Communication Currents

Unhappy With a Business? Complain!

February 1, 2009
Organizational Communication

Mistakes and failures are common occurrences for businesses and can lead to negative outcomes for offending organizations. However, by communicating complaints to companies consumers give organizations an opportunity to make up for their mistakes. Although most consumers are reluctant to complain to businesses following a failure, doing so can lead to benefits for both the customer and the organization.  

Think about the last time you had bad service or a product did not live up to its reputation. How did you feel? My guess is, depending on the severity of the problem and the importance of the service or product, you felt a combination of things including anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction. But, what did you do about it? If you answered “nothing” (and most people do), then it may be the case that you did not give the company a fair chance to remedy the problem in general, and your situation specifically. 

When companies receive complaints they have several options to pursue when deciding how to respond. Companies generally choose from a variety of communication tactics including: doing nothing, offering a denial that the problem occurred, offering an excuse for the problem by saying it occurred but it was not the company's fault, offering a justification for the problem by admitting that the problem occurred and was the fault of the company but suggesting that the problem is not as severe as implied, and offering an apology for the problem.  

However, not all responses are created equal. Research suggests that, of the communication tactics listed above, doing nothing, offering a denial, and offering an excuse are not good choices; they tend to do little to make people feel better about organizational failures. On the other hand, justifications that admit responsibility for a problem but couch it in a more positive light, and apologies, can work to improve the way consumers feel about organizations following a failure.  

Although the types of responses provided by organizations may influence how customers feel, it may be the case that the components of their responses are what matters when companies communicate with consumers. Some of these components include: believability, appropriateness, consideration, and the assumption of responsibility. In other words, excuses may work under certain circumstances, in other circumstances, offering justifications may be the best option.  

In our study, we sought to discover if the form or content of the corporate communication makes a difference when companies respond to complaining consumers. To examine this question, we asked volunteers to write to companies regarding a genuinely dissatisfying experience they had with a service or product. Letters were sent to the organization and returned to us. Then participants who wrote the letters returned to read and comment on the organizations' responses.  

Letters were analyzed for the presence of excuses, justifications, and apologies. Participants reported the perceived levels of believability, appropriateness, consideration, and responsibility in the company letters.  

Results indicated that excuses are associated with negative outcomes for organizations, whereas justifications and apologies are associated with positive outcomes. Specifically, excuses are detrimental to organizations because they are seen as less considerate, less appropriate, and less responsible. Excuses are also associated with negative perceptions of company credibility. On the other hand, justifications can reduce the unpleasantness associated with a failure. Apologies increase perceptions of an organization's appropriateness and consideration, and increase consumers' intent to do business with a company in the future. 

Next, results indicated that believability, appropriateness, consideration, and taking responsibility for a failure are strongly associated with effective organizational recovery from failures. That is, appropriate and believable responses to consumers that include consideration and responsibility are favored by consumers when compared to responses that do not include this type of communication. Appropriate and believable responses lead to: an increased intent to do business in the future with a company, increased satisfaction with a company response, increased perceptions of company credibility, and decreased perceptions of negativity with the failure episode.  

Finally, results of mediation analyses indicate that, although the form of organizational explanations can influence consumers' perceptions of the content of the communication, their impact on consumers' perceptions of organizations works independently from this influence. 

This study suggests that both the form and the content of company communication with consumers is critical in establishing satisfaction with the organizational response, perceptions of company credibility, and future intent to do business with an organization. Therefore, when companies face complaining consumers they need to be strategic when communicating their responses. We found that consumers expect companies to take responsibility for their failures, to apologize, to be honest, and to be considerate when they communicate. Moreover, consumers do not want companies to make excuses following a failure.  

These results suggest that consumer perceptions of organizations' and consumers' behavioral intentions can be improved following a failure if companies are mindful of their communication with their consumers. By appropriately and believably responding to consumers, companies can reap the benefits of service recovery and can help consumers feel better about the organizations with which they do business.  

In conclusion, the majority of consumers who experience product or service failures never take the time or make the effort to complain. Instead, they stop using a company, switch providers, or tell others about the negative experience. Yet, without complaints, organizations can do little to learn from their mistakes. By taking the time to complain following a failure you can provide companies with the necessary feedback to improve their operations. In addition, their responses may help you feel better about the situation and about the company in general. Just like in your personal relationships, in your relationships with organizations it is important to be open and honest in your conflicts. Once an organization knows there is a problem, it can work on resolving the issue.

About the author (s)

San Bolkan

California State University, Long Beach

Associate Professor