The Risk of Embellishment

© Naomi Karten,

(This article originally appeared in Perceptions &
Realities newsletter,

A frequently touted claim is that when customers have
positive experiences, they tell 3 other people and when they have negative experiences,
they tell 11 others. But some people claim it’s 5 if positive and 10 if
negative — or 4 and 14.

My guess is that some speaker once convincingly spouted a
pair of numbers to a receptive audience and the idea took hold even if the
exact numbers didn’t. But if the numbers vary in the retelling, no matter, because
the larger point is made: If you deliver services, negative customer experiences
can damage your reputation far beyond just those customers immediately

But an even bigger problem than how many people hear about
a negative experience is the nature of the experience they hear. When people relate
a situation that angered or displeased them, they tend to embellish. 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. And that
makes the experience sound even worse.

Not only do people embellish, but the amount and intensity
of embellishment often grow with each retelling. For example, during a break in
my Managing Customer Expectations seminar, Julia, a project manager in the
group, told me about an upsetting experience she’d had as a customer. During
subsequent breaks, I heard three people ask her about the incident, and each time
she described it, she incorporated some new wrinkles. Each repetition of the
story became more dramatic and more negative. Each time Julia related her experience,
she became a more aggrieved customer. Woe to the company whose misdeeds she was

Furthermore, observe carefully, and you’ll see that when
people describe negative incidents, they don’t just embellish, they perform: They
take center stage and display a certain pained demeanor and a “you’ll never believe
this” tone of voice.

To make matters worse, if the circumstances of the saga are
striking enough, people who hear it repeat it to their own audiences. In doing
so, they add their own embellishments and tweaks and negative twists. And as
bad as word-of-mouth is, word-of-Internet is exponentially worse.

To make embellishment work in your favor, do two things: First,
strive to create compellingly positive experiences for your customers, mindful
that they’ll eagerly tell others. Second, when the negative stuff happens — and
it will — try mightily to turn it into a positive outcome for the customer. People
love to relate 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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