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How an Unhappy Customer Can (Paradoxically) Help Your Business

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • The psychology of customer dissatisfaction
  • How to extract value from customer complaints
  • How resolving a complaint can win you a loyal customer

Because I have an interest in the idea of reputation (see my recent MarketingProfs online seminar: Managing Your Reputation in a Social World), I've been intrigued by psychologist Guy Winch's new book, The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem. It examines the psychology of complaining—or, in Guy's words, our "complaining psychology, its impact on how we complain as consumers (as well as in our relationships), and our interactions with the customer service industry."

By the way, Guy also writes The Squeaky Wheel Blog for Psychology Today. And, later this month, he'll be keynoting the MarketingProfs B2B Forum in Boston.

Why should marketers care about Guy's message? Because many businesses focus on fixing issues when complaints happen. But there's a lot of effort—and angst—that precedes an actual complaint. Your customer has to care intensely to invest the energy to complain... and to get that complaint heard. Imagine if businesses could funnel all of that energy into a positive resolution that could generate productive, lasting outcomes...

Below, Guy gives some ideas on how to make the complaint process more constructive and (ultimately) more productive for businesses.

What makes you so interested in the notion of customer complaints?


Guy: As a psychologist who also has a private practice, I was always struck by how often patients would discuss consumer complaints, how frustrating they found them, and how helpless they felt about tackling them. I would often coach them through it (when the issue/complaint was meaningful enough—I give several examples of this in my book) and was always amazed at the impact getting the matter resolved had on their self-esteem, mood, and mental health.

Of course, it is a similar issue with personal complaints (marital, familial, etc.); people feel just as hopeless about being able to complain to a loved one and get a result.

At the same time, my twin brother is an organizational psychologist (yes, identical twins with Ph.D.s in psychology—a book unto itself), and he also owns a call center. Over the years, we've had a running dialogue about complaints from the company side of things as well.

So, some years ago, I decided to look into the research about complaining. It was then I began to understand that what I was seeing in my practice and what my brother was seeing in his business was part of a much larger phenomenon that affects our complaining psychology as a whole—a general mindset of helplessness and hopelessness that impedes our quality of life in many ways. I decided to write a book about it to bring awareness, help people and companies take a look at these issues that affect them deeply (even if they don't realize it)—and, hopefully, to create change.

We are all consumers as well as marketers, of course. So, let's start with the former: How can consumers complain effectively?

Guy: The most salient aspect of our complaining psychology today, especially as consumers, is the extent to which it is characterized by a defeatist attitude. When consumers are frustrated with a purchase, a store, or a business, and feel the urge to complain, they invest substantial time and effort in doing so. However, they typically relate those complaints solely to friends and acquaintances, and avoid directing them to the store or business in question. That prevents customers from getting the matter resolved and it denies companies the opportunity to take action and salvage their relationship with the customer.

Ironically, consumers avoid addressing their complaints directly to companies because they believe doing so would require too much effort, though they invest effort to relay their complaints to practically everyone else around them.

Therefore, to complain effectively, consumers must first learn to voice their dissatisfaction to the right people. And second, they must overcome their fear and apprehension about the "complaining process." Customers' fear of unhelpful sales or service representatives creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes them come across as suspicious and hostile to the representatives, who are, in turn, defensive and feel less motivated to help customers resolve problems.

Meanwhile, the rise of social tools has increased the number of complaint channels.

Guy: These days, more and more companies monitor Twitter, Facebook, and other social media for consumer complaints, and tend to respond to them extremely quickly.

However, customers should use social media to get the company's attention and request its help, not simply to flame them or slam them. Tweeting "Help @Company! The shoes u sent are the wrong size. Wedding is in two days!" is far more productive than, "@Company sucks! I'm never ordering from you again!"

How can businesses turn customer complaints into a valuable source of insight?

Guy: Businesses should educate employees down the ranks—especially frontline employees—about the value that customer complaints provide to companies.

First, complaints are a crucial source of information about potential problems with products, services, or procedures that might be causing customer attrition in addition to customer dissatisfaction.

