Why Do People Take Joy in Customer Service Horror Stories | Crowd of Businessmen with question mark heads

Why Do People Take Pleasure in Customer Service Horror Stories?

It seems like every few weeks some new customer service horror story virally makes the rounds on the Internet. In the last few weeks, we have been treated to the horrendous Comcast customer retention call (and the follow up Comcast viral refund call), as well as to the story about the Union Street Guest House hotel that was supposedly charging its event guests $500 per every negative Yelp review left by a member of the event party.

As these items spread like wildfire through the synapses of the Internet, I couldn’t help but think that there seems to be a deep-seated pleasure in sharing these stories. The amount of commenting and sharing these stories receive, the basic underlying actions that create their virality, are testament to the enjoyment people get from it.

People share things because it makes them feel good, and people seem to find joy in exposing terrible customer service.* It led me to wonder, what in particular is driving it?

  • Is it morally driven? Do feel like they are helping to right a wrong in the world, like when they share a story of a tragedy or an article on the state of the world?
  • Is it revenge? Perhaps this could be a motive, if the company is one that the person has dealt with personally.
  • Is it schadenfreude? Perhaps in the case of a giant corporation like Comcast people will delight in seeing the mighty taken down a notch, but how many people really get pleasure out of taking down a small business like the Union Street Guest House?
  • Is it mob mentality? Are they simply following the herd?
  • Is it an antidote to powerlessness? I certainly believe that part of the reaction is steeped in the feelings of powerlessness that consumers have nowadays. Being Powerless is one of our Seven Service Triggers here at CTS Service Solutions, and it is a very real feeling among consumers.

Of course, the reason so many people share customer service horror stories probably incorporates all of the explanations above, and more. Also, inherent in all viral Internet phenomena are publishers who try to ride the wave of trending stories by publishing their own takes on the story and who only intensify the virality of the story in doing so. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, if the publication adds value to the discussion, but it is certainly a dynamic at play in almost all viral stories.

But what causes the viral spark to begin with? What makes everyday consumers want to share these customer service horror shows? In my wholly unscientific opinion, I think perhaps the most important dynamic driving people’s seeming pleasure at sharing is a cry for belonging and empathy.

Why Do People Take Joy in Customer Service Horror Stories | Crowd of Businessmen with question mark headsPerhaps most consumers have never been through a call quite as bad as the Comcast call, but they’ve all had a call or experience with a huge corporation that was bad, plenty bad. They didn’t get to see their call blow up on ABC and the Huffington Post. They suffered their indignity in silence and obscurity.

No one cared. The company got away with it.

Oh sure, perhaps they took their business elsewhere. Maybe they shared it on Facebook and thirty people commented about how awful the company was. But their action didn’t even amount to a drop in the bucket; it was a drop in the ocean. It didn’t make a ripple, and the large multinational bank or monopolistic cable provider didn’t feel a thing.

The reality is that people take pleasure in sharing these customer service horror stories, because they hate the bad customer service they have received and want to connect with the many others who are living vicariously through the one person’s story that broke through the noise and made a difference, or at least, a scene.

When you read the comments on these stories and try to sift your way through the trolls, you find a lot of commiserating about shared experiences. It’s like each customer feels deep down like they belong to a club, and they want to know that others belong to it as well.

What can customer service professionals do about this? On a theoretical level, they can certainly help improve the state of customer service in the world, but in the larger scheme of things, there is not much to be done. There will always be customer service train wrecks placed on the Internet, and there will always be some that catch fire. The dynamic originates from a natural human reaction and one that is not going to ever change.

Next Monday, we’ll take a look at why this phenomenon is making customer service more difficult. For now, why do you think people share these customer service horror stories?


* I’m referring to general consumers in this article and not to customer service or customer experience professionals who share and write about these things (usually) with the goal of analyzing the situations professionally.

Photo credit: http://depositphotos.com/portfolio-1049184.html


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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