Last year, on January 3rd, I went to my favorite lunchtime restaurant. I remember the date, because it was my first restaurant meal of the new year; it was also the last time I ate at that restaurant. I never went back in 2019, and in that lost business is a customer service lesson for all organizations.
I’d had a succession of bad meals and bad service the year before, many of them concentrated in the last few months of the year. Sometimes it was just the food, sometimes it was the service, and sometimes it was both. On occasion, I had a good experience, but for the last few months of the year, the service and product had really gone downhill.
As I sat there on January 3rd looking at my sandwich, the one that managed the terrible combination of having both overcooked bread and being cold, I realized how many of my last meals there had been similar. I’d had more bad meals than good ones.
Worst, it was my favorite lunchtime restaurant, so I was always excited to treat myself to some of my favorite food only, making the disappointment even more pronounced.
On that day however, the food was not the only problem. As if to put an exclamation mark on the moment, I found myself being ignored in the fairly empty restaurant not only by my waitress, but by the owner of the restaurant whom I had met previously.
As I sat there, staring at my cold sandwich, and watching the owner finish up with the table next to me and not even make eye contact and watching the waitress walk by and not even be aware enough to notice that I hadn’t touched my sandwich.
As I sat in the booth that day, staring at my food and being ignored, I was thinking about one of my goals for the new year: to stop putting myself in positions to be hassled or frustrated whenever possible.
Obviously, as an entrepreneur running a modern, digitally-connected business and life, my ability to control many parts of my job and life is limited.
However, as I had looked back on 2018 at the end of the year, I realized that there were many times where I had volunteered to be hassled or frustrated by the choices I made. I needed to do better controlling the things I could control. Where I grabbed lunch when I was not on the road with a client was one of those things.
This restaurant had disappointed me one too many times. As I gave up on the waitress and picked at my cold food, I decided that this meal was the final straw; I was done.
This is the thing with strong customer relationships, they are not inexhaustible resources. They must be replenished, particularly when they are being depleted. Steve jobs talked about the idea of brand deposits, what’s often referred to as brand equity, which essentially refers to the idea that if you continue to provide good experiences it’s like building up a bank account.
If you make a misstep, a withdrawal so to speak, you have enough brand equity that customers will still have a positive balance in the account. In customer experience language, you’ve got a solid enough relationship with the customer that they will be forgiving of the occasional bad experience.
Now, let me warn you that brand deposits are not linear. They are not one for one. As we teach in our customer experience training and advisory, human emotion is the most important aspect of any customer relationship. Our customers are human beings, driven by irrational thinking and subject to all sorts of cognitive biases, including negativity bias.
Ten good experiences may not offset one bad experience, if those ten good experiences were not outstanding but the bad experience was truly terrible and resulted in some type of peak negative emotion.
Ten good experiences may not offset one bad experience, if the bad experience resulted in the customer feeling peak negative emotions.
That said, the brand deposit metaphor is still useful as a way of understanding certain customer dynamics. Because often it is our best customers who get taken for granted. We assume they’ll always be there; they’ll understand when we screw up. I mean, we were nice; we fixed it. We apologized. We’re all good, right? Sure, in many cases you might be “all good,” assuming it doesn’t keep happening and assuming that the customer’s perception of our organization or brand does not begin to shift. Because once it does, confirmation bias stops working for us and starts working against us.
We go from customers saying, “This place is awesome; this is very unusual” to customers saying, “This place has really gone downhill the last few months.” And that is exactly what happened with my favorite restaurant.
The restaurant belonged to a chain that I have frequented since college. A chain I had such a long history with that I was incredibly excited to find that they would be opening up near my house. Yet, in 2018, this location continued to deplete the balance in the brand account and particularly in that location’s account.
I don’t know if this location missed my business; I don’t know if my referrals and even negative comments to a few people close to me have impacted their bottom line at all. I will continue to patronize this restaurant’s other locations, in other cities and on the other side of town when that works out. They have enough brand equity with me that I won’t write off the brand because of one location, yet.
But this location chipped away at decades of goodwill, and worse, they caused me to branch out and discover other alternatives, their competitors, where I happily spent my money in 2019 and was not made me feel as if I was paying to be hassled.
Never forget that customers are often fickle and even for those that are not, their advocacy and passion is not inexhaustible. Make sure you are always filling up your customer’s brand account, so that it never gets depleted.
Always fill your customer’s brand account, so that it never gets depleted.
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