Where there is no difference, there is indifference.

I was fully prepared to handle the irate sorority girl’s phone call. She was pissed and had every right to be. I had promised her order of party t-shirts would be there on Friday in time for her party on Saturday. It was Saturday—no shipment had arrived. This was one of my best customers for the t-shirt company I owned in college and I had never missed a date. I told her not to worry; her order would be there within the hour because I was having them hand-delivered to her door along with my sincerest apologies, a gift certificate for a massage and, of course, a case of beer for her pre-party.

I explained to her that her business was very important to me and that when I learned that the order didn’t make the truck I had one of my salespeople pick it up first thing in the morning and make the four-hour drive to her campus to deliver it. I was going to call her, but I wanted to wait until the afternoon in case she wanted to sleep in. “Oh,” she said after a pause, “that’s great. Really, that’s so great. You are so nice, gosh, thank you so much. I’m so sorry I yelled at you. So sorry, really, so sorry. I’m sorry… you are so nice. Soooo nice…”

What’s interesting about this particular event isn’t the power of good customer service, but the fine line between love and hate. One moment she was furious with me, the next moment she was telling me what a nice guy I was. She may not have felt that way if she had known that the whole thing was staged.

Love and Hate

I pulled this stunt during one of my more philosophical moments when I was pondering the characteristics of love and had come to the conclusion that love was very similar to hate. In both cases, people experience a heighted emotional state and in both cases, the object of love or hate has importance. The enemy to business is not hate. It’s indifference. If someone simply does not care about you, they won’t consider you important and they won’t experience strong emotions like the kind of emotions that build brands and make money.

This revelation taught me the importance of polarization. A good start-up brand must stand for something and reject other things to the point that they attract the attention of a polarized market—people who either love or hate them. Howard Stern is a great example. People love him or hate him. Either way he wins. The more extreme the emotions are the more powerful the brand is.

Another feature of the love and hate duality is that it is much easier to get someone to have strong negative emotions towards you than it is to get someone to have strong positive ones. You might meet someone once and decide they are a total prick after a short interaction; conversely, it may take years to build an enduring friendship (not always, but most of the time.) However, when the emotions run high, you can sometimes flip the switch to positive fom negative. This insight, I thought, could be used to my advantage. What if I could purposely piss somebody off (which would be easy) and then just flip the switch so that their negative emotions would become positive? Could I break the bonds of indifference and create someone who cares?

Customer Service

Businesses often talk about their great customer service and how it’s an important brand touch point. I agree with that statement, however, in most cases customers aren’t exposed to your customer service unless you have failed them. Therefore, if your product actually works the way it’s supposed to you, will have lost the opportunity to show the customer what great service you can provide.

If your company isn’t growing it may be because your product works well enough that there aren’t issues that require customer service, but the product sucks enough that nobody really cares about it. If people were really in love with your product—like iPhone love—then your company should grow. If not you may be caught in what I call “the Zone of Indifference”. Here you will sadly linger in mediocrity, but at least you will have plenty of company.

It’s hard to create love; it’s easy to create hate. So why not make customers hate you? Do this and you’re halfway there as long as you have a fool-proof way of responding to their hate and converting it to love.

The Sting

The whiny sorority girl was a member of a sorority that had been a customer of mine for several years. They all loved my designs and I always delivered on time. So, when I received an order that was abnormally small I knew something wasn’t right. After a little investigation I learned that my business was being lost due to the “Boyfriend Effect.” Whenever one of my customers started dating someone that worked for a competitor I inevitably lost business. This was pretty much the only circumstance I would lose a customer and, until my sting operation, I had not figured out a way to overcome it short of arranging a breakup which is exceedingly difficult.

I considered botching the order, but that would have been expensive. I also considered over-charging her credit card, but that might have been illegal. So, I decided to hold it back from the shipper and get one of my sales guys to deliver it in person with the massage gift certificate (a favorite among sorority girls). The beer was his idea. They were so happy to see him that they invited him to the party that night and I didn’t see him until Monday afternoon. I’m not sure where he slept.

Her next order was the single largest order I ever received during the six-years I ran the company—by far. She now loved my company with the same fervor that she had hated it. Even the boyfriend couldn’t break the bond. This standing order lasted long after she had graduated.

The plan had worked perfectly.

The Practical Application

In spite of this successful experiment, I never really had the cojones to implement it as a full-blown strategy. I did try it several more times and it always worked, but it was scary. Today, instead of trying to create the hate, I simply embrace the hate that already exists. I look for it and I relish the opportunity to try and flip the switch. When it works, it works great. I once took a guy out for a beer on the way home from arbitration over an employment dispute with him (I had won so I bought the beers).

Even if it doesn’t have the desired effect,  at least I know that I’ve broken the Zone of Indifference.

Most companies try to avoid negative feedback at all costs. Is it worth it to do, at the risk of not creating authentic brand love? Agree or disagree?