Second, they provide companies an opportunity to perform service recoveries and engage customers in a dialogue while doing so. Companies that truly listen to their customers' complaints will gain valuable insights about customer needs and wishes. Companies can then apply those insights to improve the customer experience.

How should businesses actively handle complaints?

Guy: The most important things companies should do with complaining customers is allow them to voice their complaints fully and then offer authentic apologies, timely solutions to their problems, and follow-ups to confirm they are indeed satisfied with the outcome. Customers whose complaints are handled well become even more loyal to the company than they were before the problem they encountered.

Furthermore, the sequence of interactions around complaints—and the dialogue it sets up—provides companies numerous opportunities to inform customers about products and programs, as well as to up-sell. Companies that do not provide successful complaint handling risk not only losing customers but also having them provide negative word-of-mouth about the company.

The tricky part of our complaining psychology is that the results of most companies' efforts often fall into a dichotomy: Customers are either extremely pleased with how their complaints were handled or they remain disappointed and frustrated.

As consumers, once we've voiced our complaint to a business, we don't have a huge middle ground in relation to how we feel about that business. Therefore, companies that want the best ROI should always strive to achieve excellent complaint-handling practices rather than merely satisfactory ones!

* * *

What's your perspective on customer complaints? Do you have success stories to share about customers who effectively voiced complaints and whose perspectives helped you improve your customer service?

Guy Winch, Ph.D. can be reached via his website or Twitter @GuyWinch. Better yet: See him live at the MarketingProfs B2B Forum in Boston, June 13-15.


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Christine "CB" Whittemore is chief simplifier of Simple Marketing Now LLC, a social media and content marketing consultancy focused on helping organizations make their marketing work harder. Christine contributes to MarketingProfs and MarketingProfs Daily Fix, the Content Marketing Institute, and Floor Covering Weekly, a Hearst publication. You can reach her via Twitter @CBWhittemore.

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  • by Valbus Tue May 31, 2011 via web

    Can't agree more with the article. Still many companies are struggling to get this implemented especially with their call center people making you wonder if it is really seen as a priority. Making sure to turn a disatisfied customer in a satisfied one is even more crucial in today's social network world. Companies seem very eager to react when a negative post is written on the company facebook page but handling consumer complaint well in the first hand is the best prevention to such complaints escalating in negative word of mouth. I would go one step further: I would encourage companies to even take more proactive action to repair damage to consumers ... see what Skype did earlier this year after having experienced issues with their service (offer free minutes to all customers) or more recently in Belgium Mobistar for all their mobile phone users... might be a short term impact on the bottom line but it pays out long term in terms of customer loyalty.

  • by Syed Atif Akhtar Tue May 31, 2011 via web

    One word! Fantastic article

  • by Kano Tue May 31, 2011 via web

    Convert a negative thing to a positive result.

  • by mikhail Wed Jun 1, 2011 via web

    Quite impressive! This truly reveals areas of improvement for converting negative customers to raving fans.

  • by Tricia H Thu Jun 2, 2011 via web

    Terrific article. People do tend to complain to family/friends about a bad experience rather than direct to the company. Paying more attention to complaints and actively reaching out to your customers for feedback is vitally important. In summary, a company could find that fishing for complaints could be more valuable than fishing for compliments.

  • by Dydacomp Thu Jun 2, 2011 via web

    Great article. We recently wrote a blog (http://blog.dydacomp.com/the-411-on-negative-feedback) that dealt with a similar issues and found that social media is a great way to combat these negative reviews and turn the situations around so a company is able to benefit. To use social media effectively requires a business to listen, interact and react.

    An article on Internet Retailers found that when surveryed 1 in 4 (26%) people surveyed stated that they are more likely to share bad experiences with family and friends than good experiences.

    Thanks for sharing this article!

    Molly Grifin

  • by Pete Austin @MarketingXD Wed Jun 15, 2011 via web

    An unhappy customer can help your business, if they are the right type of customer, because then resolving their problem can help others.

    If they are the wrong type of customer; someone who should have qualified out at the beginning, and should never have been buying from you, then helping them will hurt other customers by reducing your focus on your target market.

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