Brands that promise the world make consumers feel betrayed

The everyday scenes of angry consumers confronting frontline service staff over poor service are fuelled by the promises that marketers make to them, shows research from the University of Bath.

The study of consumer conflict found that it’s not the consumer’s character that leads to their angry, abusive or resentful behaviour, but the failure of brands to live up to the expectations marketers have created in their minds.

Statistics show that consumer conflict is commonplace in service settings, such as shops and banks, with 10 to 15 per cent of service staff experiencing verbal aggression from consumers every day.

The cost of consumer conflict to companies is huge in terms of staff turnover, sickness and damage to reputation.

Published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the study suggests that understanding more about why consumers respond differently to conflict and attempts by staff to recover from a service failure will enable organisations to develop more targeted and effective ways of handling aggrieved customers.

The researchers conducted 52 interviews with 39 consumers who had experienced a service failure and analysed their subsequent response.

The research was carried out in Australia but the authors say the findings apply to all advanced economies with strong service sectors, such as here in the UK.

Professor Michael Beverland from the University’s School of Management, who led the research, said: “When marketers set out to build relationships with customers and make promises that lead to the notion that the customer is king or queen, a service failure comes as a personal blow to consumers.

“After promising consumers the world and encouraging them to think of the brand as a relationship partner, organisations shouldn’t be surprised when consumers react with a sense of betrayal.

“From L’Oreal’s ‘You’re worth it’ to banks that promise to be the ‘non bank’, they invoke higher expectations. When something goes wrong consumers frame the conflict in a personal way. They feel betrayed and they’re likely to lash out at frontline staff. Consumers that we interviewed in the study used highly emotive language to describe the service provider including ‘hatred’ and ‘vengeance’.

“Consumers who frame conflict in a task-based way are more focused on ensuring a practical outcome and less likely to become angry. They’re more receptive to genuine efforts by the company to restore the service and more likely to continue with the relationship.

“Giving staff training staff to be more attuned to the signals that consumers give about how they frame conflict could significantly affect the outcome.

“For consumers who frame conflict in a personal way offering compensation or restoring the service can actually make things worse. It’s more about admitting fault and going off script to acknowledge they’re in the wrong and apologise.

“Service failure is a fact of life and understanding consumer conflict is a way of decreasing the cost and improving the result.”

The research was funded by the Australian Research Council.

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