The Bird Cage Test: A Theory About Customer Happiness

by Matt Sullivan on August 29, 2013

I’m inspired to write this post after reading a great piece by Matt Walsh about how bad customers get bad customer service. It’s a great post, and you should really take a few minutes to read it. I think almost everyone has been in a similar position of seeing someone act like the smallest perceived slight is justification for inappropriate behavior.

The Bird Cage Test of Customer HappinessIt seems that world at large is saying temper-tantrums are okay if you get too much or too little ketchup and aren’t treated like a VIP. The “unexpected delights” that seem to be the cherry on the sundae are now becoming the expectation. But what happens when a company’s customer service isn’t necessarily bad, but isn’t great?

The marketing world is full of books and articles about how critical good customer service is to a business. It produces customers with a higher life-time-value (LTV) and also creates referrals, which should be treated as the most sacred of opportunities. We also know that bad customer service will result in thrashings online and throughout social media. Matt’s article got me thinking about the grey area of mediocre customer service.

Here’s a story for you, one in which I’m change names to protect the guilty: A local membership-based business is moving locations and takes the opportunity to re-envision itself. This isn’t an unheard of situation, but the business’ tactics are new to me: it terminated all customer membership contracts.

Yes, read that again: a company that’s based on membership revenue cancelled all its members’ contracts.

With the new facility came a new philosophy: they offered a premium product, so they only wanted members that were fully invested in the business and the purpose of the membership. As a result, prices were increasing and ALL members would go through an evaluation period before being invited to re-join. The email then went on to state how he felt that there were many clients with bad attitudes and that there were a number of people “out to get him”.

I could go on about the rambling of the email, but you should get the point: all the contracted customers were free to stay or go. If this business provided the level of service they perceived themselves to be delivering, wouldn’t most customers come back?

The Bird Cage Test

This is where I got to thinking about how this, not NPS, is The Ultimate Question: If all your customers could leave you today, would your business survive?

Even if your product is great, poor customer service will drive people away. I say that this case is even worse than having a poor product but great service (Yes, ideally both should be great.)

Granted, not every business has membership or subscription contracts that act as a client retention tool, but there are other similar deterrents to switching: cost of migration, convenience, etc.

So, instead of asking for a reference… ask yourself what happens if you open the bird cage.

In the case above, I have already heard anecdotes of how clients are going to competitors.


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