Cultivating Positive Relationships Customer Service Empowerment Techniques Leverage Opinion

‘Butterfly effect’ is alive and well in customer service

The “butterfly effect” holds that a seemingly insignificant, small occurrence like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can ultimately impact weather halfway around the world. states it this way: “The concept referred to as the butterfly effect has been embraced by popular culture, where the term is often used to emphasize the outsize significance of minute occurrences.”

Indeed, “minute” customer service occurrences can have profound impact on relationship-building.

A couple cases serve to illustrate the point:

I just ordered a new probiotic. When it arrived, explanatory information confused me about whether this was just for women or anyone. When I called the manufacturer’s customer service number, a person sounding like she was working for an answering service took a message for a callback. When I inquired about the expected timeframe for such a call, she said she didn’t know. Wrong answer.

Then, I received a timely voicemail from a manufacturer rep clarifying the product’s use, with an invitation to call back for further information. Right answer.

The difference for me was possibly sending back the product and never ordering from them again, or becoming a regular customer. Yes, I’m picky. But, competent customer service is a big part of my decision-making process.

Applying the butterfly effect, one small communication can expand into building or destroying an ongoing relationship. Multiply that by the number of other people who either stay or go, and the impact can substantially impact the bottom line—good or bad.

I recently thought I’d been overcharged on a grocery item. When I got home, I called the store manager—who wasn’t particularly helpful or friendly. So, I called the corporate parent office. A rep told me that each store has its own return policies, but gave me a $5 credit for inquiring—which was more than accommodating. However, I subsequently discovered that I hadn’t been overcharged, and called the corporate office back to tell them of my error and request they rescind the credit.

A very scripted representative told me they don’t rescind credits, and sounded annoyed that I was taking up her time with this matter. So, I’m left with the credit, even though I didn’t deserve it. But, more than that, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth. Here’s the “little” difference that would have made all the difference: She could have expressed appreciation for my honesty and going the extra step to rectify the issue; then told me to keep the credit as a “thank you.” Instead, I felt as though they didn’t care about such matters.

No wonder so many people “work” the system. There seems to be more focus on getting people off the phone than acknowledging those who take the time to make something right. Count up all the times people get rebuffed as I did (and perhaps reduce their purchases or go elsewhere in frustration), and how many times opportunists see this as an ongoing way to get freebies. I’m guessing that’s a major hit to the bottom line, too—starting with a seemingly insignificant issue.

From writing emails and texts to phone calls and all other manner of customer-service interactions, think about the potential impact of what you say and how you say it—right down to the little items. That butterfly effect can add up in no time.


Legendary basketball player and coach John Wooden said, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” When it comes to customer service, those little details can make or break a company. That little extra bit of encouragement or support (or lack thereof) can make all the difference between a positive and negative experience—and a corresponding thumbs-up or thumbs-down review.

Mark Lusky is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience.

Author of A Wandering Wondering Jew… and co-author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Leverage,  Mark (aka The Happy Curmudgeon) is the owner of a Denver-based marketing communications firm.

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