Three things you MUST know about the psychology of complaining


By Dr. Ana Canhoto, {grow} Community Member

It finally happened. Something went wrong, the customer is unhappy, and she is complaining. Loudly. Publicly. And she is adamant it is your fault.

There are three things that you need to know about the psychology of complaining to help you handle this problem better.

1. The customer is likely to blame you

Attribution theory has shown us that when something goes well, we tend to attribute the positive outcome to internal factors, such as our own talent, ability or effort. Yet, when something goes wrong, we tend to look for external factors, such as bad luck, someone else’s actions or task difficulty.

Not only that, but customers judge technology mediated interactions more harshly than face-to-face ones. That is, when a problem occurs in an online interaction, customers are particularly likely to blame the service provider for the failure.

The bottom line: Do the best you can to minimize the likelihood of any problems occurring in the first place, especially online. It really pays to spend time improving the design, testing and retesting different types of interactions, and fool proofing the process.

2. The customer is not listening to everything you say

The confirmation bias phenomenon means that we are more likely to notice information that confirms a prior belief than information that challenges it. When presented with ambiguous information, we are most likely to interpret it in ways that reinforce our prior beliefs.

For instance, customers will have a heightened response to reports of similar problems, but fail to notice that those problems occurred a long time ago, or with an old version of the product, or under different management, etc. That is why some companies work so hard to have bad reviews deleted from online communities and product review websites.

This bias is particularly strong when the customer was emotionally invested in the purchase, for individuals that favor retribution, and when we believe that the harmful behavior is widespread and goes pretty much unchecked.

The bottom line: Make it easy for customers to complain to you directly, and handle them promptly, to minimize the likelihood that dissatisfied customers will vent online. Offer sympathy (e.g., I can see that this was a very important day for you) and don’t treat all complaints in the same way. You need to understand the person behind the complaint, and their perceptions and motivations.

3. It is very difficult for the customer to change their mind

Blame theory tells us that once a negative episode occurs and the customer concluded that it was your fault, the customer’s mind is now busy trying to decide whether you did it on purpose (intentionality) or by accident (negligence).

Information gathered at this point, may be used to reinforce the previous conclusion (i.e., that it was your fault), even if it is unrelated. For instance, learning that you failed to get a safety check for an unrelated part of your business, will lead the customer to conclude that you are negligent, and that this caused the problem at the center of the complaint.

Also, the further the customer’s train of thought progresses down a particular path, the harder it is to reverse it, because there are cognitive and emotional costs. The cognitive costs refer to going through the reasoning process, again, processing new information, collecting new evidence and so on. The emotional costs refer to consequences of admitting that we were wrong, such as losing face or accepting lack of competence.

The bottom line: Deal with complaints promptly and be aware of the costs of being wrong. Consider offering some form of repair or compensation when a complaint emerges, even if the problem was not your fault.

Do you see these things happening in your world?

ana canhotoDr. Ana Canhoto is Senior Lecturer in Marketing, and leads the masters programmes in Marketing at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. She teaches Marketing Research and Customer Relationship Management. Ana’s research focuses on customer profiling and customer management. 

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