Years ago, I attended a keynote speech whose main topic was customer service. The speaker’s centerpiece was “the pickle story.” To make a long story short, this guy discovered he was out of pickles just before a big Sunday cookout at his house, and made an emergency run to the closest supermarket. He arrived home, opened the jar, only to find that the top pickle appeared to have a large bite out of it. His wife confirmed the diagnosis, so he rushed back to the store again. That’s when things headed south.

He was met by surliness and indifference at the supermarket. The clerk eyed him with suspicion, and two managers were called over. They conferred, examining the pickle in question and glancing repeatedly at their customer. Clearly, they decided that if anyone took a bite out of that pickle, it was the joker who wanted a different jar. Although the store eventually replaced the bottle, the combination of terrible attitude and lengthy delay made our speaker vow never to shop at the store again.

He also vowed to spread the word far and wide. He told his guests at the cookout. He told his neighbors. He told the audiences he spoke to. I won’t attempt to duplicate the math, but he calculated that the immense hassle over a $1.50 jar of pickles cost the store not only about $10K in purchases that he and his family would have made in the following years, but an amount in the millions of dollars if even a portion of the people who heard the pickle story decided to try shopping someplace else.

Did that speaker cost the store millions in lost sales? Who knows? But there’s little doubt the story lodged in the brains of those who listened to it. I didn’t even know the guy, and I still remember the story many years later. I’m sure he had lots of great information about how good companies take care of their customers, and impressive statistics that demonstrate the effects of good service. But what’s the ONLY thing I remember? The pickle story! Likely I would have remembered the name of the supermarket chain, but it wasn’t one that served my area; I’m sure many of those who heard the story first-hand DID remember the name and stored it as an essential part of that story.

We know that stories CAN sell in part because they make our brains light up in sympathy with what we are hearing, and that anecdotes are more powerful than statistics. The pickle story is a great example of a story that will persist in the minds of those who hear it and affect the perception of the unfortunate merchant for years to come. The only luck that merchant had was that the event occurred before the advent of social media, so they were shared the indignity of being blasted on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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