Are Bogus Customer Service Stories Hurting Your Cred?


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The conference speaker had his audience riveted.

He was explaining how organizational culture influenced customer service. He told us a story about a fascinating experiment to make his point:

A group of monkeys were placed in a cage. There was a ladder in the middle of the cage with a banana hanging over it. Whenever one of the monkeys would go for the banana, researchers would spray the other monkeys with cold water.

The monkeys soon learned to attack anyone who went for the banana so they wouldn’t get the hose. 

Researchers then began removing one monkey at a time and replacing it with a new monkey. The new monkey would inevitably go for the banana and get attacked.

Eventually, all of the monkeys in the cage were new monkeys who had never gotten the hose. Yet, they’d still attack any monkey who went for the banana.

The speaker used the story to emphasize his point that customer service teams picked up poor habits from their colleagues. The story was also bogus. The experiment never happened.

I approached the speaker after his presentation and asked him if he knew the experiment was bogus. His response surprised me.

“I know, but it’s a great story!”

This got my wheels turning. Are we sharing bogus customer service facts and stories just because they’re convenient? And, does this hurt our credibility?

Famous Quotes

People often use quotes to make a point. The trouble is that quotes are often distorted or misattributed in an effort to give them more impact. 

Pop quiz. Here are two famous quotes. Which is bogus?

There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

– Mark Twain

This quote is often used to describe how information can be manipulated. For example, your customer satisfaction scores may look rosy, but they could be hiding a big problem. 

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

– Henry Ford

The idea expressed here is that customers don’t really know what they want. It’s often used to describe the inherent danger of relying on customers for product development suggestions.

OK, so which of these quotes is bogus? 

The truth is both of them are. They’ve just become so pervasive that they’re accepted as facts. So, the question is do these quotes hurt our credibility if they’re false?

(Note: You can check the backstories here: Mark Twain, Henry Ford.)


False Statistics

Statistics are also used to prove a point, even when they’re false.

For example, many customer service training programs refer to communication coming from three components:

  • 55 percent comes from body language
  • 38 percent comes from tone
  • 7 percent comes from words

It sounds right, but it isn’t. These percentages are a myth.

You may also have heard this one. Happy customers will tell five people while angry customers will tell ten.

Like the other examples in this post, it sounds right but there’s some important nuance. This statistic came from a study conducted by TARP on behalf of Coca Cola in 1980. The study examined word of mouth behavior from consumers who had made a complaint.

Both the 55-38-7 statistic and the “angry customers tell 10 people” story sound plausible. They’re convenient. But, they’re not really facts.


Unknown Sources

Customer service statistics and stories are often quoted without a source. They may or may not be accurate, but nobody really knows. Here’s an example:

Only 4% of customers complain

I saw that statistic on the Stride blog. It cited a Help Scout blog post as the source. The Help Scout blog attributed it to a publication called “Understanding Customers” by Ruby Newell-Legner.

Finally, I’m getting somewhere! The only problem was I couldn’t find any publication called “Understanding Customers.” 

I did find Newell-Legner, so I sent her an email to ask about the source of the 4 percent statistic. She graciously replied:

I started my business in 1994 and the first five years was spent creating training programs from scratch. I remember finding a number of statistics from surveys and reputable sources (including some government agencies who document customer service statistics.) I created a true false test out of the statistics. I never changed the stat but it may be worded in a way that enabled me to make it part of my True False Test. Because it was so long ago, I do not have a record of where it came from. 

I can verify that the statistic is true as I wouldn’t make a statistic like that up. Years later, a client in the Navy posted my True/False Test on one of their servers and it was spread virally throughout the world. The program wasn’t even called “Understanding Customers” even though I talked about that concept before the True/False Test.

Over the years I have been contacted numerous times to inquire about the source. I am sorry to say, I cannot provide it. 

Let’s assume Newell-Legner found this statistic from a credible source. There’s no reason not to believe her. However, what about the blogs that quoted each other without verifying the source?


What’s the Harm?

There’s an old marketing fable about the Chevrolet Nova. The story is that the Nova didn’t sell well in Latin American countries because Nova translated into “no go” in Spanish. 

You might guess that this story isn’t really true. The Nova sold just fine in Latin America.

So, I’ll leave you with the big questions:

  • What’s the harm in using these stories, even if we know they’re false?
  • How much responsibility should we take to fact check our stats?

Please use the comments section weigh in and let me know what you think.


Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Jeff, I guess false stories can cause harm. A bigger harm is caused by people writing articles, even books without understanding the basics of customer service/value. For example satisfaction measures value. Satisfaction for high value (meaning high rice) product is low, satisfaction for low value (meaning low price) product is high. or that value is measured by satisfaction. What does the person mean by value? Customer value is what something is worth (benefit vs. price) to a customer over competitive offers.
    So much harm is being done. Much bigger harm this way though wrong stats can hurt too

  2. I agree we do have a responsibility to lead with facts. But, there is much to be said for inspiring with stories, even folklore, fable and metaphor. The monkey story may not be accurate (I was not aware it was bogus) but it makes a strong, inspirational point. The story of the 100th monkey (the tipping point of culture formation) is also bogus. But, I doubt anyone is going to make primate decisions after hearing either monkey story, but the strong lesson of the ease of being influenced by group think is a very memorable one.

