It’s all about me: consumer emotions a decade on

Ten years ago, SOCAP Australia undertook a Consumer Emotions Study which shed new light on the interaction between consumers’ emotional responses and their loyalty to an organisation. Freya Purnell revisits the research, and finds out how changes in technology and societal norms have impacted the way consumers express their emotions.

Wind the clock back to 2003, and the environment for complaints was quite different. Organisations were already receiving some complaints by email, but the social media maelstrom was yet to hit, with neither Facebook nor Twitter having been launched. 2003 was also the year the SOCAP Consumer Emotions Study was undertaken, as a follow-up to the landmark SOCAP – American Express Study of Consumer Complaint Behaviour, released in 1995. This 2003 study went beyond measuring customer satisfaction into the deeper emotions that affect consumer loyalty. Conducted by Evalue and Psychological, the study involved nine blue chip Australian organisations and 4000 of their customers, who were asked questions about their overall satisfaction with and loyalty to the organisation, as well as the emotions they felt towards the organisation.

Overall, the study found that customers were generally well satisfied with the organisation and were well inclined to repurchase and recommend. Committed loyalty was found only at the highest levels of satisfaction, but very satisfied customers also typically displayed self-referent emotions such as impressed, appreciative, reassured and delighted.

While customers who felt positive self-referent emotions had strong emotional connections and loyalty to the brand, the converse was also true – very dissatisfied customers expressed negative high and low arousal emotions such as disappointment, anger and frustration, and self-referent emotions such as feeling neglected and disgusted. These emotions were described in the study as “relationship killers”.

The study found that in the course of the relationship, 21 per cent of customers had experienced negative surprises, where their expectations were not met. 61 per cent had contacted the organisation about their most negative surprise, and those who did not contact the organisation indicated they felt disappointment and disengagement.

When customers had contacted the organisation only 14 percent were completely satisfied with the organisation’s response, with 86 per cent either mollified (not completely satisfied) or dissatisfied. Those not satisfied also expressed negative
self-referent emotions “that were powerfully destructive of the relationship – emotions like anger, annoyance, frustration, feeling cheated, disgusted and exasperated”.

The study’s authors noted that to counter this, organisations needed to become more emotionally intelligent in the process of contact handling.

What has changed over the last decade?
The intervening 10 years since the study have seen some enormous changes in the complaints handling field – including a growing understanding of its importance in the context of the customer experience and loyalty, the development of an international Standard on complaints handling, the introduction of social media as a vehicle for complaints, and growing online consumer activism. And while human behaviour and emotions are considered virtually timeless – that is, humans have experienced particular responses to positive or negative events for hundreds of thousands of years – over the last decade, experts in complainant behaviour and dispute resolution have noticed some critical changes in how these reactions are expressed.

Professor Tania Sourdin, foundation chair and director of the Australian Centre for Justice Innovation at Monash University and Professor of Law and Dispute Resolution says research suggests that not only is there now an increased likelihood that people will complain, there is also a greater likelihood that some consumers will present with a more extreme emotional range and patterns of behaviour.

“These changes are partly linked to societal changes, changes in the way services and goods are delivered, and the impact of technology which is reshaping the consumer complaints area and may make it easier to complain and express negative
emotions,” Sourdin says.

Dr Grant Lester, consultant psychiatrist with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, also undertook some research in 2003, investigating unreasonable complaint behaviour in collaboration with Ombudsman’s offices. In the decade since, he says there has been a slow but gradual shading of complainant behaviour, so that there is now a larger group displaying unreasonable complaint behaviour, and multiple agencies – from Ombudsman’s offices to tribunals to corporations – are also reporting that complainants are demonstrating increased stridency. “That stridency seems to be revolving around what we call egocentricity. That is the sense that ‘I am the most important’, or for some, that ‘I am the only person in this world and my needs must be met above and beyond all others’,” Lester says. This perspective has its roots in the civil rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which championed the rights of disenfranchised groups. Over the last several decades, this has gradually morphed into individuals seeing their own rights as taking primacy above all other considerations.

