Sauder Research: Inviting customer complaints can kill business

Image of Darren with Rule

With the rise of Twitter, Facebook and the proliferation of web-based feedback platforms, it’s easier now than ever for consumers to reach out and blast companies publicly and directly.

In 2011, the American Better Business Bureau reported a 10 percent uptake in customer complaining nationwide over the previous year, indicating a major upward trend in the culture of consumer complaints. Sauder marketing professor Darren Dahl and PhD student Lea Dunn wondered how companies were riding this growing wave of feedback from their consumer bases.

“It’s commonly assumed that giving customers a chance to voice grievances allows companies to maintain relationships,” explains Dahl.

But, after running a battery of experiments, the researchers soon discovered that giving customers a chance to complain isn’t always a good idea.

“Our study shows that when a person feels implicated in a product’s failure – think building Ikea furniture – they’re more likely to shift blame to the product when complaining and increase their ill will toward it.”

In an experiment, subjects were divided into two groups and directed to replicate the preparation of an “award-winning smoothie.” All of the participants were set-up to fail with poor quality food processors. 
Half the group was made to feel the smoothie failure was their fault and the other half was told that it was likely a machine malfunction.

Participants primed to believe the failure was their fault rated the machine lower on a nine-point scale after complaining – 3.29 – versus the same participants who were not given the chance to complain – 4.31.  Participants primed to blame the processor rated the device higher after given the chance to complain – 4.02 versus 3 out of nine.

A further experiment showed that when self-blamers were provided with affirmative statements about their competence, they became more likely to rate a product favourably after complaining – 5.22 versus 3.36 on a nine-point scale.

Based on this finding, the researchers suggest that when prompted to think about themselves positively people are less likely to displace negative feelings to a product.

“With companies opening the communication floodgates with consumers, the volume of customer complaints has been turned up significantly,” says Professor Dahl. “Our study shows that companies shouldn't just let people sound off. They need to be stroking egos, as well.”