Lipstick on the Mirror

A school headmistress was alerted by the caretaker about a persistent problem in the girls’ toilets: some of the teenagers were leaving lipstick kisses on the mirrors. The caretaker had left notices on the toilet walls asking for the practice to stop, but it made no difference; so every evening the caretaker would wipe away the kisses, and the next day lots more kisses would be planted on the mirror. It had become a bit of a game. The headmistress usually took a creative approach to problem solving, and so the next day she asked a few girl representatives from each class to meet with her in the lavatory.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, “You will see there are several lipstick kisses in the mirrors in this washroom.” Some of the girls grinned at each other. She continued, “As you will understand, modern lipstick is cleverly designed to stay on the lips, and so the lipstick is not easy at all to clean from the mirrors. We have therefore had to develop a special cleaning regime, and my hope is that when you see the effort involved you will help spread the word that we’d all be better off if those responsible for the kisses use tissue paper instead of the mirrors in future.”

At this point the caretaker stepped forward with a sponge squeegee, which he took into one of the toilet cubicles, dipped into the toilet bowl, and then used to clean one of the lipstick-covered mirrors. The moment of truth!

The caretaker smiled. The girls departed – shocked. And there were no more lipstick kisses on the mirrors.

I can’t remember where or when I first heard this story, but it’s one of my favourites. And it’s a great illustration of how easy it is to lose customers very quickly. Your customers, after years and years of devotion, may experience a similar moment of truth – and then it all suddenly changes in one fleeting instant. Something dramatic happens that destroys all predictability, and that one tiny incident obliterates countless touch points that it took to build the trust. And the worst is that you may not even hear about it!

Like the lipstick on the mirror story, they are perhaps not big incidents in the greater scheme of things, but they are very powerful:

  • A junior assistant manager from a steak house chain listened to my complaint about how the ribs tasted different, and then said: “You know, Sir, as people get older their taste buds change.” I nearly slapped him!
  • An air hostess who dropped a can of beer all over my suit, muttered an apology with complete indifference, and disappeared for about 90 seconds before returning with a cloth which she expected me to use to clean up. No offer to clean the suit, no further regret.
  • A nurse that carelessly forgot to swab my skin with alcohol before taking a blood sample, causing me an infection that took weeks to heal.
  • An employee from my bank who phoned to tell me that he had been assigned to be my “personal banker.” On hearing my amazement he sheepishly admitted that “everyone in our database will get this call. I’m just going through the list.” He displayed no knowledge about anything about me, and then proceeded to tell me that I will no longer qualify for free banking. (No reason given.)
  • And what about the chef who felt it necessary to beat and slap a staff member in front of my little boy? I know that staff sometimes need some disciplinary action, but this was horrendous.

My brother was recently offered a brilliant opportunity in Dubai, and had about three months to make all arrangements for relocation. He and his family had to sell their home, cars, and tons of other accumulated possessions, and then arrange for a large container for the rest. In addition, there were countless other things to be arranged with various government departments in SA and Dubai, bank accounts, pet relocation, kids schools, utilities, post boxes, internet service providers and ongoing contracts. It was a nightmare.

Of course, there’s always something that doesn’t get done, and he asked me to please chat with his cell phone company with 7 months still left on the contract. It was an impossible task, and he flew in a few months later to sort it all out. He visited the provider to find out what he needed to do to cancel the contracts. After a short wait, someone called him back to the counter and said that he needed to pay R9000 cancellation fee for his own, and R6000 for his wife’s cell phone contracts. He was livid.

After more than a dozen years of expensive and unbroken loyalty, he didn’t deserve that treatment. Of course, contractually they had every right to do this, for it was printed in the small print of his deal, but that is pointless. He feels powerless and screwed right now, and, after agreeing to change to the smallest contract he could find, (a contract that will go unused,) he has decided to forever say “No!” to anything they ever ask of him. He has and will tell as many people as he can, and as his brother, I feel betrayed on his behalf; I use this as an example in our newsletter and seminars, write in the social media, and with some luck, about one hundred thousand people will hear this story.

Your business can have as many rules and contracts as you want to install. It will make your lawyers rich, and win you some small victories in the short term. But you simply cannot win if you get into a war with your customers. Between a hungry media willing to publish or broadcast the way companies treat their customers, and millions of blogs, e-mails and websites dedicated to reporting on customer service, the power of word of mouth can quickly destroy the reputation of any business.

It is your duty to protect this most precious asset by constantly building relationships with your customers, and creating a positive balance into what Steven Covey called “their emotional bank account,” to the point that they will readily forgive you if things sometimes go awry.

But you also have to be very conscious that these tiny incidents and “dumb contacts” can cause havoc in your business, and you need to do whatever you can to avoid making them negative.

Like the schoolgirls and the lipstick kisses, it will take almost nothing to create a permanent change in the way they choose to behave towards your business.


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