    Did the parable of the Good Samaritan actually happen? Who can deny its timeless teaching power. The story reveals the generosity of a Samaritan who stopped to help a Jew who had been beaten and robbed while on his way down to Jericho. The power of the parable was founded in the fact that Jews hated Samaritans and the audience for the story knew that. The parable was a poignant answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Instead of quoting an iron-clad, irrefutable definition or pointing to a relevant statistic, Jesus told a story. But, biblical scholars now question if the victim in the story was in fact a Jew. Does is lessen the inspirational power of the story? Would we criticize Jesus for “telling a whooper?”

    We need to be good fact checkers and not make business decisions on faulty facts or erroneous stats. But, if we carry the rational, analytical perspective too far, we lose the magical power of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, the three little pigs and on and on. Who would want to live in that world?

  3. Interesting perspective, and there are some truths here. There is harm in using false, inflated, or out-of-date statistics. People aren’t stupid, and they have long memories. Credibility is always at risk. A true quote from Abraham Lincoln is: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Always good for any consultant or manager to remember, because in this hyper-connected age, a good reputation gone bad is hard to recover.

    When I’m using data, for years my guide has been Jaggers, the lawyer, to Pip, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” (Oxford University Press, London, 1978, p. 317). For my “stories”, in presentations, workshops, training sessions, and consultation and discussion with clients, real, verified, most current data are always used. I’m comfortable and assured when using them.

    So, for example, the TARP stat you cited was correct – 30 to 35 years ago, and definitely pre-Internet. More contemporary sources are available, with contemporary findings. Many of my b2b and b2c customer experience studies have looked at the behavioral impact of offline and online informal communication (including expressed and unexpressed complaints), so that up-to-date stats can be confidently cited.

  4. Chip – you make a great point about the power of story and folklore to teach important lessons. So, a question back to you –

    The conference speaker presented the monkey experiment as being real rather than a story or a fable. He told me afterwards that he knew it was bogus even though he said it was real in his presentation. Should that matter?

  5. Michael – I’m with you on being careful to know the source of what I’m quoting. I’ve also had some fun finding out the true story behind some of these facts, stories, and quotes. It reminds me a bit of Paul Harvey’s “the rest of the story.”

    Here’s another fun example:
    Ben Franklin is widely quoted as saying, “Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.”

    He never said that. Here’s what he really said:
    “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!”

    Yep, he was talking about wine, not beer!

  6. Jeff, I have no tolerance for deception. If the speaker knew the story was not true yet told it as if it were a fact, that was deception and is completely inappropriate. Great storytellers often embellish on their stories but the audience is fully aware of that fact. Citing an erroneous statistic as if it were true, is not truth-telling, especially when the audience is accepting it as fact, not just an entertaining tall tale. If our profession is to be trusted, we need to be always accurate (to the very best of our ability) with the stats we cite and examples we use.

  7. Chip

    Keep your hair on!

    We are a storytelling species. Even in today’s world of endless, free, digital content a great story still has the power to move hearts and minds. If a speaker uses a story they know or suspect not to be the truth to get their point across in a colloquial environment, so what!

    What is religion other than stories preachers know or suspect not to be the truth?

    Graham Hill

  8. Great post Jeff – very thought provoking. I, like many CX Professionals am almost certainly guilty of ’embellishing’ stories that I tell. Whilst they are all based on fact, I will sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously ‘exaggerate’ the punchlines depending on the audience. Do I feel guilty doing this? Do I think it is wrong to embellish? No – I see it as the role of the CX Professional to inspire those who want to be inspired to see, feel and hear stories that demonstrate the art of the possible. i believe that all story tellers will put a little extra ‘punch’ into the mix when necessary.

    However, I do believe that all stories being told SHOULD be based on fact. Telling bogus or untrue stories is not something I would ever knowingly do or recommend. It is vital that CX Professionals maintain as much credibility and authority at a time when there are still a significant number of business people and organisations who are not convinced by CX. If a doubting business leader can point to the fact that they are being told stories that are not true, I believe it could be very damaging.

    As always – these are my opinions and mine alone!! Thanks again for writing such a thought provoking article.

  9. I’m with Chip on this one. Truth and veracity is trust, especially when a speaker or consultant is imparting a lesson or making a point through an extended epigram, or a story or fable. Embellishment, built on some level of untruth, is like spitting into the wind. It always has the possibility of coming back in your face and destroying credibility. It’s not worth the risk. Just ask Brian Williams.


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