Bad Service Makes a Good Story

“Every happy family is the same; unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” – Tolstoy

I love bad service. Rude clerks, pushy salespeople, incompetent call agents, convoluted phone systems – I like them all. It isn’t the actual service experiences that I enjoy, but the fact that they increase my value as a conversationalist.

This is because bad service makes a good story. Any time I’m with a group of people and the conversation starts to drag, I just bring up my latest service horror story and the energy instantly picks up. Everyone starts competing to tell the best “worst” story, delighting each other with their tales of woe and indignation.

Good service isn’t nearly as interesting as bad service, of course. It simply doesn’t have the same dramatic punch.  And because bad service is more interesting, people talk about it more.

We’ve all heard the claim than customers will tell 10 times more people about a negative experience than a positive one. My own research supports this proposition, although the actual ratio of negative to positive tales tends to vary by industry. In the late ‘90’s the company I worked for had a web site that collected service hero and horror stories from across industries, and we regularly found that the negative examples outnumbered the positive by about four to one. More recently, while working for a large financial institution, I analyzed several years’ worth of comments about retail banks from a consumer feedback site. The ratio of complaints to compliments was a little more than 10 to 1 overall, but it varied considerably by bank, from about 7 to 1 to more than 26 to 1 (I won’t name names, but based on their customer satisfaction ratings there were no surprises as to which banks had the most complaints relative to compliments).

But it isn’t simply that customers talk about bad service more often than good service. They also tell their stories in more detail. In the banking analysis I mentioned above, we discovered that the complaints contained about 46% more content than the compliments. More text characters, more words, more information.

So – bad service results in both more stories and longer stories than good service. But that’s not all. There are also differences in the way these stories are constructed. Tales of bad service tend to have an epic form, with a valiant hero (the customer) battling an evil villain (the company). There is often lots of dialog, in which the narrator gets all the best lines, and a plenty of action, in which every thrust and parry of the battle is described in detail. The whole thing is exciting and memorable for both the narrator and the audience.

Tales of good service are much different. They also have a hero, but the hero tends to be the company or the service employee rather than the narrator. If you’re the one telling the story, this isn’t nearly as interesting as talking about yourself.

Conspicuously missing from these tales of good service is a convincing villain. If you’re telling a story and you want to engage your audience, this is a serious weakness. As every actor and writer knows, villains make more interesting characters than heroes. Dudley Do-Right may be a great guy, but it’s Snidley Whiplash who always steals the scene.

Not all stories about good service are bland; some are more memorable and repeatable than others. Stories that include a surprise or an extraordinary act can generate plenty of interest and re-telling. And even when tales of good service are not particularly exciting, there is no question that good service builds trust and leads to referrals and retention. But realistically, it is bad service that is likely to generate the most story-telling “buzz”.

The question is, what do companies do about that?

One thing they can do is to begin building a culture of story-telling and story-listening within their organization. Many companies have become over-reliant on survey results and traditional customer feedback methods. By listening more carefully to what customers are telling each other, and to the type of language and structure they use in their stories, a much richer picture of their experience emerges.

Customer stories can be woven into training sessions, team meetings, and internal communications. Through constant story-telling and listening, it becomes easier for employees to cast themselves as characters in a narrative rather than as ratings on a survey. By better understanding their role in customer stories and how they might be portrayed, they begin to take control of the narrative and promote the kind of customer conversations that build loyalty and attract new business.

We’d love to hear how your organization approaches this topic. How do you capture word-of-mouth and what do you do with the information?  How have you made story-telling part of your employee culture?

Leave a comment or drop us a line. We’ll share responses in a future post.

Peter Gurney

This entry was posted on Thursday, December 17th, 2009 at 3:33 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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