In The Million Dollar Pickle (retitled after a reader suggested the original title When Stories Don’t Sell wasn’t that good), I retold a story about how a single bad customer service experience turned a business author and speaker into a negative PR machine for a local supermarket. What sparked that post was my OWN version of a pickle story. Oddly, my story also involves a condiment vegetable: the humble olive.

Actually, my olive wasn’t so humble. I have a thing for blue cheese-stuffed olives (or, even better, olives stuffed with gorgonzola). After getting settled in Austin, I was delighted to find that the closest supermarket offered the blue cheese delicacies on their olive bar.

The problem started when I reached into my fridge, got ready to spear a couple of olives, only to discover the olives had fuzzy patches on them. “Fuzzy” and “refrigerated foods” are a bad combination, so I tossed the whole container into the trash and headed over to the store for a fresh batch. As I prepared to spoon some olives into a container, I noticed that several olives in the bulk tray had the same kind of fuzzy rings on them. Disappointed, I walked over to the deli manager and pointed out the problem. He assured me that it would be taken care of, and I resigned myself to using pimento olives from a jar.

That would have been the end of the olive story, had I not returned to the same store a week later to once again try to stock up on blue cheese olives. To my surprise, the display still had questionable-looking olives in it. Some still sported fuzzy rings. One olive in particular was so blue and fuzzy that I was sure I recognized it from my last visit, although realistically I could never pick one particular olive out of a lineup. I reported the problem to someone at the deli counter, who informed me that “they are blue cheese olives, that’s how they look!” I got the attention of a manager, who went over to the case with me and assured me that it was impossible that the olives could be spoiled because they put fresh ones out every morning. He then said he would bring out fresh ones from the back to show me they were the same. At this point, I was becoming a bit aggravated that rather than carefully checking the product, everyone was trying to tell me I couldn’t tell blue cheese from fungal mycelia.

Meanwhile, the deli people were engaged in conversation, sneaking glances my way every now and then. No doubt, I was now the “crazy olive guy.” When the manager brought out a supply from the back, the contrast could not have been greater. The new ones were bright green and moist-looking, and totally free of fuzz. Finally realizing that something might be amiss, the manager stuck his hand in the case, and realized that the refrigeration wasn’t on. Without apology, he stalked off to get someone working on the olive case, and I vowed not to shop at the store again.

The parallel to the pickle story occurred to me as I related my tale of woe to a fellow Starbucks denizen. I wasn’t on a mission to spread the story, but it came up when we were comparing nearby shopping options. He’s not the only one I’ve told the story to. In meeting new people, where to shop often come up as a topic. And if the conversation turns to supermarkets, recounting the fuzzy olive story and the “couldn’t care less” attitude of the staff comes naturally.

My old “pickle” speaker calculated that he might have cost his rudely-staffed supermarket millions of dollars. I doubt if I’ve had any such impact with my low-key talk of fuzzy olives, but with a major competitor nearby and another opening soon, no business needs negative word of mouth. I doubt if any of my acquaintances stopped shopping there after hearing the fuzzy olive story, but I know that in some cases my tale reinforced their own negative experiences there.

I’m sure management isn’t aware of this particular customer service failure. Even if the manager reported a defective (or turned off) refrigeration unit, I’m sure he didn’t comment on his indifferent treatment of customers, or the fact that the problem had been reported a week earlier. And I didn’t write an angry letter to management because that’s not what I do about the minor irritations I encounter daily. Unfortunately, this is usually the case for individual service failures in most organizations – the customer just goes away mad, never to be seen again.

The takeaway is simple: customer service happens at the front line of your organization. I’m sure both the store featured in the pickle story and my purveyor of moldy olives have corporate policies that emphasize taking care of customer problems in a friendly and courteous way. I’m sure the manual tells staff not to argue with customers, and to apologize for problems even if the cause of the problem isn’t clear. The fact is, though, that a few cranky or careless employees left an indelible negative impression on shoppers who no doubt would spend thousands of dollars in their store. Furthermore, the impression was so bad (or the handling of a problem so ridiculous) that in both cases customers continued to relate their story to other customers (and potential customers).

I have no doubt that in my “olive” store the problem is cultural, since encounters with both low level employees and at least one manager had similar results. Likely, a numbers-driven store manager has failed to build a customer service culture among his direct reports, and is spending little time on the floor observing staff/customer interaction.

From a neuromarketing standpoint, negative word of mouth has the unfortunate effect of setting expectations for existing and new customers. People tasting wine they think is cheap have a worse experience than if they expect the wine to be very good (Why Expensive Wine Tastes Better), and I think people expecting good or bad service will tend to experience what they expect. Another psychological effect is confirmation bias, in which people accept information that agrees with what they “know” and discount everything else. A customer expecting bad service will notice minor failures as further evidence of uncaring or incompetent staff, while instances of good service will be dismissed as flukes or the efforts of an atypical employee. And, as often recounted here, stories are particularly potent because they engage our brain and are more likely to be remembered than, say, an advertisement. Most negative word of mouth messages ARE in the form of a story – rarely does someone simply say, “I don’t like that store.” Almost always, they’ll attach a customer service horror story to justify their dislike.

So, as hard as it is, prevent negative word of mouth before it starts – be sure everyone from management to your lowest-level employees knows how to deal with customer problems (or even problem customers) in a positive way that reinforces the brand image you want to maintain. (And if a customer says the product in your case is moldy, humor him long enough to check it out!)