Why customers complain vs praise a brand

Much has been written about the value of customer feedback, and what motivates people to either praise or criticise a brand / product / experience. Though, many of these studies tend to focus on either positive or negative feedback, rather than the whole range of reactions, and the role of different drivers in those reactions. This means that we have a very incomplete picture of that space in the middle, between very positive or very negative experiences. Shameless plug: Jan Kieztmann and I did look at how customers’ feedback behaviour may vary depending on whether they had had a positive or a negative experience, as well as depending on the part of the experience that they were commenting on. The paper is available here, and there are a couple of posts about it on the blog, such as this one

The paper “Why Unhappy Customers Are Unlikely to Share Their Opinions with Brands” is very interesting in that it fills that gap. This paper reports on a number of studies by Chris Hydock, Zoey Chen, and Kurt Carlson, looking at the feedback behaviours for different satisfaction levels. The paper was published in the Journal of Marketing, and it’s behind a paywall. However, there is a useful summary, here. There is also a short presentation, here.

In the first study, the researchers asked participants about their satisfaction with a specific retailer, on a scale from 1 (very dissatisfied) to 7 (very satisfied). Then, two weeks later, the participants received a satisfaction survey from the retailer. The first interesting finding is that only 11% of the participants replied to the survey. The second, is that satisfied customers were more likely to fill in the survey than the dissatisfied ones, and that there was a slight dip for neutral customers vs very unhappy ones. The authors refer to this as the hockey stick-shaped relationship between satisfaction and feedback (or J-shaped relationship for those of us for whom ice-hockey is not a key cultural reference). This indicates that customer surveys are likely to give us an over-optimistic view of customer satisfaction.

Image source: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022242920920295?journalCode=jmxa

In the second study, the researchers looked at two different forms of providing feedback: a survey vs. a comment box on the website. They found the same J shaped relationship. They also found that customers were more likely to provide feedback via a survey than via a comment box. This indicates that, despite the limitations of surveys, it is important that we continue to use a proactive form of obtaining customer satisfaction information, rather than relying on customers to do it by themselves.

Image source: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022242920920295?journalCode=jmxa

In their third and fourth studies, the authors tried to explore why customers are averse to offer criticism. They found that participants that anthropomorphised a brand were significantly less likely to offer negative feedback (left hand side of graph C, dotted line). Furthermore, they found that those that felt uncomfortable expressing criticism generally were significantly less likely to offer negative feedback, though neither more nor less likely than others to offer positive feedback (dotted line in figure D). 

Image source: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022242920920295?journalCode=jmxa

Study 5 looked at why people provide feedback. The researchers found that positive feedback was mostly externally motivated, whereas negative feedback was mostly internally motivated. Namely, positive feedback resulted from a desire to reward the brand, whereas negative feedback resulted from a desire to vent personal frustration.

Then, study 6 examined whether customers’ feedback behaviour changed as a result of the type of options that they had available. The researchers found that customers are less likely to complain when they have an option (e.g., return the item), than when they feel that they have no alternative. Again, there was no difference in terms of positive feedback. The availability of an option is presented by the solid line in figure F, and the lack of option by the dotted line. 

Image source: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022242920920295?journalCode=jmxa

Finally, the authors looked at whether the willingness to provide feedback depended on the audience. Here, they found that participants were more willing to provide feedback to other customers (dotted line) than to the brand (solid line), directly. This effect applied at all levels of customer satisfaction – both positive and negative – but the differential was more significative for unhappy customers.

Image source: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022242920920295?journalCode=jmxa

In summary, no news is not good news! If you want to hear from your unhappy customers (and you should!), you need to be proactive, and be sensitive to practical as well as psychological barriers.

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