suffer a drop in the experience level with attendant drop in revenue. And everyone wonders why?

    As an aside, to illustrate personal experiences which re-inforce the long term effects of destructive comments by staff, about 15 years ago, my wife and I entered the showroom of a luxury motor dealership to enquire about a recently launched model I was interested in purchasing. Admittedly, it was a Saturday morning in the middle of summer with the temperature in the low 100s, so both my wife and I were casually/coolly dressed. Despite my wife and I spending over 10 minutes checking out the required model on the showroom floor, none of the 5 salespeople who were discussing a party from the previous evening made any attempt to assist. When I approached to request option and pricing information, the older of the group responded by informing me he didn’t think I could afford the car in question, much to the mirth of his colleagues. On bringing this crassness to the attention of the Dealer Principle, his response was that I couldn’t blame the sales staff due to the casual manner in which I was dressed! Needless to say, I bought a different, more luxuarious brand later that same morning.

    A few years ago back, my wife decided to replace her vehicle and was interested in the same luxury brand vehicle where I had had the above experience. I reminded my wife of what had transpired, but she responded that this was a dozen years later and we were in a different, much larger city. So, Saturday morning, summer, casual clothes (sound familiar?), off we go. Walk into showroom. No-one in sight, but see required model on floor. Sit in it. Look under bonnet, in trunk, almost kick tyres, but not quite. Just about to walk out when a very fancily attired young lady walks onto showroom floor through a door hidden in back. My wife walks over to fancily attired young lady to request a test drive, and before my wife can even open her mouth, the young lady informs my wife in a voice dripping scorn that she does not think my wife can afford this car.

    Guess what brand vehicle my wife purchased?

    While I don’t believe the customer is always right, I do believe the customer is IN the right.


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