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3 Things Every Company Can Do To Stay Off Customers' Sh*t Lists

Consumers are constantly comparing your product to a host of others. So look outside your market and shamelessly steal what works, argues Ziba’s Cale Thompson.

My sister-in-law maintains a list on her smartphone of companies she vows never to patronize again. She calls it her "shit list." It includes big national brands and small local companies, and spans restaurants, hotels, Internet providers, airlines, retailers—practically any business with a service component. And she’s not alone. Practically everyone has a shit list of some sort, whether mental or recorded, and the incidents that get companies onto these lists have one thing in common: They’re nearly always preventable.

Research shows that replacing a dissatisfied customer costs six to seven times as much as retaining a satisfied one, yet many companies have elaborate justifications for continuing to irritate their customers in defiance of economic logic. Instead of taking advantage of the potential for increased profit by keeping customers happy, they maintain a "leaky bucket" approach, spending endlessly to replace those that leave.

The shit list isn’t going away. In fact, consumer expectations are making it easier to land there than ever. We’ve come to expect all of our in-store shopping to be as intuitive as the Apple Store, our information searches to be as easy and relevant as Google, our customer service to be as responsive as Zappos, and our technology interactions to be as seamless as Zipcar. Part of this is because modern consumers interact with so many services in such rapid succession. If you’re traveling, you might pass through the hands of a dozen service providers in just a few hours, including airline, airport, rental car company, Yelp, restaurant, hotel, credit-card company, and Facebook. This proximity prompts continual comparison.

The rise of startups and the freemium model—by which basic services are offered for free—is also pushing expectations. New entrants into the service marketplace, encouraged by the plummeting cost of starting a business (especially online), are exposing customers to more options at little or no cost, raising the bar for every service within a category. If a major player is getting part of their service experience wrong, you can virtually guarantee that a smaller one will come along to fix it for them.

At the other end of the spectrum, large companies have gotten better at incorporating multiple services into a single platform. Expedia lets you book flights, hotels, cars, transfers, and entertainment from a single interface. Facebook can be used for everything from instant messaging and photo sharing to business promotion and event planning. But the consumer’s expectations of service quality are tied to the platform, not the service: If I buy a game or product through Facebook, I still expect the experience to feel like Facebook.

We don’t typically compare our blender with our iPad, but we’re quite happy to compare our health care provider with a hotel chain. Services from different sectors increasingly compete in our minds: "My gym should offer a mileage program like an airline," we think, or, "This airline should offer a personal progress app like my gym." As we jump from one to another, the company that fails to reach this newly raised bar stands out, making good service design the crucial defense against the shit list.

Staying off of it doesn’t have to mean beating the world’s greatest service providers. But brands that earn loyalty and love through services tend to take the following approach:

Acknowledge A Bigger Universe Of Competitors
Your customers engage with dozens of services, and the more you know about them, the better. You can assume that your website, for example, is being compared with aspects of Amazon, Google, Facebook, iTunes, and a major travel website at the very least. You should evaluate your service touchpoints with this in mind—your customers certainly are.

Seek Out Comparable Experiences
Beyond the immediate service portfolio, it’s also important to find services that address the same customer needs as yours does. What’s your real value to users? Security? Flexibility? Personalization? You need to start looking at services that deliver those experiences well, even if they’re in a market sector far removed from your own.

Blur The Lines
Just as customers are applying expectations from other categories, you’re allowed to look outside for ideas, too. Some of the greatest service innovations come not from inventing something new but applying principles from successful players in an unrelated category. The key to making this work—and one of a service designer’s most crucial tasks—is to spot similarities in service expectations despite category differences, and translate the successful approach to a new context.

In practice, this "creative theft" approach requires both innovation and adaptation. AirBnB transformed the vacation home rental market, first by providing a better user experience for renters, then helping to turn homeowners into better small entrepreneurs. EBay had done something similar a few years earlier through its University Learning Center, turning casual sellers into smart businesspeople by posting videos and tutorials on everything from shipping logistics to writing product descriptions.

AirBnB’s sister site,, provides a service similar to the ULC, but in a way that’s relevant to its unique user base. The word choice in each tutorial, the topics that are covered, and even the lighting and cropping of the videos all "feel" like AirBnB, making the service both innovative and approachable. It also links property owners to one another, to share tips and information, and deepen the community that’s become one of AirBnB’s most valuable assets.

If you know your customers’ expectations are being shaped by another category (or provider), then it’s time to start borrowing, heavily and without shame. But it’s also time to sweat out the details—to figure out how to fulfill those expectations in a way that customers will embrace. On a flattened playing field with a multitude of players, customers expect service innovation as well as delivery. To stay off the shit list, you have to deliver both.

[Image: Scott Rothstein/Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Pip_seeker

    You can satisfy some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all the time.

    The more you try to satisfy all the people, the more likely it is that you satisfy no one.

    You can't be all things to all people all at the same time. Find your niche and exploit it.

    There is a breed of customer who would rather be cheap and complain about poor service than to pay for and receive great service. Remember you get what you pay for and sometimes you get alot less.

    The cost of keeping a constant complainer far out weighs the cost of attaining a non-complainer.

  • Nathan

    Good reminders for any business, I really liked the section "Blur The Lines". There are countless examples of stodgy industries being revived by this alone. Southwest / Jetblue for the airline industry, Home Depot, Starbucks (as much as I dont like them, they redefined coffee), Marvel Comics (the company & comic book industry was dying before they started making movies of all their comic heros).

    This is the first time I've read anything by Cale, thanks & hope to hear more.

  • Nicolas Nelson

    Great article Cale! 

    The cross pollination of ideas and expectations is especially relevant now that dinosaur industries brands are being eaten away by lean startups. 

    Customers assumptions are now in rapid flux by design-led companies like ZipCar, Apple, and Pinterest who are fulfilling both emotional and functional needs. 

  • Puhhh-leeze

    "You are using an unsupported browser"

    And a nag popup if this wasn't enough!

    Welcome to the 1990s. And my sh*t list.

  • Aika-Grace Wangwe

    Thanks for mentioning this. The image viewer especially is the most frustrating for me. I've stopped clicking to  view images. At one point I left the window for 30 minutes to look at my other usual sites hoping the images would load and I could come back and click through them easily. Didn't make a difference.

    Co. Design, please do something about that image viewer.

  • Unimatrix05

    The recent facelift is not userfriendly at all, i just stop clicking onto the images cos it's not always work properly, bring back the old layout FCD.

  • Christensen Suzanne

    Thank you.  I was about to write the same note myself.  The irony of opening up a story about how to stay off of customers' s**t list, only to be forced to "accept responsibility" for possibly not having a (totally text based) story display correctly in my browser.  Oy!

  • atimoshenko

    Just offer something you'd be thrilled to use yourself. Customers are not some faceless force of nature that needs to be manipulated within your money-generating machine. So build for yourself and hope that there are other people out there like you (always remembering that optimisation implies tradeoffs and tradeoffs mean that you cannot build for everyone).

  • Jeff

    Designing for yourself works if your users are like you, but not every business has that luxury.When your design team is made up of 25-45 year old men and you want to offer a service catering to young children and their mothers, designing for yourself is risky to say the least.