Professor Paul Patterson

A recent American Express survey revealed that customer rage is on the rise. Prior to a customer reaching boiling point, however, an organisation has several chances to placate them and win back their loyalty.

It is a myth that customers suddenly explode into anger. In the vast majority of over 1000 interviews we found a gradual build up of negative emotions as a customer is failed again and again by an organisation, and at each failure the negative emotions become stronger. Prior to customer rage the offending organisation has been given several chances by the customer to redeem itself and every time it has failed to do so.

Excellent service quality only comes at a cost. Customer service and a firm’s productivity or efficiency are like two sides of the same coin, and one that is often traded against the other. Many firms are simply short sighted and fail to invest in excellent customer service, by for example hiring the best people, continuously invest in training, and building a service culture. Telecommunications companies are a case in point – you only have to look at the ever increasing number of complaints to the ombudsman; they have the rhetoric about excellent service but do not invest seriously in it.

An American Express review published today, of consumers in 10 countries, found 33% of Australian consumers think that companies are paying less attention to customer service in the current economy compared to other countries.

Customers have specific psychological needs such as self-esteem, a sense of belonging, a need for control, to be treated fairly and security. During rage incidents it’s important for customer-facing staff to be empowered to solve a problem quickly rather than having to refer it upwards to a more senior colleague. When solved at the first recovery opportunity, damage to the firm’s reputation, loyalty and repeat patronage is minimised. But if the problem is allowed to go unchecked, disaster can follow.

The American Express survey showed that Australian consumers displeasure ranked second only to that of Italians. Almost half the Australians surveyed (46%) said companies did not make any extra effort to retain their business.

A sense of fairness should be restored and often this should involve a sincere apology. Incredibly, out of over 1000 case studies from this research study an apology was only offered by the organisation in 13% of cases. Speedy, respectful, professional and courteous treatment of customers actually boosts self-esteem, and while you’re making your customer feel good, they’ll be friends for life.

Professor Paul Patterson, Head of the School of Marketing at the Australian School of Business.