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Are We Wired to Complain?

Today's guest blog is from Ryan Robinson, an I/O Psychologist at Kronos.  He writes about the well known phenomenon of bad customer service driving much more publicity than does good service. (If you want to see a huge viral example of a customer complaint - over 9 million views and growing- check out United Breaks Guitars.)

As an I/O psychologist, and more specifically someone who designs assessments to identify strong service employees, I have become particularly attuned to the service I receive. For example, I recently shopped for a gift for my wife and was having a difficult time making a decision about what to get her. One of the store's employees could see that I was having a difficult time and so she approached me and asked if she could help. I told her my situation, and then she asked me a few questions about what my wife liked. After hearing my response, and thinking about what I said, she proceeded to walk me around the store and gather a number of items that she thought might work. Her suggestions were very helpful and I ended up purchasing more than I had intended to buy. As this interaction was happening, I found myself thinking “she's doing a great job listening to me and is recommending some really good items” and “I appreciate that she is genuinely interested in helping me.” I walked away from the store happy with what I bought and pleased with the service I received. In fact, I was so pleased with my experience that I mentioned it to a couple of friends, and ultimately to my spouse. I have since bought additional items from this store, and it's possible I have influenced others to do the same.

In thinking about this interaction however, I have come to the sad realization that this is one of the few very positive service experiences that I can recall. I can though, very quickly, recall about a dozen recent negative experiences. For example, I recently had to take my cell phone back for the 2nd time. They had replaced my phone the last time with a refurbished model, and now my replacement was broken.  When I explained the situation to the employee who was helping me, he looked at the serial number on the phone, gave me a puzzled look and said “this is not a refurbished phone.” After trying to explain it to him again, I became frustrated as he clearly didn't believe me and felt like I didn't know what I was talking about. Unfortunately, this set the tone for the entire interaction, which needless to say was not a pleasant one. I left the store with my new phone and made a call to make sure it was working correctly. The first thing I talked about was my negative experience in the store.

In thinking about this negative encounter, I realized I could easily write about a number of poor service experiences I have had. But realizing this made me think about why it is so easy for me to recall negative service experiences.  Have I really not had many positive customer service encounters? Have I been too hard on the employees that I felt were not doing a good job? Have I just come to expect great service as the norm, and thus don't recognize it for what it is? And maybe most importantly, am I the only one who does this, or do we all pay more attention to negative information?

Of course, as a psychologist, I had to do some digging to see if I could understand why it was so easy for me to focus on these negative experiences. I started by thinking back to my schooling and remembered reading some research that suggests we are biologically programmed to pay more attention to negative information. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes some sense as survival depends on our ability to detect danger and respond appropriately. And while hopefully a negative customer service experience is not a “survival” situation, it does make sense that consumers may pay greater attention to when things go wrong as we are more tuned in to negative information. Similarly, positive experiences may not seem extraordinarily positive or noteworthy to us as they don't provoke as strong a reaction.

This got me thinking then, do people tend to share negative service experiences with others more than positive ones?  So, I took to the web in search of stories of good and poor service. I was pleased to find that other bloggers do share their experiences and opinions about good service such as this piece from the New York Times ( or this one about a positive banking experience (  But in general it seems that the focus of positive customer service blogs is about techniques for improvement instead of consumers' examples.  On the other hand, I easily located a number of sites where customers have detailed the poor quality of service they have experienced.

So where am I going with all this you might ask? The key factor in all of this for me is that customer service matters, and that consumers are clearly talking about their experiences. In turn, these encounters can have a huge impact on those who read about them. This only serves to highlight the importance of staffing your workforce with people who understand the importance of good service and do everything they can to make sure their customers are happy.  On a personal note, I wish that more consumers would take the time to let others know who did a great job of meeting their needs. Do any of you know where you can get great service? Do you notice that you are more aware of negative service experiences?

Share your insights!

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