The Customer Isn't Always Right, Especially When She's Complaining

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customer service complaintsWhen it comes to customer service disputes, there's an old adage in the retail industry: The customer is always right.

In reality, of course, the customer is frequently in the wrong, whether it's a matter of misreading a return policy or misunderstanding how to use a product. And unfortunately for put-upon customer service reps, new research suggests that consumers complain the most when they know they're wrong.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia and published this month in the Journal of Marketing Research asked subjects to perform a simple task: Make a smoothie in a blender.

Well, simple except for one small hitch: The blenders provided to the test subjects were in some way defective, making the task impossible. The subjects were asked for feedback, but first they were divided into two groups: one that was made to feel the problem was their fault, and one that was assured it could have been a simple malfunction.

"We'd say [to one group], 'Have you ever done this before? No one else is having problems,' " explains Lea Dunn, who coauthored the paper. To the other group, she recounts, the researchers would be less incriminating, saying things like, 'That's okay, we've had this problem before.'

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The results are striking, if not entirely surprising: The subjects who were led to believe that they failed the task due to their own incompetence were defensive and confrontational, insisting that the blender was at fault. Meanwhile, those who were given the "out" of equipment malfunction were more willing to concede that the failure could have been their fault.

"When you think it's your fault that it failed, you protect yourself and shift the blame," says Dunn.

Dunn notes that the research applies primarily to online feedback -- an online customer service survey, for instance, or just an angry complaint made on social media -- and that the effect may be mitigated in person. Still, the implications for customer service interactions are clear. First, the guy complaining loudly about his Ikea furniture or malfunctioning laptop is likely doing so not because he genuinely believes that he got a defective bed or computer, but because on some level, he knows he's at fault.

Just as important, it suggests that customer service operators looking to reach a peaceful resolution would do best to strike a conciliatory tone. "When the company provides an explanation that [suggests] consumers are not at fault, that can mitigate the threat they feel," says Dunn.

In other words, the best approach is the tried-and-true one: The customer is always right, even when she isn't.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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