In the previous post, I talked about the relationship between customer satisfaction and loyalty and introduced the concept of the zone of indifference.  This zone is the broad middle ground between top and bottom boxes on a customer satisfaction survey.  In this post, I will discuss the relationship between customer experiences and expectations and talk about the zone of tolerance and it’s complement the zone of intolerance.

Zone of Tolerance

In the ideal world, when two or more parties make commitments to each other, there are clearly defined expectations made and agreed.  For example, if I say “I will pay you $500.00 for your Canon Digital SLR camera tomorrow at lunch when you give me the camera.  I will test it and, if it does not work, then I will return it to you and this deal is off.”  It is clear what both parties will do.

Unfortunately, frequently in the real world, expectations are not as clear as the example.  Commitments made by one party are not clearly understood by the other party.  For example, “Our service engineer will show up at you office early tomorrow afternoon and the job should not take more than 2 or 3 hours to complete.”  Sounds simple, but what happens if the engineer does not have the necessary part and so cannot start work until 10AM the following morning when FedEx delivers it.  Assume the repair took two hours – the engineer and her manager feel they did what they promised.  The customer is really disappointed because he had to wait almost another half a day to get on with his work.  They certainly won’t be excited about the long downtime but they may tolerate the situation.

This figure shows the above situation in two forms – if the downtime is very important or if it is not so important:

Lets talk our way through this figure.  For the most important case, there are two different expectations:

  1. The description of the desired service – show up by 3PM today and get the air conditioner running before you go back to your shop today.
  2. The description of what the customer will accept – diagnose the problem today and get the a/c running before noon tomorrow if you do not have the required part on your truck.

In other words, the customer is saying “I want it fixed tonight but will tolerate a delay until tomorrow if you have to get a part and cannot come back before tomorrow morning.”  A loyal customer since she is willing to accept an inconvenience because she trusts your business.

Now, let us look at the least important case.  For the same air conditioner, maybe the humidifier has a very slow drip.  The water is dripping into a large bucket that will hold a few days worth of leak before needing to be emptied.  In this case, there are lower expectations and a larger zone of tolerance.

In both cases, the customer may still be very satisfied if you meet her level of desired service. As long as you achieve the adequate service level, you will satisfy her and may even make her very satisfied.  However, this will keep you nearly out of the zone of well done!

Zone of Intolerance

But what happens if you fail to meet the customer’s expectation of adequate service?  Look here:

Once you fail to perform at the adequate service level, you fall into the zone of intolerance.  This is where the customer starts venting to friends and associates and calls your help line and immediately asks for a supervisor, manager, or Vice President.  Not a pleasant situation.

When you fail to even achieve the level of unacceptable service, you should start monitoring social media.  You rapidly transition through the zone of indifference and you turn your customer into a terrorist.  In many companies, you do not want to be the person who helped a customer become a terrorist.  And if they are a key account, you need to start looking for a box to take your possessions home when you are fired.

Key Takeaway

You must do everything you can to keep your customers out of the zone of indifference.  The best way to do that is to meet your customers desired service level and, if you absolutely cannot achieve that level of performance, you MUST meet her adequate service level.  Not meeting that service level means you risk turning your customer into a terrorist who will do whatever she can to negatively impact your future business.

Learn this lesson well.