Learning from Dissatisfied Customers


It’s uplifting to think about satisfied customers and why they like us. For this post we’ll focus on the flip side; dissatisfied customers. In our market research experience, sometimes dissatisfied and even past customers offer the best ideas for how to improve.

First let’s consider Two Preliminary Findings from research:

  1. Things that make people satisfied are often different than things that make people dissatisfied. Why does this matter (a lot)? Because you can ask customers what drives them to be very satisfied, focus your efforts on these satisfaction drivers, and yet still have dissatisfied customers.
  2. Dissatisfaction is sometimes temporary. For example, our studies have shown some customers become dissatisfied, leave a supplier, then ‘rethink’ their reason for being dissatisfied and later come back. And studies have shown that customer loyalty is sometimes highest when a customer is dissatisfied and their supplier ‘made things right’.

Based on the first preliminary idea above, it’s important to understand why customers get dissatisfied; it’s not just because we did not satisfy them. And based on the second idea, it’s important to think about how to look for opportunities when facing dissatisfied customers – sometimes we should not give up on them.

So what are some of the main dissatisfaction drivers? This is a ‘starter list’. A real list can be developed by getting data from your customers; these are just some helpful things to consider as you start.

  • Missed expectations.When customers expect a product to perform a certain way, they get frustrated when expectations are unmet. And they typically get more frustrated when very basic expectations are not met. For example suppose a hotel customer does not eat chocolate and is not going to use the hotel desk-lamp, but expects to find a chocolate on the pillow, and expects to have a working desk-lamp. The chocolate is often viewed as an ‘extra’. Expectations are missed when chocolate is not included, but dissatisfaction tends to be low for extras. The desk-lamp is basic; we expect hotels to have working desk-lamps. Expectations are missed if the desk-lamp does not work, and here dissatisfaction tends to be much higher.
  • Being treated poorly.A twist exists here. A supplier may think in terms of, “Was the customer treated fairly?” For example the supplier may think, “Did I treat this customer as I said I would, and did I provide the same level of service to this customer that I provide to other customers?” The twist is that the customer’s view of ‘good treatment’ is largely based on whether they like how they were treated; fairness is only one aspect of how customers evaluate whether they were treated well.
  • Consumer psychologists study regret when they look at “buyer’s remorse”. A key point here is that a customer could feel, “My expectations were met, and I was treated well, and yet still I have some regret.” Our experience shows that customer regret often occurs because people wonder whether they could have gotten a better deal (a cognitive issue), and because people feel the purchase was the ‘smart’ thing to do but they just don’t feel right about it (an emotional issue).
  • High Benchmarks.Notably, your benchmark for ‘how well you must perform’ is very wide. As businesses we often think of our ‘competition’ as companies that offer services similar to ours, or at least companies that fill the same customer need that we fill. When customers think about how well we perform, they don’t compare our performance against these competitors. They compare our performance to any similar experience they’ve had. Thus, our benchmark is ‘Anyone’s customers compared us to’.

Opportunities. So what opportunities do we have? How can you leverage the presence or potential presence of dissatisfied customers? A lot of opportunities exist, and here are a few:

  • Communicate with customers to clarify how your service works, and what type and amount of performance they can expect. The goal here is to set clear expectations for customers and not leave them up to their own guesses. This may be especially true for new customers, and may apply to existing customers (particularly when they purchase something from you that they have not purchased in the past).
  • Ask customers and prior customers for their opinions. As an outside researcher, perhaps our job is easier; when interviewing customers for companies, our third‑party position may lead customers to be very candid. But if you ask for feedback directly (with your own customers), ask them how you can get better and for innovative ideas. And ask for feedback beyond your product’s performance. For example, ask how people feel they were treated, whether they have any regrets about any aspect of purchasing from you, and how they compare your service to an ‘ideal experience’.
  • Target past customers. We hear only a small portion of customers say, “I can’t wait to go back to them” after leaving a supplier, but we do hear this sometimes. And a similar idea would be to target current customers who are purchasing less than they were before.
  • Keep tabs on the basics. Your elevator pitch to customers might focus on how you differ from competitors in terms of extras. But remember, dissatisfaction is often caused by failing to deliver on basics. Don’t go overboard on basics either. Back to the hotel desk‑lamp example – a really great desk-lamp is unlikely to create a fantastic experience; particularly for a customer that does not use the desk-lamp. Just make sure to avoid problems with basics.

Bryan Lilly, Ph.D. and Mike Tippins, Ph.D. are Marketing Professors in the College of Business at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and are partners at Dynamic Insights (www.dynamicinsights.com), a growth consulting firm located in the Neenah, Wisconsin. Dynamic Insights works with companies that want to achieve sustainable growth and vitality, and who want an external customer-oriented perspective to help guide their growth efforts. Dynamic Insights provides expert, seamless support, from Business-focused Marketing Research Insights and Integrated Growth Solutions to Implementation.

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