(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Scott Olson is president of MindLink Marketing. A version of this column originally appeared on his blog.)

Customers have a natural affinity to stay with their current vendors. It is, after all, far less trouble. Most of the time, when someone moves their business, it isn’t because the competitor has that much better of a product or service, it’s because their existing vendor ticked them off in some way that a competitor doesn’t.you-suck

So why do so many otherwise good companies find a way to alienate their customers?

Bank of America recently crossed my threshold of irritation, and made me consider alternatives, by simply botching the regular process of making a deposit. I went to the BofA drive-through teller to make a deposit with check in hand and checking account number available. Seems simple enough: I didn’t want money back; I just wanted to make a deposit in my personal account, which was the same name as payee on the check.

  • Irritation #1: When I drove up to the window, the teller asked me, “Are you making a deposit? If so, you need a deposit slip.” Why make is seem like I made a mistake instead of offering to be of service? How about just, “Do you need a deposit slip?”
  • Irritation #2: After passing me the deposit slip she informed me that I needed to leave the window, fill out the deposit slip and circle back. This would have bugged me a bit less if there were a line, but there wasn’t anyone behind me.
  • Irritation #3: After circling back, and giving my freshly filled out deposit slip she told me that I filled out the wrong deposit slip – because I have a Texas bank account, rather than one based in Oregon account. This time, she decided to help me out by filling out the form, but gave me a brief lecture about how I should keep a stack of these deposit forms for future use.

This is a seemingly small annoyance, and I’m not averse to following procedures, but what makes this particularly irksome is that I have a separate account for another entity with Key Bank. Their process for deposits? No deposit slip required, just hand them the checks. They make Bank of America seem downright antiquated.

This isn’t meant to be a rant against BofA, but rather an example of how a company can quickly become more difficult to do business with  – enough so to make a customer question their future business with them.

It also underscores how the seemingly smallest thing can drive your customers into the arms of a competitor.

Think of your own industry and the kinds of opportunities or problems this presents. Want to hold on to your clientele? Find out what’s annoying them and fix it – fast.

Want to steal your competition’s customers? Identify areas where they may be irritating their customers and ensure your company handles those smoother.

For example, Does the competition charge to pilot their product or service? Find a way not to. Does your competition have complicated, line item pricing? Find a way to simplify your own pricing. (This is an ongoing effort in the telecommunications industry.) For customer support, does your competition subject customers to a maze of automated phone tree responses? Get a person on the line with a command of the English language.

A good real-world example of this philosophy in action is Southwest Airlines, which is taking one of the major annoyances of the airline industry and working it to their advantage with their “Bags Fly Free service”. Book a flight on most other airlines and unless you’ve achieved frequent flyer status you’ll shell out $15-$25 per bag.

Existing market problems can be your best opportunities. The trick is to not only identify them in your competitors, but to take note of them within your own business before you see your customer base start to suffer.

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