Is the Customer Always Right? Not When It's Their Fault

Companies that give customers the opportunity to complain about products or services may regret their decision, even if companies are not at fault for a mistake. New research has found that customers are more likely to rate a company in a negative way if they feel they are the reason for the failure of a particular product.  

"It’s commonly assumed that giving customers a chance to voice grievances allows companies to maintain relationships," said Darren Dahl, marketing professor at the University of British Columbia and author of the study. "But our research shows that when a person feels implicated in a product’s failure — think building Ikea furniture — they're more likely to shift blame to the product when complaining and increase ill will toward it."

To prove this, Dahl and co-author Lea Dunn divided test subjects into two groups and asked them to replicate the preparation of a smoothie. However, the food processors that the researchers provided for this task were faulty for each group.  After the groups attempted to make the smoothie and it did not turn out correctly, the researchers told one group that it was their fault and the other group that it was the machine's fault.

Participants who thought they were the reason for the failed smoothie rated the machine lower after they were allowed to complain than participants who did not have the chance to complain. On the other hand, participants who were told that the machine was at fault rated the company higher after complaining than people who did not complain.

One caveat to this occurred when people had their competence affirmed by companies. In those cases, the group that blamed themselves rated the company more favorably.

"With companies turning to social media to communicate with consumers, the power of customer complaints has been amplified,” said Dahl. "Our study shows that companies shouldn’t just let people sound off. They need to be stroking egos, as well."

The research was published in the Journal of Marketing.

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