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The (Social) Science of Complaining

It is becoming clear that technology is affecting how disgruntled consumers complain about poor products and services and, as a result, how companies must respond. We asked UK consumers which channels they had used to make complaints to a company or service provider.[1] The results show that the average consumer has used more than one channel (1.8 to be specific), with men and 45-54 year olds using the most diverse range of methods. Only 22% have never complained, and the most commonly-used channels are email (49%) and telephone (40%).

A small, but significant proportion (7%) have complained over social networks. Companies are perhaps justifiably nervous about complaints directed at them on social networks due to their public nature, and stories hitting the headlines about people taking to social networks with their complaints indicate that this is becoming a growing medium for airing grievances.[2]

So who exactly is using social networks to make complaints? Unsurprisingly, 16-34 year olds are the most likely to have used them (10%). Usage falls as age increases, until only 2% of those aged 55 or older claim they have complained on a social network. Social network complainers are also more likely to have complained via a number of channels (not necessarily regarding the same complaint). This group may have become frustrated with other channels, or they might be more ‘activist’ in their tendencies (as they have used all channels more than average).

Angry? Or just dissatisfied?

Dipping my toe into the ocean of social science around this subject, research has indicated that customers are more likely to voice their complaints if they are angry as opposed to merely dissatisfied.[3] Dissatisfied customers want to know why the service failure happened and aren’t sure who is to blame. They are open to the possibility that it was outside forces at fault, or even themselves. Customers who are dissatisfied are more likely to take steps to work out what happened to cause the service failure, and as a result may be able to manage the situation.

Angry consumers, however, associate the service provider with the failure. They want to confront and hurt the business of the service provider.[4] Many angry customers are less inclined to seek solutions and more likely to say something nasty and complain about what happened. They are also more likely to switch. Other angry customers do still ultimately want to have their problem resolved, but are also eager to “discourage the service provider from doing what causes the anger.” [5]

Social media represent an excellent opportunity for angry customers to express themselves, since it allows them to distribute negative word-of-mouth feedback to their contacts, and also often enable them to make a complaint if the company has some representation on the social network. Studies have shown that the more public the negativity, the more committed the complainant will be and the more likely they are to stay dissatisfied.[6] People want to seem rational and consistent, which means sticking to their declarations even in the face of evidence proving their statements wrong. Since making a complaint via social media often also publicises the criticism, companies may have a harder job than usual satisfying a moderately annoyed customer.

Tackling negativity

So it seems that companies face a greater struggle to resolve a complaint made via a social network than a complaint made by more traditional means. But studies have shown that encouraging customers to voice their complaints to you discourages negative word-of-mouth and increases loyalty.[7] In fact, it can boost a customer’s satisfaction more to have a problem successfully resolved than if they had received a blemish-free product or service in the first place.

A study has shown that self-confidence is a factor in determining how likely a customer is to make a complaint.[8] The authors of the study recommend that companies put into place strategies to encourage less confident people to give negative feedback (for example, by allowing customers to express themselves anonymously via surveys). Clearly, however, our social network complainers do not lack self-confidence. Helpfully, these customers give companies opportunities to resolve their issues and by doing so to increase their satisfaction and loyalty.

Responding effectively

So what can companies do when faced with social media complaints? We know that it takes more than simply resolving a customer’s problem to placate their anger. Employees dealing with social network complaints have to be empowered by the company to not only resolve problems but also to show complainants that changes have been made to ensure that the problem will not recur.

Consumer service employees need to be able to take ownership of a problem, especially when it’s time critical, and offer clear and regular communication as they resolve the issue. They need to be able to respond quickly, because the immediacy of contact via the internet has speed up consumers’ expectations. But while there’s a science to dealing with consumer complaints, it’s an art too. Here are three important lessons:

Respond, in time, with a solution, Don’t panic! Responses should be measured and thoughtful, Be human(e). People can usually tell when they’re receiving an automated response. The human touch is appreciated.

Complaints via social networks are likely only to grow over time, and some companies are already ‘winning’ social media. If your target audience is young and digital, chances are they’ll be interacting with the brands they love online. If you want to impress them, how you deal with customer complaints may be ‘make or break’.

[1] Monthly online omnibus study using the GfK panel. Respondents are nationally representative of the UK aged 16+. The survey ran 18th July -1st August, and 3475 respondents answered [2] Wakefield, J. “Promoted tweet used to complain about British Airways”, BBC, 3rd September 2013, [accessed 03/01/2014] [3] Bougie, R., Pieters, R., Zeelenberg, M. (2003). Angry Customers Don’t Come Back, They Get Back: The Experience and Behavioural Implications of Anger and Dissatisfaction in Services. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Vol. 31, No. 4, 377-393 [4] Bougie, Pieters, Zeelenberg, (2003), p.382 [5] Bougie, Pieters, Zeelenberg, (2003), p.389 [6] Prashanth U. Nyer and Mahesh Gopinath. (2005). Effects of complaining versus negative word of mouth on subsequent changes in satisfaction: The role of public commitment. Psychology & Marketing, p. 939-41 [7] Chelminski, P., & Coulter, R.A. (2007). The Effects of Cultural Individualism and Self-Confidence on Propensity to Voice: From Theory to Measurement to Practice. Journal of International Marketing, Vol. 15, No. 4, 109 [8] Chelminski, P., & Coulter, R.A. (2007), p. 110 [9]Michel, S., Bowen, D., and Johnston, R. “Making the Most Of Customer Complaints: Dealing with service failures means a lot more than just fixing the immediate problem. Here’s how to do it right”, The Wall Street Journal, 22nd September 2008,

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1 Comment

This article portrays a basic human emotion (anger), and the introduction of a new outlet for it’s release. Companies that proactively address this issue will be able to not only diffuse the clients anger, but pit a positive spin on the concern. Getting and keeping customers has simply taken a new avenue.

Tom Rintelmann