This article was featured in SOCAP Australia's Consumer Directions magazine • June 2015
If you ask anyone in customer service what they love about their job, it’s not long before they’ll tell you “it’s about the people.” Customer service is a people business and there’s no better area of customer service than complaints management if you want to experience the best (and the worst) aspects of human emotions.
For those involved in managing an organisation’s response to customer complaints, this raises some thought-provoking questions:
• What is it that makes some people complain, whilst others do not?
• How can we influence human behaviour and encourage people to make their complaints?
• How do employees handle human emotions and does this affect our performance?
In business, results are so often measured by profitability, costs, efficiency statistics and process performance. Can we really translate the day-to-day reality of dealing with human emotions into these kinds of business performance metrics?
What motivates a customer to complain (or not)?
Fortunately, behavioural scientists have as much interest in complaints as customer service managers do.
An article  highlighting studies by Professor Robin Kowalski discussed the relationship between happiness, personal attitudes and the purpose of complaining. Her work has looked into the links between complaining and personality type, using established psychology profiling tools like Costa and McCrae’s ‘Big Five’ personality traits .
Kowalski’s studies show that people’s motivation to complain is related to their personality type. In short, it’s a factor of someone’s personal self-esteem and perceptions of positive results as to whether they are ‘the sort of person who complains’.
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, nor to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them
In 1982, Richins established the link between a person’s attitude towards complaining and their actual complaint behaviour in practice . Individuals with positive attitudes towards complaining are more likely to undertake complaint action. However, we also know that only 5-10% of dissatisfied customers typically choose to make a complaint .
The risk for your organisation is that non-complainers have a higher likelihood of switching to a competitor  — and doing so without giving you the feedback you need to improve your business performance. In the public sector, don’t forget that customers can’t usually choose to switch, so that’s likely to mean increased frustration and anger as complainants are trapped by restricted choices.
What’s particularly interesting about non-complainers are the main reasons identified as to why they don’t complain. The top two are under the control of the organisation and come ahead of their personality norms .
That’s good news for managers as these factors are within your ability to change, whereas a customer’s personality type is beyond your control.
By making things better, you can encourage the dissatisfied to complain. That’s important, because it’s customer feedback that helps you identify where to prioritise performance improvement efforts.
Employee attitude affects complaints management performance
But what about employees? After all, they’re the people at the sharp end of customer service.
Research helps us here too, identifying employee attitude as a contributing factor after customers experience a service failure . Poor employee attitude in the complaint response contributes to a customer’s decision to switch.
Just as a customer’s personality can affect their attitudes towards complaining, so employees’ behaviour is influenced by their attitudes. It’s tough to deal with angry people, and this has a negative effect on all employees. Employees with a positive commitment to customer service are less likely to be affected by the negative emotions involved in managing customer complaints .
So attitude makes a difference, whichever side of the complaint you’re on.
Managers' influence on employee behaviour
Let’s not forget managers either. It’s long been established that clear leadership from the top is a significant factor in the success of an organisation’s business initiatives . Management attitude matters.
Research in 2009 showed that employees’ willingness to report the complaints they receive is affected by their perception of managers’ attitudes towards complaints . Organisational culture — brought to life by the everyday behaviour of managers — influences employees’ willingness to report customer dissatisfaction using complaints and feedback processes.
A 2015 report by the Victorian Ombudsman  in Australia studied local council complaint performance.
There is some way to go before councils establish a genuinely positive and receptive culture to complaints.
The Ombudsman's study goes on to report findings that some staff indicated their organisation perceives complaints as “bad” and there was “a desire by councils to keep reportable numbers of complaints low.”
This is a worrying finding not only for Victorian Local Government, but for managers in all geographies and industry sectors. It demonstrates starkly the significant influence that employee attitude and management–led culture plays in establishing successful complaint management.
Even in the procedural aspects of complaint management, it’s still all about the people. Customers’ attitudes affect their willingness to complain, managers’ attitudes affect the organisational culture and employees’ participation is affected by both customers’ emotions and managers’ attitudes.
A six point checklist for improving complaints performance
The latest International Standard for complaints management – AS/NZ 10002:2014 – tells managers that world–class organisations:
- have a positive culture that encourages complaints
- operate efficient and effective processes for managing complaints, and
- continuously improve business performance by learning from complaints.
- Varma, B.N., 2015. Complaining, for Your Health. The Atlantic.com, pp.1–5.
- Costa, P T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Revised NEO personality inventory (NEO-PIR) and NEO five factor inventory (NEO-FEI): Professionai manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
- Richins, M.L., 1982. An investigation of consumers' attitudes toward complaining. Advances in Consumer Research, pp.502–506
- Tax, S.S. & Brown, S.W., 1998. Recovering And Learning From Service Failure. Sloan Management Review, pp.75–88.
- Keaveney, S.M., 1995. Customer switching behavior in service industries: An exploratory study. Journal of Marketing, 59(2), p.71.
- Voorhees, C.M., Brady, M. & Horowitz, D., 2006. A Voice From the Silent Masses: An Exploratory and Comparative Analysis of Noncomplainers. Journal of the Academy of marketing Science, 34(4), pp.514–527.
- Bell, S.J. & Luddington, J.A., 2006. Coping With Customer Complaints. Journal of Service Research, 8(3), pp.221–233
- Kotter, J.P., 1998. Leading Change : why transformation efforts fail. In Harvard Business Review on Change. Harvard Business Review on Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, pp. 1–20.
- Luria, G., Gal, I. & Yagil, D., 2009. Employees' Willingness to Report Service Complaints. Journal of Service Research, pp.1–19
- Victorian Ombudsman, 2015. Councils and complaints, http://www.ombudsman.vic.gov.au/