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Why Customer Support Stories Spread Like Wildfire We experience a positive or negative customer support moment, and then we talk, tweet, text, or write a status update about it.

By Paul Jun

This story originally appeared on Help Scout

Think about an angry tweet or status update about an unhelpful internet provider or an airline's awful service. Regardless of whether the person has 100 followers or 100,000, that message carries power and leaves an impression.

The next time you think about flying or changing internet providers, the memory of reading about a great or horrible experience could be enough to influence your decision.

Customers' words can either polish or stain your company's luster, and in a world where every customer has a microphone, by nature people will talk about you and your employees, products, or services.

What compels us to share positive and negative customer support moments? What are the triggers? Do we have any say on the front line? And why does it seem that we see more negative messages than positive ones?

Related: The Customer Always Remembers...

Bad Experiences Are Shared More Than the Good

A survey done by American Express in 2014 revealed that:

While 46% of American consumers say they always tell others about good service experiences, an even greater number say they talk about poor service experiences. In fact, 60% said they always share the bad ones, and they tell nearly three times as many people (an average of 21 people vs. 8 people).

This isn't at all surprising.

Customers reaching out to support aren't overtly seeking delight; rather, they are seeking to have their issues solved and inquiries answered in a timely and helpful manner. Being delighted is simply a byproduct of a fruitful interaction—perhaps the customer receives a freebie or a discount code or genuinely appreciates the tone, timeliness, and practicality of the response.

But when it comes to an angry customer, it's a different game. The feelings of injustice, or sometimes betrayal, boil inside. One of the ways to deal with the anger is to tell a friend or to publicly express frustrations in hopes that others don't fall prey to bad business. It's kind of like sharing a horrific news event just so others are warned.

We see examples of this in our use of social media.

Researchers at China's Beihang University studied 70 million Weibo (like Twitter) posts over a six-month period, placing them into categories like anger, joy, disgust, and happiness. Happy posts were likely to cause reposts. Messages that contained sadness or disgust didn't resonate and therefore weren't shared as often (why be seen as the purveyor of bad news?).

But what spread the most? Rage was the emotion most likely to spread, causing a kind of ripple effect. While this research was done in China and the mindset and methodologies may differ from Western practices, it still remains true that anger or rage spread effortlessly (think about every newspaper you've ever read).

Look at it like this: pick any famous celebrity. He or she can share happy, inspiring messages all day and many of us wouldn't know about it. But the moment something outlandish is shared, it becomes breaking news.

The Scientific Triggers for Word of Mouth

In Contagious: Why Things Catch On, marketing professor at Wharton School and best-selling author Jonah Berger and his colleagues studied the science of word of mouth. Why, exactly, are we compelled to share our experiences with products or services?

They analyzed over 10,000 products ranging from Coca-Cola and Walmart to small startups, and they studied the virality of 7,000 pieces of online content including articles about international news, politics, sports, and fashion. They sought to understand not what kind of products or content go viral, but rather to identify the underlying motivations that drive us to talk about them.

Related: Show Your Work: Letting a Great Product Sell Itself

Berger called them triggers and gave these six elements the appropriate acronym STEPPS: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. He succinctly outlines them in this article:

  • Social Currency. Just like the car we drive and the clothes we wear, the things we say affect how people see us. So the more something makes someone look good, the more likely they'll be to pass it on.
  • Triggers. If something is top-of-mind it will be tip-of-the-tongue. Just like peanut butter reminds us of jelly, the more we're triggered to think about a product or idea, the more we'll talk about it.
  • Emotion. When we care, we share. Whether positive (excitement or humor) or negative (anger or anxiety), high arousal emotions drive us to share.
  • Public. People tend to imitate others. But as the phrase "monkey see, monkey do" attests, the easier it is to see what someone is doing, the easier it is to imitate. Public observability drives imitation (e.g. iPod's white headphones).
  • Practical Value. People don't just want to look good, they also want to help others. So more useful equals more shared. Think articles about 10 ways to raise capital or five key negotiating tips.
  • Stories. No one wants to seem like a walking advertisement, but they will talk about something if it's part of a broader narrative. So build a "Trojan horse" story, a message that carries your brand along for the ride.

In the realm of customer support, perhaps emotion, practical value, and stories are the more profound motivators for customers to engage in word of mouth.

In this battle of heart versus mind ("Is it really worth tweeting or writing about this? Will anyone care?"), the heart wins because the heart is hurt or humming with joy. Like Berger said, when we care, we share. We naturally feel compelled to convey these messages with others because social media is simply an avenue to express our emotions.

Like the American Express survey said, "…word of mouth is most effective in influencing customer behavior: Two in five Americans (42%) say that a recommendation from a friend or family member is most likely to get them to try doing business with a new company."

Think about the last time you recommended a product or service to a friend. Try to remember how highly you spoke of it, almost as if you were a kind of brand ambassador. It's a kind of tribal behavior where we not only feel good that we came across something useful, but it feels good to tell others about it so that it may enrich their lives.

Why This Matters for the Front Line

Understanding why we are compelled to talk about our experiences with products or services allows us to make small pivots in our support endeavors.

Do we have a say in how customers engage in word of mouth? Yes, to an extent.

While it isn't a practical goal to make every customer share his or her experience after getting help, we can try our best and work to be known for expected excellent service.

  • We can start with empathy and ensure that our tone and language reflect thesupport lexicon of the company.
  • We can learn to appreciate the profound role of memory and how that impacts a customer's decision to share, talk, or do business again.
  • We can learn to appreciate the small gestures that create lasting loyalty.
  • We can stop with the platitudes.
  • We can do a little better than, you know, saying "I'm Sorry" when things go wrong.

Customers who are compelled to talk about great service are experiencing a flood of feelings linked to being understood, respected, and helped. On a primitive level, these are deep-seated desires that instill meaning and joy and motivate them to talk and share.

Great support stories transfer trust to strangers. The undertone of the story sounds like, "Hey, this business over here appreciates me. Check them out!" It breaks the status quo because most customers are used to—expect!—bad service.

While having customers rave about your amazing support efforts isn't a make-or-break situation for your business, it's an asset that's gaining value because of its pivotal role in the whole customer experience.

I'm sometimes left wondering which gets talked about more—a great product or great customer support?

Related: Give Your Employees an Identity Worthy of Ownership

Paul Jun


Paul Jun is the founder and editor of Motivated Mastery, a blog where he connects the dots on mastery, creativity, and change. He does marketing at Help Scout and coaches for the altMBA.

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