How Customers Describe Negative Experiences

Customers are quick to voice their displeasure after a negative experience, but they're also quick to embellish the level of their displeasure whether they know they're doing it or not. Learn how to control the wildfire-like spreading of bad reviews by ensuring you put out those fires masterfully.

When people have negative experiences, they can’t wait to tell others. They tell them in person, they blog, they tweet, they post comments on ratings websites. Any way they can communicate their tales of woe, they do.

But that’s not all. I’ve noticed that when people relate a negative experience, they add details. They focus on fine points. They stress certain parts of the story out of proportion to the role these parts played in the actual incident. In doing so, they become Masters of Embellishment. And that makes the experience seem even worse than it actually was.

You’ll never believe what happened next!

In addition, the amount and intensity of embellishment often grows with each retelling. During a break in one of my Managing Customer Expectations seminars, Julia, a project manager, told another participant about an upsetting experience she’d had as a customer.

During subsequent breaks, I heard three people ask her about the incident. Each time she described it, she incorporated some new wrinkles, with a pained look on her face and a “you’ll never believe this” tone of voice. Each repetition of the story became longer, more dramatic, and more negative. Each time Julia told it, she became a more accomplished performer and a more aggrieved customer. Woe to the provider whose misdeeds she was describing.

Did you hear what happened to . . . ?

But the performance doesn’t stop there, because people who hear such stories like to repeat them to their own friends and colleagues. In doing so, they add their own tweaks and personal touches. They add their own embellishments. And with word-of-mouth and word-of-Internet at work, there goes your reputation if the story concerns your product or service.

A big lesson here if you’re in the business of serving and supporting customers: When the negative stuff happens, do everything you can to turn it into a positive outcome for the customer. As much as people love to complain about things that went wrong, many show at least as much enthusiasm in describing negative experiences that have been transformed into happy endings. And when that happens, embellishment isn’t a risk at all; it’s a benefit and you’re the beneficiary.

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