Customers Exaggerate, So Don’t Overreact

by Ken Mueller on May 23, 2012 · 9 comments

Customers Don't OverreactThis week’s theme on the blog seems to be customer service and online reviews, but that’s not by design. It’s just the way it happened as I have been writing my posts. I’d like to pretend that these issues that relate to small business were planned for Small Business Week, but it’s just dumb luck.

On Monday, I shared a sign from a restaurant that found a creative way to battle a negative Yelp review. One customer had apparently posted about how the restaurant served the worst meatball sub he had ever had, and it got me thinking about the way we describe things and use superlatives.

Back in the seventies my family would take annual trips to St. Petersburg, Florida. One of our regular stops was a great restaurant called Aunt Hattie’s that is sadly no longer in existence. I remember after our first visit my dad went around telling everyone he could that:

“The pecan pies were THIS big”

And with each telling, the physical description of the pie kept getting bigger and bigger. So much so that we would imitate him by signifying with our arms that the pies were possibly bigger than hula hoops.

Yes, the pies were big, but they weren’t THAT big.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my daughter came back from the grocery store and told me to come out to the car to help her. Apparently the bucket of cat litter weighed:

“300 pounds!!!”

We all do this. We exaggerate. We embellish. And most of those embellishments actually happen “in the moment”. When you’ve just finished a meal at a restaurant, you are likely to tell someone that it was “the best steak ever” or perhaps, “the worst chocolate cake on the planet!”

Most likely, neither of those is true, but we don’t remember other steaks or chocolate cakes. The customer service might have been bad, but was it the worst ever? Probably not.

Whether people say AMAZING things about us, or HORRIBLE things, we need to take it with a grain of salt. An occasional bad review will not kill you or your business. It happens, and it should just want to make you work harder.

On the other hand, a few good reviews aren’t going to put you over the top. For every customer who tells the world that you have the best customer service or the most amazing sandwiches, there are other would-be customers who come to you with great expectations. Again, you just have to keep working hard to live up to those reviews.

As people talk about you, both positively and negatively, both online and offline, we need to filter those reviews. Process them. What do they really mean? Don’t let them depress you or give you an overinflated sense of importance.Remember that we often will exaggerate in the moment. I think this is especially the case when we put our thoughts into words on an official review site like Yelp or Facebook. We want to sound intelligent and trustworthy, and for some reason that means we overcompensate with a use of those superlatives.

Here’s a tip you can use as you read the reviews others have written about your business: read them while replacing  the superlatives. Replace words like “great” and “best” with softer words, and then do the same with negatives, like “worst” and “horrible”. See if it changes your understanding of the review, and helps temper your reaction.

Positive reviews are a wonderful thing, and negative reviews can be annoying, yet instructive.

Continue to do your job and do the best you can. Prove the bad reviews wrong, and show the world that you’ve earned the good ones. Just learn to temper your reactions as you read them both.

Are you regularly monitoring your online reviews? How are you trying to keep it real without overreacting?


As someone who responds to online reviews for a living, I can tell you that hyperbole is king in customer reviews. The flavor of a dish being slightly disagreeable becomes "the worst thing I've ever eaten." I actually had one person complain because only 1 of the 3 employees working greeted her. The funniest part is that people almost assume the role of professional critic, with no training and without a refined palate/eye/point of view. It's funny when you can look at it objectively. It will have you pulling your hair out when you fee like these critiques are directed at you and your work. 


I think, especially in this economy, that we have to work even harder to overcome and/or live up to our reviews. It's a little dramatic, but a bad review could have the potential to crush a business in this economy, especially if there have been a lot of poor reviews over time.

Scott Heitland
Scott Heitland

Ken, really enjoy your posts.  Bear with me here, but what came to mind as I read this one is the difference between a likeness (a drawing that represents reality, i.e. an imitation of the truth) and a caricature (a drawing that takes a real but unique feature and exaggerates it for effect).  Caricatures attract attention - they're interesting, dynamic, fun, sometimes provocative.  I think when people attempt to persuade or make a point, they are just more naturally inclined to speak as though they're creating a caricature for their audience.  What better way to get people to notice, listen and pay attention than to exaggerate, especially when you're writing a review (which may appear among dozens of others) or describing an experience that you want to make memorable.  As you say, it's just the way we are.


Scott Heitland

Pretium Solutions (@PretiumPress)


This is a great post, Ken. I have an example of this from my own life: when I was younger, I had a tendency to attack people for ALWAYS doing something or NEVER doing something. Whenever I said it my parents would laugh at me and ask if they had really told me to do something ALL the time. Of course, they didn't. Since then, I've become a lot more careful about how much I exaggerate (and think about why I'm exaggerating in the first place). People probably don't mean to exaggerate as much as they usually do -- I suppose it's better to recognize it and not let it bother you! 

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KenMueller moderator

 @Scott Heitland I think that's a great analogy. But when we all do it, and we all use superlatives, then the only way we can rise above the fray is to group the superlatives, or make up new words. Can be pretty funny!

KenMueller moderator

 @annedreshfield I think it's just the way we are. We use these words and don't think about their true meaning. They've somewhat lost their original meaning because of this. 


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