Small service failures, customer dissatisfaction and defection

Big service failures are bad news for business. They make for unhappy customers; they tend to result in complaints; and they may represent additional cost. If the company has really messed up and/or if the customers are very vocal, big failures may even get media’s attention, and lead to public embarrassment.

But what about the small problems? The hic-cups? The minor incidents?

They don’t tend to generate complaints. Or, at least, not many complaints. They are unlikely to result in requests for compensation. And it’s very, very improbable that they will lead to blushes. 

They can still cause serious problems for a business, though.

Just like drips of water, over time, lead to rust, which weakens an infrastructure; so, too, the accumulation of small problems, over time, erodes customer goodwill, and can result in customers abandoning the company. Such was the finding from research conducted by Sean Sands, Colin Campbell, Lois Shedd, Carla Ferraro and Alexis Mavrommatis, recently published in Business Horizons.

In the paper entitled “How small service failures drive customer defection: Introducing the concept of microfailures”, the researchers report on findings from their research on small service failures (which they call microfailures). 

Sands and colleagues found (unsurprisingly) that customers are significantly less likely to complain about individual small service failures than about large ones. I say “unsurprisingly” because, in general, the act of complaining is unpleasant, complicated and subjective. Therefore, it is something that customers prefer not to do.

In this study, the researchers found that 52% of the research participants would complain about an instance of microfailure. Conversely, 76% would do so for a major failure. However, the research team also found that 56% of customers would abandon the company due to a series of small service failures.

Do you see the problem here?

One in two customers will not voice their dissatisfaction to the firm… and will eventually leave, without the firm ever having an opportunity to repair the relationship.

As the authors explain: 

Since (microfailures are) less likely to be voiced by the customer or detected by the firm, the firm is unlikely to engage in service-recovery initiatives. The customer may grow vexed after repeated microfailures, which can appear as evidence of a persistent lack of care on the firm’s part. Should microfailures continue to occur, the damage is likely to accumulate and slowly erode the customer’s sentiment toward the brand or firm.” (p. 578).

Furthermore, they posit that:

(R)epeated microfailures can sensitize customers, amplifying their perceptions of later microfailures. (…) These micro-stressors can produce negative feelings, such as annoyance, irritation, or frustration, and when compounded, their effect is much larger than any one incident alone”. (p. 578).

That is:

Since microfailures often go unresolved and compound over time, they can slowly erode customer goodwill and lead to customer defection. Indeed, research shows that most customer relationships with brands end not through sudden breaks but by fading out slowly.” (p. 578).

Now, can someone ensure that the e-commerce company that sent me the wrong mouthguard reads this? I ordered one type of mouth guard, and received a different one. It’s still a mouthguard, but it is not the one that I ordered. I have tried complaining, but the system is a pain. I am unsure, yet, whether I will persist with the complaint, or just use this one for the time being, as it still does the job… but I am unlikely to buy from them, again.

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