The Toilet That Thinks You're Done When You're Not and Other Stupid Annoyances That Lose Customers

It's not like most of us choose our surgeons on the basis of their waiting rooms, but still. Last week as we awaited my husband's doctor in the hospital's zillion-dollar wing overlooking the Hudson, our attention was focused not on the great river (or hernia operation) before us, but the TV high above us.

"But wait! There's more! Nutri Ninja not only creates mouth-watering carrot, tomato or celery juice..." The infomercial yammered on until we were ready to juice our brains.

"Most companies get the big things right," says Kate Edwards, owner of the hospitality consulting firm that bears her name. The problem is, it's often "the littlest things resonate most with customers, because these are the things that become memories." Indeed they do: The restaurant with the beautiful website not updated with summer hours. The plastic spoon shaped just right for cutting the roof of your mouth. The toilet that thinks you're done when you're not. These issues may seem trivial, but the amount of business they affect is not.

Tom Altherr, director of marketing at the emotional intelligence firm Kanjoya, was working with an international hotel chain that knew there was some significant guest disgruntlement at one branch, but couldn't figure out what, exactly, was upsetting these folks. The food? The service? The location?

Altherr's firm discovered an offending detail you'd never notice unless you actually slept in a room there: the smoke alarm. Its light shone directly onto the pillow, keeping at least one customer up all night.

Little annoyances like this are easily fixed, says Karen Walker, president and principal consultant at Oneteam Consulting, but a company has to notice them first. "When was the last time someone from the organization called the support line," she asks, "or tried to park in the overcrowded visitors parking areas?" Once you're working at a company, you no longer resemble the average customer. You know too much -- the secret parking lot, or how to work around the call tree. You become blind to the frustrations "regular people" encounter.

Finding these oversights requires asking customers for their feedback and actually reading their responses, or hiring a "virgin customer" (usually a consultant) to go through the experience.

Gary Lee, CEO of the customer experience firm InReality, was working with a major auto tire chain that wondered why it wasn't getting more business. To the execs, it seemed to offer everything anyone shopping for tires would want: Tires.

So the waiting room was stocked with car magazines, period. And the bathrooms? "One step above atrocity," says Lee. Bottom line: The place was as inviting as the Sing Sing shower room to females.

After he delivered this assessment -- which seems like it would have been obvious, but it wasn't -- the chain ordered a slew of general interest magazine subscriptions, and gave the bathrooms a makeover. Now the car enthusiasts can still read Automobile, but everyone else doesn't have to feel like they've crashed a stag party.

Last story: An airline that started charging its non-premium fliers for checking their bags created a cascade effect we've all witnessed (and maybe, ahem, even participated in): Travelers schlepping their giant bags onto the plane to avoid the extra fee.

This unintended consequence begat another unintended consequence, Bill Alberti at the consumer collaboration company Communispace, discovered: Premium customers, the kind who travel so much they usually toss their carry-ons into the overhead compartment, no longer had enough room to do so. Penalizing the average flyer accidentally penalized the pampered one.

Oy. The airline has since changed its policy.

In short: Customers are picky, prickly, and ever ready to jump brand if they feel someone isn't feeling their pain. A customer who can't find the right answer in the FAQs, or discovers gum under the table at the fancy restaurant, or can't go backwards on the phone tree after accidentally typing the pound sign (okay, so maybe that was me, this morning) can quickly become a fugitive.