An Englishman, a Frenchman, and an American walk into a bar. The Englishman says something unremarkable. The Frenchman’s words or actions are mildly amusing. When the American takes his turn, it’s hilarious. This is a common pattern in humor, and it doesn’t matter at all what nationality, religion, race, or species the three characters are – you can swap them out and the joke still works. But it’s always the third guy who delivers the funny, and the audience chuckles even if it’s a very corny joke.
The same pattern is evident outside of humor, in rather serious situations: the first affront or insult is shrugged off, the second one rouses anger, and the third can lead to an outburst or violent altercation. The first time a customer is disappointed he shrugs it off, the second is an irritation, and the third elicits a hostile reaction that terminates the sale and possibly even the relationship with the brand.
That’s not to say that a single misstep will never cause an explosion, though it generally has to be something quite egregious. Likewise, the second misstep might be seen as blowing a second chance, but again the error has to be fairly serious to result in drama. But no matter how mild the offenses, three-in-a-row will almost always result in a dramatic emotional reaction.
Generally speaking, brands are attentive enough to avoid making the single egregious error that immediately terminates the relationship. Errors of this kind tend to be so obvious that no-one would cross that line (except maybe an individual who’s socially maladroit, having a very bad day, or both at once). They also seem to be largely attentive to the two-strike errors for which customers will give the firm a second chance (but not a third) to recover.
But the three-strike mistake is the kind that many brands still make, because individually each of the errors seems rather minor and they expect to be forgiven – and because they will be forgiven the first time and even the second they tend to treat these problems as statistically insignificant anomalies that can be addressed at their leisure. And when they do serve up the third misstep, they dismiss upset customers as being unreasonable and hot-headed and continue to ignore the problem.
As markets become competitive and an increasing number of suppliers deliver increasingly commoditized goods, it’s no longer wise to be so nonchalant about seemingly “minor” service issues. All it takes is three of them, no matter how trivial they may seem, to send customers into a tantrum that fractures their relationship to the brand.