Why Do People Take Pleasure in Customer Service Horror Stories?

August 18, 2014

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 heads

Perhaps 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.

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5 thoughts on “Why Do People Take Pleasure in Customer Service Horror Stories?”

  1. Sometimes it can be down to an industry where there is very little choice or where one company has a monopoly. A few complaints might not bring down the companies in question, but they might send a message to those companies that they could be doing a better job of customer service.

    1. No question Ben. I didn’t delve into it much in this piece, but there is definitely a dynamic at play in these large monopolistic/ologopolistic industries where the impact of these sorts of stories is reduced. Here’s to hoping the firms that need it get the message anyway!

  2. I thought about this one a while, having been drafting some of my own horror stories – and just wrote a fairy tale version instead. Think you’ve got it right – people know they can’t be alone in this, feel by sharing the story they get sympathy, friendship, connection. Then there’s the hope that maybe someone will listen and do something. (Skipping the trolls fishing for yucks or freebies.)

    The ‘they got away with it’ b/c it’s the ocean drop or monopoly. THAT I’ve been thinking about in PR terms a while under the ‘marketing proof’ label. It’s those big cable guys b/c really, it’s not like the other guy ain’t worse so what does it matter? Or a big box store or airline or any other brand that’s got the right location, prices, market that it really doesn’t matter what they say, what social tweet ‘crisis’ hits or how badly they mishandle PR and Facebook.

    What’s to be done? cross your fingers you don’t see your company up in flames isn’t a plan; you need to listen, read, learn, teach, then listen some more. Listen to customers, listen to the reps and find ways to be better. You can’t please everyone all the time, have to have a plan to make the best of what you can do. Or at least, that’s what I try. FWIW.

    1. Hey Davina, thanks for the comment! Not sure how this one slipped by me. I’ve been thinking about the social “PR” crisis issue for years. My gut is that for some of these larger companies in monopolistic/oligopolistic situations, they don’t matter much to long-term growth or profitability — though they can certainly be devastating to smaller orgs.

      I had a pretty bad airline experience on Monday with a discount carrier, but I really wonder how much the bad experience I had, which seems pretty typical, will affect the average consumer’s choice. They’ve got certain routes and a discount ticket price/nickel-and-dime fee model that seems to work for them. Do I think they could do even better by improving the customer experience — of course — but with such limited competition, they might manage to do just fine without it.

  3. Pingback: Hugh Laurie From House M.D. Does Customer Service Wrong

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