Exploring the Complaint Contagion Effect

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

To catch a complaint:

Life is far from perfect. Things go wrong, sometimes. At home. At work. Wherever humans interact, things do not always go according to plan. In the world of business, when things do go wrong, customers complain. When customer expectations end up being higher than the actual performance, customers complain. When front line employees do not do what is expected of them, customers complain.

A complaint is every customer’s right. And when the situation calls for it, that right is exercised—vocally and directly or vocally and indirectly (as in word-of-mouth communication to other customers), or even in writing. In a sense of being a customer’s right, complaints are to be expected and therefore there is absolutely nothing wrong with customers complaining.

As a matter of fact, a business should be more worried if its customers do not lodge complaints, regularly. It is not necessarily a sign of great performance if customers are saying nothing about an organisation’s services or products. The customers may just be enduring the service until a better option comes along. There are several studies that proved that a customer can claim to be satisfied with a business today and still switch to the competition the next day.

A complaint gives direct access into the mind of the customer. It tells a business what customers actually think of its performance—and therefore gives the organisation a wonderful opportunity to right whatever wrong there is. This is why Bill Gates is quoted as saying that “a complaint is a gift from the customer.” Great businesses know this, so they even go out of their way to solicit for complaints from customers.

Studies have shown that there are several factors that determine the behaviour of complaining customers. Factors such as the gender of the customer, the educational background of the individual, the importance of the purchase as well as the value of the service failure have all been known to affect the behaviour of a complaining customer.

However, another very important factor that influences the complaining customer’s behaviour is the atmosphere within which the complaint is lodged. It is one thing for a single individual to complain about a service failure and it is a totally different thing when there are other customers involved and are affected by the service failure.

Actually, a study published in the November 2016 edition of the Journal of Service Research found that customers experience greater anger and show higher negative word-of-mouth and complaint intentions when the service failure involved other customers. The interesting thing about the lodging of complaints vocally and directly is that when it is done in the presence of other customers, the complaining behaviour or action gets to influence other customers. In other words, customers who might not have complained would do so when they see others complain.

I remember that day like it was only yesterday. I had gone into the banking hall to transact what I thought was going to be a quick business. But I was so wrong. It was the end of month and the banking hall was jammed packed with customers. What made the atmosphere the more tensed was the fact that the queue was moving very slowly and it seemed the air conditioning was unable to handle the sheer number of customers. For some reason, the bank had just two tellers working that afternoon, instead of the five that were supposed to be available.

Having spent a decade or so at the front line of the banking industry, I had witnessed such scenes before and my experience told me that it was only a matter of time before the situation got out of hands. Within a minute of those thoughts crossing my mind, my worst fears came to pass.

A customer who had apparently been in the queue for a long time could not take the delay any more. Out of the blues, without any warning, he just blurted out, “WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?! WHAT THE >#@% IS THIS?!” The gentleman just went ballistic as he launched barrage after barrage of expletive-laden complaints. The invectives just rolled off his tongue with such ease.

What I found most intriguing about that incident was not the behaviour of the aggrieved gentleman; it was the behaviour of the other customers around. It was as if the man’s outburst had turned on a switch. His complaints set in motion a wave of complaints from the other customers present. It seemed all the customers present were just waiting for one customer—a sort of a leader—to voice out a complaint before everyone else joined in.

I also noticed with interest that as the other customers joined in the chorus of complaints, it emboldened the gentleman and his complaints only grew louder. And as he grew louder so did the other customers. Clearly, he was feeding off the emotions of the other customers as they, in turn, fed off his. The other customers had caught the complaint contagion and it was spreading. It was truly a vicious cycle. It seems the pack behaviour is not only restricted to wolves and other canines.

What I witnessed that hot afternoon at a bank on the Ring Road Central of Accra is a phenomenon that has been studied by researchers over the years. This is what researchers refer to as the Complaint Contagion Effect. It has been found, from those studies, that when things go wrong, customer complaints are as much impacted by the behaviour of other customers as by the nature and extent of the service failure.

The phenomenon of complaint contagion was recently studied and findings of that study published in December 2020 edition of the Journal of Business Research. The study determined that the emotional contagion was stronger when customers identified with other customers. Also when the other customers deem complaining customers to be credible, the emotions tend to get higher. It also came to light that when the aggrieved customer does not have a prior relationship with the organisation in question, the one’s anger is a bit more intense. Customers who have been doing business for longer period tend to be more understanding when there is a service failure.

An earlier study published in a January 2014 edition of the Journal of Service Research also showed that the size of the group also has an effect on the emotions that are generated by a service failure that affected multiple customers. The larger the group, the more intense the negative emotions. It is also important to note that emotions are also stronger when the members of the group are familiar with each other. That is as close to the wolf pack mind-set as possible.

Looking back on that incident in the banking hall that day, I realised that one of the reasons why the customer was able to initiate and lead “the revolt” was because of the presence of the other aggrieved customers. I am sure the murmuring that was taking place among the other customers gave him the impetus to begin ranting and raving. I really have my doubts if he would have acted the same way if he was all alone.

This observation, on its own, has serious managerial implications. On the face of it, it should inform all businesses to be extra careful when dealing with a “mob of customers”. What a single customer might overlook would not go unnoticed and unpunished by a group of customers. Front line employees (FLEs) must be trained to become extra cautious when the number of customers they are serving begins to grow.

In my years of experience at the front line, I have come to realise that on the many occasions when FLEs have gotten into trouble with customers, it was because the customer service employees let their guards down in their interactions with customers. As much as it is important for FLEs to display friendliness to all customers, this must be done without losing sight of the fact that those being served are still customers. And they can instantly turn on the employee when things go south.

Another piece of advice is for organisations to man the front line with individuals with the temperaments to handle groups of people. There are some FLEs who can handle individual customers with poise but when placed in front of multiple customers, they easily lose their cool. Training for such employees should go beyond just the theoretical and stress a lot more on the practical aspects of the job. On-the-job training must place these FLEs in real-life situations for them to get a feel of what it actually takes to serve a mob of customers. Role plays during training and coaching sessions must be as realistic as possible.

Regular readers of this page would have read multiple times that a single interaction between a customer and a customer-serving employee is the building block of a customer’s relationship with a business. This is why no single interaction can be taken for granted. Multiple interactions at the same time present unique challenges that a customer-handling employee must learn to handle. Failure to do so could lead to a contagion of negative consequences.


  • Customers must find it easy to complain. Whenever. Wherever. Complaints are gifts.
  • A mob of customers can be more challenging to handle than a single aggrieved customer.
  • Front line employees must be trained to become extra cautious when the number of customers they are serving begins to grow.
  • The front line must be manned with those employees with the temperament to handle hostile group situations.

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