Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: To go public or to stay private?

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

…when customers want to complain

Times have changed. Really. They have. There used to be a time when all the recourse an angry customer had was a letter of complaint. Or at a point, a phone call to lodge a formal complaint. Then came the era of emails. Aggrieved customers could send emails to the right units and departments to express their anger about something that had not gone well with the product or service.

Interestingly, all of these means of complaints were essentially private in nature. Snail mails. Phone calls. Emails. Face-to-face interactions. These all came from the customer directly to the offending organisation. Businesses prefer these types of complaining. They are able to respond to the customer, manage the situation and win back the angry customer, outside of the public glare.

If a customer was really angry and wanted to get back at the organisation, the one could write a letter to an editor of a newspaper or call in to a radio program or a TV show to lodge a complaint. However, these opportunities were few and far between. Editors were gatekeepers who could decide to publish the complaint or not. If the alleged offending organisation happened to be a very powerful company, one that has a whole department full of highly-paid lawyers, you were sure the letter would remain in the drawers of that editors for a long time.

The electronic media were a bit more unpredictable. A customer could blurt out an unsavoury comment against a brand and it would have gone out just like that. Hosts of shows were therefore very wary of call-in programs. One phone call could mean the difference between an uneventful show and a million-dollar lawsuit, and possibly complete bankruptcy. All of these meant that customers had very limited means to go public with their complaints.

But those days are gone. Enter the era of social media. The plethora of opportunities the Internet and social media provides has thrown out the script. A single statement on the timeline of a relative unknown entity but shared by an individual with a huge following get do so much damage to a brand. Away from social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., there also online review platforms such as Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Some customers can even write blogs to express their dissatisfaction. Hidden behind pseudonyms, unnamed individuals can do so much damage to a brand with just a few lines. It is true that these days, brands are becoming a lot more aggressive going after any individuals who will attempt to damage their brands. But that has not stopped a growing number of complainants using online sources.

It is interesting to note that even in the era of social media, with the use of those sites to complain becoming increasingly more, it seems customers still prefer to go one-on-one with their complaints. A couple of studies conducted over the last couple of years show that emails and phone calls were still the two favourite means of complaining for a majority of customers.

But with both private and public means of complaining, what really informs customers’ decisions as to which means to adopt? Are there benefits for either group of complainers? Is there a benefit in complaining privately as opposed to complaining publicly? If the business decides to recover the bad service situation, who would be more appeased—the public complainer or the private complainer? All these are questions that a recent study attempted to find answers to. The study was titled, “Is Service Recovery of Equal Importance for Private Vs Public Complainers?” Conducted among a group of U.S. participants through the crowdsourcing platform Prolific, the results were published in the December 2022 edition of the Journal of Business Research.

The results were quite interesting. The researchers found that effective service recovery appeased customers who complained privately more than customers who went public with their complaints. This is not too surprising. There have been several studies over the years that show that when customers complain privately, they are normally appeased if the business is able to recover the failed service situation. The anger and frustration of the customer is normally appeased when the right things are done.

However, from the above study, it seems those who go public with their frustrations are beyond being appeased by service recovery efforts. There is a good explanation for this difference in reaction. Customers who complain privately do so because they want something to be done about the situation. Therefore, when that “something” is done, the objective for the complaint is achieved and ultimately, the customer is conciliated. Researchers refer to this as “justice restoration”—the sense that order or balance has been brought into the relationship between the customer and the organisation.

This is, however, not the case for the public complainer. The objective of the offended customer who goes public is not only to get something done about the situation. The objective of the one is to cause damage to the brand. It is to get back at the brand. It is to exact revenge. In some cases, the customer might have vowed never to do business with the organisation in question again. He or she has no intentions of coming back. Such a customer does not even care if something is done about the situation. All the one seeks is revenge. Therefore, even when the organisation goes to great lengths to recover the failed service situation, the customer will still not be appeased.

The above-mentioned study went further to find out what was it that appeased offended customers who went public with their grievances. The researchers found that aside exacting revenge, another important reason why customers go public is to warn other customers about the organisation in question. This was so important to those who go public that if the person’s feels the public complaint did not get the necessary traction from the general public, the one will take a recovery attempt by the firm as a win. The study found that if a customer gets a large viewership and support from the general public, such a customer would not care a lot about any recovery attempts by the firm. When a public complainer gets thousands of likes and shares, the one feels justice has been served.

From the ongoing, it is clear that one of the most important lessons any business leader, manager or supervisor can learn is to understand the psychology behind customer actions. For instance, an appreciation of the different motivations of the private and public complainer will help a business fashion out the right response for each customer. A business that understands what we are discussing will appreciate the fact that service recovery is actually not the panacea for all customer problems.

There are some remedial actions that will be unnecessary if the customers goes public. Sending an offended customer who goes public a full refund on a purchase might actually be a waste of money. Calling such a customer on phone and apologising might seem like the right first step to take. In fact, courtesy demands it but it might still not appease that customer. A customer who wants to cause massive reputational damage must not be handled like a customer who just wants the right things done.

Another lesson that can be gleaned from the ongoing discussion is that businesses should note that when customers go public with their complaints, it is no more about that customer alone. The actions (and inactions) of the organisation are being observed by both the offended customer as well as other customers. Customers who are online to witness whatever is happening between the offended customer and the organisation are going to form opinions about the organisation based on how the organisation reacts and responds to the customer.

Customers easily put themselves in the shoes of other customers. There is actual research findings to prove that customers tend to be highly invested in the situation of offended customers, to the extent that the unoffended observing customer will become offended if the organisation does not handle the situation well. Therefore, a rash response, an uncaring remark, totally ignoring the customer or going on a frontal attack would all be perceived by the observers as exactly what they would go through if they have a problem with the organisation. And no customer would want to spend hard-earned money with an organisation that exhibits such traits.

In an ideal world, no single customer would ever be dissatisfied with a product or service. But this is far from an ideal world. Things go bad, occasionally. Every business must therefore know what it would do when such things happen. The means of complaining adopted by offended customers—private or public—will go a long way to determine how a business should react. Smart businesses are those that are able to adjust their recoveries depending on the type of complaint. Every single business should have in its arsenal just the right response when offended customers decide to go public or when they decide to stay private.

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