“The emotions that these people are beginning to increasingly display are around indignation and injustice – so it’s a feeling that a grievance is the result of an unjust act, it is intolerable, it’s outrageous and most particularly, the grievance is personalised, so the complainant feels they have been insulted and humiliated,” Lester says. Because complainants now feel that where they have been wronged, it is their right to have it remedied by the responsible party, there is also an intolerance for not getting exactly what they want. “In other words, there has been a reduction in the willingness to negotiate and compromise. The grievance almost becomes a moral issue which is black and white,” Lester says. “For complainants, that supports them saying, ‘This is what I want, and if you don’t give me everything I want, then I’ll remain annoyed, disappointed and frustrated with you, and I’ll feel increasingly outraged and humiliated’. Those are the feelings that create the most prolonged complaint behaviour.” While in the past this type of response has been more common among sections of the population displaying pathological behaviour, Lester says these emotions are now being expressed by many others in relation to complaints.

An increase of loss of emotional control, anger, and threats and aggression is also being driven specifically by those feelings of injustice or immorality, which in the complainant’s mind, justifies extreme behaviour. Resolution toolkit less effective Typically, complainants used to seek compensation and reparation in response to their complaint, but the rampant individualism many consumers are displaying has also pushed their desires in a more difficult direction. There is now more focus on an individual being the cause of the problem, either because a mistake has been made or because their faults are seen as endemic to the organisation. “There is an increasing move in this broader group of complainants towards wanting vindication and retribution – they want to be treated specially, and they want some punishment involved,” Lester says. This has implications for how effective traditional methods of resolution will be with this group. “It’s the personalised sense of damage which I think will be most difficult for people to manage, because complaint managers are trained to use compensation and reparation as their tools,” Lester says. “But when it comes to vindication and retribution, which is what people are wanting, you can’t get that from the normal negotiation or management of the complaint.”

Technology opening more communication channels, there’s no doubt that the introduction of communication channels like social media has made it easier for customers to air their grievances with an organisation and get a faster response. This will hopefully lift the proportion of those who complain about a ‘negative surprise’ above 61 per cent, thereby giving organisations more opportunity to save customer relationships.

As Sourdin points out, research over the last decade on what drives behaviour shows that customer loyalty is driven by many factors, one of which is satisfaction with complaint processes. However, the immediacy of these new channels also has an emotional impact, says Dr Jason Price, managing director of Price Perrott. “If you have to sit down and write a complaint letter, you have time to think it over. If you tweet in the three seconds while you’re still in the fit of anger at having had a bad experience, you’re going to have a very, very different reaction,” Price says. “Where organisations have to be careful is how they manage their reactions to customers’ emotions, and take account of the fact that on Twitter, for example, you’re likely to get somebody who’s in anger. Therefore you need to take the time to pause and assess how you respond before you react or you risk emotionally increasing that cycle.” Beyond emotion Organisations which are attuned to the subtleties of customer emotions and responses and which take a more sophisticated approach tend to fare better with their customers, says Sourdin. “Not surprisingly, their businesses are more likely to be successful, particularly if complaints data helps to drive organisational and cultural behaviours.” But while consumer emotions is an important aspect of the customer experience, it doesn’t tell the whole story. According to Price, organisations have matured considerably in their understanding of what might make a quality response to a customer, and it’s a problem-solving approach, rather than just addressing emotions, that is truly effective. “Even for customers, who are not showing anger, you need to give them an apology, you need to explain the process you went through, and you need to show them that the way you’re handling their complaint is fair and proportionate to what’s happened,” Price says. “The experience of the complaint, how much hassle it is, the responsiveness of the business and their particular norms are the types of factors that underlie the emotion you happen to be seeing at the time. It’s really important for people in charge of complaints processes to recognise the impact of solving the whole picture, not just dealing with the emotion.” The age of ‘all about me’ Without replicating the original consumer emotions study, we may not know precisely how the individual responses of consumers to particular interactions have shifted over time. What we do know is that more broadly, consumer emotions follow similar patterns, but a push towards individualism and ‘it’s all about me’ is changing the way consumer express their emotions, and also the needs that must be met for complainants to be satisfied with a resolution.