Small Letdowns Tarnish a Brand

Oct 1, 2015 | Branding Strategies

Major brand screw ups are anomalies. Stories like Volkswagen’s willful deception of emissions standards is shocking, but unusual. Companies don’t get caught deceiving millions of customers very often, and when they do it’s a major news story.

The real attack on brands is far more mundane. Brands are eroded internally by small breakdowns in service. These breakdowns are usually minor in nature. They are situations when a company doesn’t meet a customer’s expectations and lets them down.

These problems aren’t big enough to cause customers to revolt or leave, and are definitely not big enough to make the news. But these are the problems that customers remember.

Every time a company lets its customers down it is eroding trust in the brand. It’s like making a withdrawal from the trust bank. Trust is built up with customers over time through positive experiences, but small letdowns draw down on that goodwill.

Small letdowns are insidious because they often go unnoticed by the company. The issues are relatively minor, but they can add up. If a brand lets its customers down one too many times it may be forced to employ acts of customer service heroism just to maintain an average brand.

A Case Study in a Small Letdown

On Friday, September 25th, Telus failed to deliver pre-ordered iPhone 6s and 6s Pluses to its customers. It was launch day for the new iPhones, and customers were anxiously awaiting their shiny new objects.

I was one of those customers waiting for my phone to arrive, but it didn’t come. (In fact, it didn’t arrive until Wednesday — five days after the launch date.)

I wasn’t alone. A quick search on Twitter revealed several people were very disappointed to not receive their pre-ordered phones.



In the realm of customer service issues missing a launch date delivery is a pretty inconsequential problem. Telus does not guarantee delivery dates, and their service team was highly responsive to the complainants.

But this small misstep made a significant withdrawal from Telus’s trust bank.

Customers Have Expectations

Every company makes mistakes. It’s unavoidable. And when a problem arises you deal with it and try to come to a reasonable resolution with the customer.

Small letdowns, on the other hand, are generally avoidable mistakes. These are customer service issues that shouldn’t happen, because they’re the basics of running a good business.

For example, when you go to a restaurant you expect to be greeted and seated promptly. When you buy a new car you expect it to be washed, gassed, and have that “new car smell” when you go to pick it up at the dealership. When you pre-order an iPhone you expect to receive it first, because you made a commitment before everyone else.

These aren’t technically customer service issues; they are customer expectations.

Your customers expect a certain level of service, and it’s your company’s job to fulfill that promise. When you fail to meet your customers’ expectations you let them down, and that erodes trust in your brand.

In fact, a small letdown can erode more trust than a substantive customer issue, because the small letdown flies under the radar and goes unsolved.

Making Withdrawals from the Trust Bank

Small letdowns erode a brand one withdrawal at a time. Every time a company doesn’t meet its customers’ expectations — no matter how small or inconsequential — it is making a withdrawal from the trust bank.

I was curious to hear how customers felt about not having their iPhone’s on launch date and asked them, “How did the no show make you feel about Telus?” The responses ranged from diplomatic to irate.



What should have been a win for Telus turned into a letdown.

World Class Customer Service Isn’t Enough

The customer service team is an organization’s frontline heroes, but often they are picking up the pieces from failures created in operations, logistics, and sales.

Telus has an award-winning customer service team, and it was a delight to watch them respond to complaints on Twitter. They were fast, courteous, and personal. They apologized for the inconvenience, and tried to insert humor into the conversation.


It was a cute response, and on brand for Telus (except for misspelling “problems”). This is why their customer service team gets accolades.

The customer service team was responding to an issue that didn’t have to happen. Jane Torrance tweeted, “I got animals instead of a phone.”


The customer service team helped stop a run on the trust bank, and they mitigated some of the damage. But not all of it.

Acts of Heroism Make Great Stories

Acts of customer service heroism make for great stories, but brand trust is built in the day to day experiences.

For example, Morton’s Steakhouse delivered Peter Shankman a steak to the airport based on a tweet.


When Peter arrived at Newark Airport Morton’s was there to greet him with a steak. He described the experience as “The Greatest Customer Service Story Ever Told, Starring Morton’s Steakhouse.” It was a heroic act of customer service, and Peter shared the story broadly in his blog, speaking, and other venues.

But that’s not what makes Morton’s Steakhouse great. It’s their operations and ability to deliver a consistent customer experience that builds the brand. The company is committed to being brilliant at the basics — from how they serve their guests to how each steak is prepared.

It’s easy to celebrate the heroic stories, but you can’t be a hero without being brilliant at the basics first. The basics are where you make the most deposits in the trust bank, and the acts of customer service heroism just push your brand through the stratosphere.

Contrast that to companies who are not brilliant at the basics. They have to use acts of customer service heroism to compensate for their small letdowns. When a customer service team is always working with a low or negative balance they have to go well above and beyond the call of duty to bring customers back to a reasonable level of engagement.

Be Brilliant at the Basics

Small letdowns are breakdowns in the basics.

It may be interesting and fun to talk about the heroic acts of customer service, but the heroics are pointless if you’re not brilliant at the basics.

The basics are the essential components of a business. They are the simple day to day activities that build trust and deliver value, and this is what customers expect.

Sticky Brands are brilliant at the basics. Their brands stand out, because they rarely let their customers down.

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Jeremy Miller

Top 30 Brand Guru

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