6 June 2004

Breakthrough University of Queensland research has pinpointed the triggers of consumer anger when service failure occurs, helping business come to grips with customer gripes.

The two-year study by UQ Business School Professor of Marketing Janet McColl-Kennedy found the way people felt they had been treated after a negative interaction with an organisation, coupled with their overall assessment of the service provider’s conduct, were the critical triggers of negative feelings among customers.

“According to customers, not feeling respected made them feel ‘like a number’ and/or a receptacle for company patter or worse, a recorded message,” Professor McColl-Kennedy said.

“By itself, low levels of ‘feeling respected’ caused a 48 percent rise in negative emotion whereas customer perceptions of unfairness led to a 68 percent increase. However, when the two factors were combined, negative emotions skyrocketed by a staggering 75 percent,” Professor McColl-Kennedy said.

“Understanding these triggers will help organisations not only to avoid future service failures but to effectively recover from negative situations should they arise.”

Her study found that if customers believed that the employee had treated them with respect and dignity, according to accepted standards, and fairly throughout the whole services delivery process, negative emotions were reduced by 100 percent.

“Some measures include simple things like putting a bit of effort into resolving the problem, checking details for the customer, involving a supervisor, being sympathetic and looking the customer in the eye,” Professor McColl-Kennedy said.

“But surprisingly, trying afterwards to put in huge amounts of effort, acting quickly and giving the customer what they wanted in the first place, but didn’t receive, actually increased customer negative emotions. This suggests to us that customers are engaging in counterfactual thinking – thinking ‘what might have been’, what they should have done”.

“Business recognises the damage caused by dissatisfied customers to both reputation and sales through loss of repeat business or decreased custom and negative word-of-mouth — it has been estimated that a dissatisfied customer will tell his or her story to around 11 other people kicking off a potentially disastrous domino effect.”

Negative emotions experienced by customers range from mild frustration to overt rage. These negative interactions or service failures can come from: the service itself, such as waiting too long; the wrong service being delivered; staff rudeness; or the customer themselves, for example, the customer being too ill to take a prepaid holiday.

Australians tended to be less likely to complain about service failures than their British or American counterparts, she said.

“Our tendency to be backward about coming forward is counterproductive as it does not give an organisation the chance to fix the problem,” Professor McColl-Kennedy said. “Complaints should be encouraged as they give organisations an opportunity to address the problem.”

She will deliver her study’s findings to a special industry symposium entitled Working with Customer Emotions: How to effectively reduce negative emotions and increase positive emotions to be held at UQ Business School Downtown (19th floor Central Plaza 1) on September 8 this year.

She will also deliver a paper on the subject at the leading conference in the field — American Marketing Association’s 13th international Frontiers in Services conference in Miami, Florida in October this year.

Professor McColl-Kennedy’s findings come from a wider UQ Business School project in which a series of training videos, using professional actors to play out a variety of service interactions, was developed with the support of a major industry player. The videos will also be used in her services marketing courses within the School and for industry training.

Media contacts: Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy (telephone 07 3365 6673, mobile 0417 074 010, email j.mccoll-kennedy@business.uq.edu.au) or Shirley Glaister at UQ Communications (telephone 07 3365 3374, email s.glaister@uq.edu.au).