Why Customers Are Naturally Negative

“If it bleeds, it leads.”

It's a popular maxim in news reporting. News directors and editors know that people are fascinated by the negative. Accidents, violence, and tragedies get us talking.

Sadly, the same is true in customer service.

Your customers are naturally wired to focus on the negative. Great service feels good, but service failures are what people remember.

This post examines customers’ negativity bias. I’ll share some compelling evidence, the science behind it, and offer some solutions.

Negativity Stats

Let’s start with a statistic you’ve probably heard of:

Customers will tell 10 people about a bad experience, but only 5 people about a good experience.

This venerable stat came from a 1980 study conducted for Coca-Cola by Technical Assistance Research Programs, Inc. (TARP). 

John A. Goodman, one of the study’s authors, shared some additional insight in his book, Strategic Customer Service. His research across other industries consistently showed that customers will tell twice as many people about a bad experience than they will a good one.

Goodman found that online, the ratio of negative to positive word of mouth grows to a whopping 4 to 1.

In The Effortless Experience, authors Matt Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi examine the impact of good versus bad experiences on customer loyalty. They found that customer service interactions are nearly 4 times more likely to drive disloyalty than loyalty!

On a micro level, wait times provide another great example. Research reveals that when people get to choose which line to stand in, such as at the grocery store, they get agitated when they pick a slower line. Oddly, they don’t feel a corresponding positive feeling when they choose a faster one.

On a macro level, there’s the common feeling that customer service is steadily going down hill. Of course, this isn’t really true:

 Source:  ACSI

Source: ACSI

Clearly, customers are focused on the negative.


Negativity Bias

Guy Winch Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, and TED Speaker. He literally wrote the book on complaining. (I highly recommend it - it’s called The Squeaky Wheel.) 

Winch told me these scary customer service stats can be attributed to our natural instincts:

Our brains are wired for a negativity bias, which means we are much more likely to recall and to be impacted by negative experiences than by positive ones.

In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains that our brain’s emotional center, called the limbic system, is responsible for this negativity bias. 

The limbic system fires up more intensely when it perceives a danger compared to when it senses a reward. The arousal from a danger also comes on faster, lasts longer, and is harder to budge.

So, negative feelings are more memorable because they’re more powerful. But, are we naturally drawn to negative stories or do we just remember them better?

Research conducted by Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka suggests that negative stories are indeed more alluring. They conducted an experiment where subjects were asked to read political news stories. Participants were presented with a mix of positive, negative, and neutral headlines.

The results?

Trussler and Soroka found that positive news stories were 26 percent less likely to be read than negative ones.

This negativity bias naturally creeps into customer service. Winch sums it up this way:

Customers might have ten positive interactions with a company and yet a single negative experience can still compromise their customer loyalty entirely.

(Note: Winch does some fascinating work and I’ve quoted him before. Check out his Ted Talk on emotional hygiene.)



People who watched G.I. Joe as a kid might remember that every episode included a short PSA that ended with the catch phrase, “Knowing is half the battle.” 

That certainly holds true here. Understanding your customers’ natural negativity bias can lead you to a few solutions. 


#1 Avoid broken promises

Customers rightfully expect companies to do exactly what they say they’re going to do. For example, if you go to a restaurant and order a meal, you expect to get the meal you ordered, prepared properly, and delivered in a timely fashion. 

This isn’t rocket science. It certainly isn’t the stuff of legend. It’s table stakes. I call these basic promises.

Breaking your basic promises is extremely aggravating to customers. You can explore how it feels with my interactive guide to stuff your customers hate.

Before you go out and add that awesome new feature to your product, make sure the basics already work.


#2 Be really good at something

In their book, Uncommon Service, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss make a compelling case for trade-offs. 

Companies can’t excel at everything. It’s just not feasible. So, a better strategy is to be really, really good at something your customers care about and let the less important areas slide a little.

Here are some great examples:

  • In-N-Out Burger provides outstanding food and great service, but the trade-off is you might spend 15 minutes waiting in the drive through line (it’s so worth it). 

  • Southwest Airlines allows people to fly at low cost, but the trade-off is there’s no assigned seats and no first class.

  • IKEA sells stylish furniture at a low-cost, but the trade-off is their furniture isn’t built to last for generations.

The point is you can’t be all things to all people, so be the best you can be at something your customers really want.


#3 Fix service failures

John A. Goodman’s customer service research led him to a surprising discovery. Here’s another quote from his book, Strategic Customer Service:

A customer who complains and is satisfied by the resolution is 30 percent more loyal than a noncomplainer.

The data suggests that fixing service failures provides an incredible opportunity. Yeah, no brainer, right? Sadly, most problems go unnoticed and unresolved.

There are three reasons behind this:

  1. Customers often don’t complain
  2. Employees frequently fail to share complaints with management
  3. Managers don’t realize a complaint is really an iceberg

If you can overcome these three obstacles, you can get really good at problem resolution. And, if you can do that, your customers won’t have anything negative to talk about, will they?


Want to Learn More?

You can gain new skills by checking out my new training video, Working With Upset Customers.

The course available on lynda.com, so you’ll need a subscription to view the entire thing. You can get a free 10-day trial here.

Here’s a preview: