Study: Consumers Complain More When It’s Their Fault

Discussion
Oct 24, 2012

According to a new study from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, although consumers tend to feel better when they complain, it all changes if the consumer perceives that he or she is responsible for the problem.

Previous research in complaining behavior has found that when the organization is responsible for a service or product failure, consumers feel better about the failure after complaining about it.

But the study, which is featured in the October’s Journal of Marketing Research, found that when consumers are to blame for product failure, they end up feeling incompetent and blame the company in order to preserve their sense of self-worth.

"When it is our fault we push away and get a bit defensive about it even if we do not think about what we are doing," Marketing Professor Dean Darren Dah told the Financial Post. "We are feeling threatened by our own inabilities and we get a little bit of a hate-on, so to speak, for the organization or company."

In one experiment, two groups were asked to assemble a food processor and blend a smoothie recipe. The experiment was set up to fail but the first group was made to feel it was their fault while the second was told there must a problem with the processor since everybody was having problems.

The results showed that those who perceived it was their fault were likely to shift the blame to an external source (79 percent of participants) than blame themselves less (14 percent). By comparison, only 28.5 percent in the group that were told it could have been appliance’s fault blamed an external source with 43 percent still blaming themselves.

Several other experiments resulted in similar outcomes.

While the evidence might provide further support for some company’s "The Customer Is Always Right" policies given the defensive tendencies of those in the wrong, Prof. Dahl told the Financial Post that a more nuanced approach might be advisable. Further studies found that even acknowledging there was a way to fail eased the threat consumers feel when they find they’re wrong.

"Consumers are complicated," the professor said. "As a company you might have to be a bit more strategic in this area than was first thought."

The research also found that complaints are increasing, with social media taking away much of the embarrassment. The study states, "In today’s society, consumers are likely to complain given any opportunity, regardless of who is to blame for product failure."

Are there ways to lessen the threat customers feel when a product or service failure is the customer’s fault? Should handling complaints receive a larger focus in store associate training than in the past? Is social media causing a rise in complaints?

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18 Comments on "Study: Consumers Complain More When It’s Their Fault"


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Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

The human mind is a wondrous thing that performs the functions necessary to preserve an individual’s sense of self-worth as the University of British Columbia study shows. No one wants to hear the term operator error. It implies you are not smart enough to have done whatever it was you were trying to do. By transferring blame externally, the consumer’s mind allows them to preserve the image they have of themselves.

However, companies have to be careful in being willing to accept unwarranted responsibility for products’ failure in order to preserve the customer’s sense of worth or to lessen the potential number of complaints. Doing so could open them up for problems for while we may be becoming an overly complaining society, we are already a litigious one.

Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Store associates should be well trained in handling complaints. How an associate handles a complaint will determine whether a consumer goes home happy and becomes an advocate for the store versus someone who continues to bad-mouth the store.

This does not mean that the consumer is always right. It means listening reflectively to let the consumer know that she has been heard, understanding what remedy(s) a consumer is seeking or offering another remedy, and asking if the consumer is satisfied.

Ian Percy
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

There are only four (4) reasons anyone gets angry:

1. A breach of values: something happened that trampled on what I believe is right, true and good.

2. A breach of goals: something got in the way of what I wanted to do.

3. A breach of expectation: something didn’t happen in the way I expected it to.

4. A breach of self-worth: something challenged me personally, questioning my value, intelligence, skill, motivation, dignity, etc.

So if you break a product because you did something stupid and didn’t read the directions, you have a combination of #2, #3 & #4. If you’re angry because you can’t find a place to park it’s #2 and #3. If you’re fed up with all the politics, it’s ‘all the above’!

On a self-development note: When I do find myself getting angry I try to stop and ask which of the above four is happening to me. Somehow all the angst just goes away. I guess understanding and insight can do that sometimes.

Robert DiPietro
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Social media certainly makes it easier for one’s voice to be heard. Whether or not the complaint is legitimate is another story. What’s interesting is you often see self policing with other customers when someone begins to rant.

I’m not sure it is ever customers’ fault…how does that old adage go?

Kevin Graff
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Retailers live in such a ‘fish bowl’ today because of social media, the last thing they need to do is handle a customer return poorly. 99% of the time retailers should just ‘roll over’ and happily deal with the returns. No stress. No fuss. Yes, there are some fraudulent returns to be wary of. But, consider how much retailers are spending to accept credit and debit cards every year. That’s viewed as a ‘cost of doing business’. The cost of returns is far less than that. Maybe they should be viewed as a similar ‘cost of doing business’.

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
9 years 7 months ago
The observations found by Professor Dahl in his study support my experiences introducing and implementing new technologies over the years. Customers were very quick to blame the technology and its manufacturer at the first sign of trouble without ever taking the time to even understand what the actual problem might be. Manufacturers introducing new technology have all had to deal with this reaction. Regardless of the problem, we had to reassure the client that it was not unusual or surprising that they were experiencing difficulties. Once they were reassured that they were part of a community, both parties would typically work through the challenge rationally and professionally. I often stated that the best technical support people I’ve worked with over the years were more psychologists than technicians. In today’s connected and transparent world, in store staff should definitely get training and insights to customer complaints. In many cases store employees are functioning with strict policies instead of being empowered to respond correctly to the specific situation. Social media is only a vehicle that enables customers… Read more »
Alison Chaltas
Guest
Alison Chaltas
9 years 7 months ago

The message retail associates need to send is the same as always – the customer is always right! If the customer makes a mistake we still need to apologize for the scenario and never place blame on honest mistakes. Helping them understand what to do next time is the best solution and giving them a little room to make good.

The role of social media in the grievance process is still emerging. One dissatisfied customer can tell 1000 potential customers on Facebook. The risk is high so associates need to be over-trained to make people feel good and spread the love.

Mark Burr
Guest
9 years 7 months ago
First, if a product is that difficult to assemble or use that its purchaser can’t successfully use it to its maximum capability, maybe the product maker should take a good look at their product. Sure, it may be the customer’s fault, but they may be making it that way. The best judgement of a retailer may not always be when they are getting something right, but how they handle something when they get it wrong. Training is something there can never be enough of in retailing, as well as, combining it with consistent monitoring, coaching, and mentoring. I think it’s fairly clear that many may say something via social media that they may not say otherwise face to face. Consumers or any social media user may pass something along that they might not say or pass along face to face. If one needs proof, just ask Eva Longoria. Social media is not ‘causing’ a rise in complaints it’s just a vehicle that makes it possible if not easier than ever before. Retailers without a strategy… Read more »
Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
9 years 7 months ago

My advice: be firm. But always leave the customer a way to save face. Anything else reinforces their sense of inadequacy.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Interesting, but not surprising based upon my store manager years. Keeping instructions, labeling, product options, etc. clear, concise and easy-to-understand tend to reduce “exposure” of the manufacturer and retailer.

However, the process typically fails when the customer service person at the CPG or retail company doesn’t directly address the problem quickly. After an opportunity to respond to the customer’s concerns builds into a heated debate, the customer service person has lost that quick, easy opportunity to rectify the challenge…even when it is the customer’s fault. Don’t try to push blame back onto the customer. That is never a good idea.

Social media only heightens the awareness of complaints. That also needs to be managed with a full-time focus, and managed in real time. There are enough consumer sentiment tools available to take the emotion out of the process and directly address the customer complaint…as it is posted.

Jeff King
Guest
Jeff King
9 years 7 months ago

They say “feedback is a gift.” It’s good news that the info is out there and that there is technology to consume/aggregate it. The implications for retailers are to determine how to consume the data, respond to the customer effectively, and push the insights into the supply chain to improve the overall customer experience.

Shep Hyken
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

I recently heard a statistic that said the majority of the calls coming into a support center are due to the customer’s fault. First and foremost, the customer is NOT always right, but they are always the customer. So, let them be wrong with dignity. Help them get their answer, be it on a page of a website, a video on YouTube, etc. As for social media, depending on the channel, that is an opportunity to engage in a public conversation that helps the customer get the answers they need. Example: A complaint on Twitter gets a response — that “conversation” is pubic. A follower can view the complaint, the response, the resolution and the happy customer’s comments.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

I doubt social media has much to do with complaint levels. If so, it is minimal. I do think social media strongly aids others in establishing the excuse to be used. If it works well for one, it will work well for many. So the word spreads to the masses and presto, the magic excuse is there.

Store/company policy is still the guiding and deciding factor in determining how a complaint is to be processed.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

This is truly fascinating: persons told someone — or something — else are actually at fault are MORE likely to blame themselves … HUH?!?!

Anyway, back to the issues at hand: customer service should concentrate on solving problems, not fixing “blame.” The key, of course, is to find out what that problem is; never an easy feat, and one made more difficult as product complexity and language issues have grown. I suspect we will find more and more companies won’t find it worthwhile to deal with issues, and “replace it” will become (even) more common. I don’t think social media is causing a rise in complaints. Why would it? But it certainly has made complaining more visible.

Tina Lahti
Guest
Tina Lahti
9 years 7 months ago

I often remind our people that it may not be our fault, but it is still our problem. Companies get into customer service trouble when their employees try to save face — in most cases, the company’s face — by pointing customer shortfalls out to the customers.

Diana McHenry
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

People are complex beings, and Zappos recognizes that by hiring customer service representatives who have great interpersonal instincts. I think of them as Customer Service Super Heroes. In my experience as a Zappos customer, the Super Heroes naturally do the right things whether I’m at fault or they’re at fault: They show sincere concern and improvise. Plus — and this is a big plus — Zappos empowers them to truly help satisfy customers. Doing so undoubtedly defuses millions of tense moments and turns them into opportunities to build loyalty. Further, to build a lasting relationship. When you contrast a Zappos Super Hero experience with the normal customer service interaction, the difference is startling. Pretty soon, a tense customer situation can escalate and be geometrically reported via social media.

My counsel to retailers struggling with burgeoning complaints is to look to the Zappos model. Why not hire your own Customer Service Super Heroes and start empowering them? The only thing you’ve got to lose are loyal customers.

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
9 years 7 months ago

Yes, social media has made complaining easier, and we all know it is human nature to go negative first.

Diana is exactly right. The key is for staff and customer service reps to be hired for their ability to empathize and be empowered to take care of the customer. Diffusing customer angst is the goal — not determining who is to blame. Zappos is a great example for sure.

John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
9 years 7 months ago

It is tough for most people to take personal responsibility, admit they are wrong, and seek forgiveness. I think it’s best for companies to model good behavior. Store associates should receive more training in this area as it will help them at their jobs and at home.

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