Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 133
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Managing Customer Complaints

Researchers discover new connections between dissatisfaction and complaining.

The saying "No news is good news" is a really bad idea in customer service. That's one conclusion of a study that examined customer complaints conducted by Jagdip Singh, of Case Western Reserve University, and Robert Wilkes, of Texas Tech. They investigated the ties that connect customer dissatisfaction with complaining and looked for factors shared by people who chose different ways to complain. They found 345 people who had had complaints with one of three service industries: car repair, medical services, and banking, and analyzed their answers to a battery of questions.

Singh and Wilkes began by noting 3 forms complaining takes: 1) direct complaints from the customer to the service provider, 2) indirect complaints to friends and relatives, including changing patronage, and 3) agency complaints to official bodies like the Better Business Bureau. They also noted 3 characteristics of complaining: A) It is goal directed - people hope to achieve a desirable goal (redress), or to get even. B) There are multiple avenues to express complaints, and C) Most unhappy consumers use more than one way to complain.

Business people fare best when unhappy customers directly voice their complaints so they have a chance to correct the problem and recover the customer. They fare worst when unhappy customers conceal their complaints and poison other peoples' perceptions through negative word-of-mouth and when they refuse to further patronize the business. Service providers need to encourage direct complaints and discourage indirect and agency complaints. Here's what Singh and Wilkes learned that will help business owners meet this challenge.

When unhappy customers expected direct complaining to be easy and likely to produce a satisfactory response, they were very unlikely to use other forms of complaining.

The more dissatisfied the customer, the more vigorous and varied the complaining.

Indirect complaining seemed to intensify customers' dissatisfaction, and they were likely to turn to direct and agency forms of complaining. Perhaps it is inherently frustrating to complain to a person who can't offer redress.

When dissatisfied customers blame the business for the problem, believing it could have been avoided and is likely to happen again, they tend to use indirect and agency forms of complaining, and their goal becomes getting even, rather than redress. Both of these forms of complaining bypass the business owner, giving him/her no chance to correct the problem.

Fortunately, Singh and Wilkes discovered a bright spot: These blame-assigning customers also often voice direct complaints. So if you train your people to listen closely and identify complaining customers who have assigned blame to your business, you have a chance to weaken their attribution of blame and defuse a dangerous campaigner against your firm as you offer redress. Train your people to listen for comments like "This was deliberate," and "You do this all the time." And explain to your people the importance of weakening customers' certainty that your firm is to blame. Take a lesson from all the business people you encounter who offer excuses for disappointing service, like late deliveries. Their excuses weaken your attribution of blame on them, and most likely, it will work for you too.

When dissatisfied customers feel alienated, they believe all firms in an industry share blame, and they don't expect business owners to adequately redress their complaints. Their goals for complaining become finding ways to get even, and they'll use multiple forms of complaining to do so. Redress with them is very difficult, and service workers' best strategy is to find ways to reduce the intensity of their dissatisfaction. Intensity translated directly into vigorous complaining. The more intense their dissatisfaction, the more vigorous their indirect and agency complaining, and the more dangerous they became for the business. When you encounter alienated complainers, offer them a cup of coffee as you listen to them rant and rave.

Singh and Wilkes conclude by dispelling the myth that we should strive to close our customer complaint departments. Rather, we should anticipate complaints at every point of customer contact, train our people to recognize and respond to blame-assigning and alienated complainers, and encourage all dissatisfied customers to complain by making redress easy and effective. Don't make them wait in line!

Reference: Singh, Jagdip, and Robert E. Wilkes (1996). When Consumers Complain: A Path Analysis of the Key Antecedents of Consumer Complaint Response Estimates. Journal of the Academy of marketing Science, 24 (4), 350-365.

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