I recently ordered hair products from Sephora. I buy them at Sephora because I earn loyalty points that I will probably never spend, and because of Sephora’s practice of including free cosmetic samples with every order. “THREE FREE SAMPLES WITH EVERY ORDER” is plastered on every page, and during checkout customers are presented with 6-12 sample options, from which they can choose three. This “three free” practice has been part of Sephora’s brand promise since, I think, they began offering ecommerce.

The samples are not always the ones that you selected, they’re not always great, and sometimes I don’t even use them because they’re for different hair or skin types than mine.  So, if you had seen my abject despondency upon opening my recent Sephora package and finding that there were NO SAMPLES included, you would rightfully conclude that I was overreacting.

I couldn’t explain the injustice I felt. I looked at the package slip included in the box, which had no mention of the samples I had selected. I pulled up the email order receipt, and all three were listed there. There was no explanation of what had happened between the order and the delivery. I emailed customer service to ask if the samples were shipping in a different package. I know this is absurd; who in their right mind would mail three tiny cosmetics samples in a separate package? Immediately I received the following automated email:

This email did not make me feel better. It incensed me. I didn’t even warrant a personal response? I searched online for “Sephora missing samples” and found I was not alone in either my predicament or my outrage. Evidently customers have been finding somewhere between zero and two samples in their packages instead of the expected three, and no one is happy. People have received unsatisfactory responses from the company and, they say, they are leaving their loyalty points behind to shop at places like Ulta and Nordstrom.

So why was I, and all these other people, so upset over three missing samples that were of negligible value or use?

Because we were promised something that we didn’t get. The current political climate has people of all political stripes enraged and feeling duped. No one is getting what they want in a top-level sense, so we look for “justice” in smaller ways. We become focused on things like the samples we didn’t get, the table that wasn’t what we wanted, the food that arrives slightly colder than it should. Consumer-facing businesses are bearing the brunt of our collective dissatisfaction. Whether or not it’s fair, retail and hospitality businesses need to be aware of the increased expectations. Here are three ways to escape the collective wrath:

  1. Deliver on any promise – or anything that looks to a consumer like a promise. Things that are in bold or repeated across your website are viewed by your customers as a promise. If the truth is that you can only deliver on that thing sometimes, then don’t talk about that thing. In Sephora’s case, they would be better off offering only one sample per order or even cancelling the sample practice altogether. Imagine the delight of a customer who knows the practice has been cancelled and opens her order to find a random sample included: now one sample has become a bonus instead of an irritation.
  2. Find ways to listen to the customer. People already feel like they aren’t being listened to, so you’re just going to make them madder by fobbing off a form response. Consider a live chat function, or an auto-response that says your company reviews every customer communication it receives so it may take a few days before the customer receives a “real” response. You don’t need to do an in-depth review of every customer communication, but you will let customers know they are being heard.
  3. Manage your online reputation. When a customer (for instance, me) goes online and finds lots of other people with not only the same underlying experience but also the same bad customer service experience, I become emboldened and feel more righteous in my dissatisfaction. If instead I had found responses from Sephora that sounded like a person was writing them, with some kind of explanation, make-good, or a promise to do better, it would have made a difference in how I perceived the company.

People are feeling disappointed and duped all the time. This creates challenges for consumer-facing businesses, but it also creates an opportunity to differentiate by delivering on what you promise, listening, and managing your online reputation.