When Unhappy Customers Strike Back on the Internet
Companies need to understand and manage the rising threat of online public complaining. There is ample incentive, because the best ways to respond, and to prevent complaints from recurring, apply not just to the Internet.
When customers believe that a company has treated them badly, they may take public action aimed at hurting it. Consider Dave Carroll, a musician who discovered that his $3,500 Taylor guitar was damaged — its neck had been broken — during baggage handling on a United Air Lines flight. At first he alerted several of the airline’s employees at the arrival airport, but none of them had authority to handle his complaint; moreover, they gave Carroll no guidance on how to proceed. Thus began nine months of running the company’s customer service gauntlet. Repeatedly passed from one person to the next, Carroll was finally informed that he was ineligible for any compensation.
Frustrated, angered and feeling that he’d exhausted all customer service options, Carroll wrote a song about his experience and also created a music video, which he posted on YouTube in mid-2009.1 The lyrics included the verse “I should have flown with someone else, or gone by car, because United breaks guitars.” The video amassed 150,000 views within one day, five million by a month later and at this writing more than nine million. The story of the song’s success and the public relations humiliation for United Air Lines was reported in media all over the world. Finally, United offered to compensate Carroll for the damage and promised to reexamine its policies.
The Leading Question
How should companies respond to, or prevent, irate customers’ online public complaints?
- “A double deviation” — the initial failure followed by failed resolution attempts — is usually critical.
- Perceived betrayal (as opposed to dissatisfaction) drives potential online complainers to act.
- The company’s attempt at recovery should be swift and its apology perceived as sincere.
Another video recently making the e-mail forwarding rounds of the Internet featured an unhappy consumer who happened to be a U.S. marine based in Iraq. Dressed in combat fatigues out in the desert and holding his machine gun, he tells the viewer how Hewlett-Packard demanded to be paid to tell him how to fix his inoperable HP printer. He then aims his weapon and shoots the printer to pieces.
3. J.C. Ward and A.L. Ostrom, "Complaining to the Masses: The Role of Protest Framing in Customer-Created Complaint Web Sites," Journal of Consumer Research 33, no. 2 (September 2006): 220-230.
4. Y. Grégoire and R.J. Fisher, "Customer Betrayal and Retaliation: When Your Best Customers Become Your Worst Enemies," Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 36, no. 2 (June 2008): 247-261; and N. Bechwati and M. Morrin, "Outraged Consumers: Getting Even at the Expense of Getting a Good Deal," Journal of Consumer Psychology 13, no. 4 (November 2003): 440-453.
5. Y. Grégoire, T.M. Tripp and R. Legoux, "When Customer Love Turns into Lasting Hate: The Effects of Relationship Strength and Time on Customer Revenge and Avoidance," Journal of Marketing 73, no. 6 (November 2009): 18-32.
6. Grégoire, "Customer Betrayal and Retaliation."
7. Grégoire, "When Customer Love Turns into Lasting Hate."
8. K. Aquino, T.M. Tripp and R.J. Bies, "Getting Even or Moving On? Power, Procedural Justice, and Types of Offense as Predictors of Revenge, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Avoidance in Organizations," Journal of Applied Psychology 91, no. 3 (May 2006): 653-668; Y. Grégoire, D. Laufer and T.M. Tripp, "A Comprehensive Model of Customer Direct and Indirect Revenge: Understanding the Effects of Perceived Greed and Customer Power," Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 38, no. 6 (December 2010): 738-758.
9. S. Nassauer, "‘I Hate My Room,’ The Traveler Tweeted. Ka-Boom! An Upgrade! The New Ways Hotels Track You and Your Complaints," Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2010.
10. B. Devezer, Y. Grégoire, J. Joireman and T.M. Tripp, "Can a Firm Get Away with Double Deviation? The Role of Inferred Motive in Revenge and Reconciliation," working paper, Washington State University, September 2010.
11. P.H. Kim, K.T. Dirks, C.D. Cooper and D.L. Ferrin, "When More Blame Is Better than Less: The Implications of Internal vs. External Attributions for the Repair of Trust After a Competence- vs. Integrity-Based Trust Violation," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 99, no. 1 (January 2006): 49-65; P.H. Kim, D.L. Ferrin, C.D. Cooper and K.T. Dirks, "Removing the Shadow of Suspicion: The Effects of Apology Versus Denial for Repairing Competence- vs. Integrity-Based Trust Violations," Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 1 (February 2004): 104-118.
12. A.W. Wu, "Handling Hospital Errors: Is Disclosure the Best Defense?" Annals of Internal Medicine 131, no. 12 (December 1999): 970-972.
13. Grégoire, "A Comprehensive Model of Customer Direct and Indirect Revenge."
14. T. Tripp and R.J. Bies, "Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge — and How to Stop It" (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).