According to a new study from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, although consumers tend to feel better when they complain, it all changes if the consumer perceives that he or she is responsible for the problem.
Previous research in complaining behavior has found that when the organization is responsible for a service or product failure, consumers feel better about the failure after complaining about it.
But the study, which is featured in the October's Journal of Marketing Research, found that when consumers are to blame for product failure, they end up feeling incompetent and blame the company in order to preserve their sense of self-worth.
"When it is our fault we push away and get a bit defensive about it even if we do not think about what we are doing," Marketing Professor Dean Darren Dah told the Financial Post. "We are feeling threatened by our own inabilities and we get a little bit of a hate-on, so to speak, for the organization or company."
In one experiment, two groups were asked to assemble a food processor and blend a smoothie recipe. The experiment was set up to fail but the first group was made to feel it was their fault while the second was told there must a problem with the processor since everybody was having problems.
The results showed that those who perceived it was their fault were likely to shift the blame to an external source (79 percent of participants) than blame themselves less (14 percent). By comparison, only 28.5 percent in the group that were told it could have been appliance's fault blamed an external source with 43 percent still blaming themselves.
Several other experiments resulted in similar outcomes.
While the evidence might provide further support for some company's "The Customer Is Always Right" policies given the defensive tendencies of those in the wrong, Prof. Dahl told the Financial Post that a more nuanced approach might be advisable. Further studies found that even acknowledging there was a way to fail eased the threat consumers feel when they find they're wrong.
"Consumers are complicated," the professor said. "As a company you might have to be a bit more strategic in this area than was first thought."
The research also found that complaints are increasing, with social media taking away much of the embarrassment. The study states, "In today's society, consumers are likely to complain given any opportunity, regardless of who is to blame for product failure."
Does complaining seem to be on the rise at retail due to social media?