Expert's Opinion

When Consumers Complain...

By Guy Winch, Clinical Psychologist | April 22, 2011

Guy Winch on the paradox of shopper dissatisfaction.

I used to think that consumer behavior was pretty straightforward. If we were interested in a product, we purchased it, used it and evaluated whether it met our expectations. If so, we would repurchase the same or a similar item, and we might even try additional products from the same company. If we did not care for the product we simply didn't purchase it again.
If our dissatisfaction with the product was substantial, we felt the urge to speak up about it and complain. Perhaps the product was defective or maybe the item was significantly misrepresented by its marketing or packaging: The color of the lipstick was incorrect, the soap contained ingredients we were assured it would not, or the cleaning product was unsuitable for the specific surface for which we purchased it.
We've all been in these situations before—what did you do?
When I first pondered this question myself, my initial reaction was, "I would definitely speak up and complain!" But then I reflected further. I began to think back and go over such incidents and in doing so I realized that far more often than not, I did not take action to correct the situation. I certainly intended to, but for a variety of different reasons (i.e. excuses), I never did. Studies in consumer behavior reassured me I was not alone.

A staggering 95% of people fail to complain to a company when they are dissatisfied with a product or service. There are several reasons why the vast majority of us do not complain effectively in such situations even when we feel a strong urge to do so:

1. Despite the billions of dollars companies spend on customer service initiatives, we still believe companies don't really care about their customers. Even those who work in the customer service industry fall prey to this fallacy. They might believe their company cares about its customers but surely other companies do not.
2. We are unsure how and to whom to voice our complaint. Should we return to the store and seek out the sales representative, look for the customer service desk, or ask to speak with the manager? The abundance of options we perceive makes us think we are likely to choose the wrong one and as a result, we choose none of them.
3. The most common reason we fail to complain effectively and get a result is we are convinced that doing so is not worth the effort it would surely require. And here lies the Complaining Paradox.
Because studies show that although we're convinced that complaining to the company would require too much time and effort, we then spend considerable time and effort complaining about the incident to an average of 10-16 of our friends and acquaintances!
In other words, writing a simple complaint email to company executives would require only a fraction of the time we spend complaining to our friends but we believe doing so would be too labor intensive. Instead we labor at complaining to all our friends and acquaintances, none of whom can do anything to resolve our complaint.
Once I became aware of this complaining paradox, I began to pay much more attention to my own complaining behavior and not surprisingly, I found I was complaining ineffectively far more often than I realized.
One of the main reasons I wrote The Squeaky Wheel was to bring attention to the fact that today, many of our complaints do not get us the results we want. This is true in all areas of our lives; as consumers, in our relationships and in the workplace. But it doesn't have to be this way.
I've come to view complaints as tools that can get us results and improve our quality of life in many ways-if we learned to use them correctly. The rewards for doing so are not just monetary (although who doesn't like a well-deserved refund?) but complaining effectively can also make us feel empowered, and it can improve our relationships, whether with clients, vendors, co-workers, or even our loved ones.
The next time you are dissatisfied with a product or service, think of it as an opportunity. Remember that you can always speak up, get a result and feel empowered by doing so. After all, you now have the key to avoiding the complaining paradox—you know it exists.
About the Author
Guy Winch, Ph.D., received a doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University, completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couple therapy, and has been using complaints as a therapeutic tool in his psychotherapy practice for more than a decade. He also dabbles in stand-up comedy.
The Squeaky Wheel is his first book. He lives in New York City. More info:
Twitter: @GuyWinch