Beware of the unhappy customer

Tue, Mar 20, 2012, 00:00

Reports out this week reveal a different animal to the passive Irish consumer of yesteryear. These days it is no more Mr Nice guy – we want value and we are willing to change our habits and complain in order to get it, writes CONOR POPE

THERE WAS A time when we were all so passive and terrified of complaining that unless a waiter actually spat in our soup just before slopping half of it onto our laps and the rest all over it the table with a snarl he could be guaranteed a hefty tip and a “yes that was wonderful” as we left.

This inertia extended to almost all service providers and retailers as, time and time again, Irish consumers showed themselves to be reluctant to take themselves and their cash elsewhere in order to punish businesses which let them down or charged them too much.

Times are changing and a number of new studies point to an increasingly bolshie consumer willing to complain at the drop of a hat and spend time searching out the best value for money.

Global research by Accenture paints a picture of Irish consumers with dwindling loyalty to service providers. Now, instead of blindly buying the same things in the same places whatever the cost, people are chopping and changing, and using social media to moan and to make more informed decisions.

The research shows that 78 per cent of consumers here are now likely to shop around for better value, the biggest percentage globally. Unsurprisingly, 90 per cent say their decisions are affected by current economic conditions (who are the 10 per cent who are immune to what’s going on around us, is what we want to know). We may want stuff for less, but we’re not willing to sacrifice quality and service for cheaper prices. The study shows that 60 per cent of us will not accept lower levels of quality despite insisting on lower prices, while 39 per cent of us optimistically expect to get high levels of customer service while paying the lowest price possible.

Airlines, utilities and mobile phone providers that fail to deliver on customer service are most likely to be punished, according to Accenture. It also found that 91 per cent of Irish consumers are likely to tell others about their negative experiences, while almost three out of 10 are now likely to post bad experiences online.

Competitive pricing continues to be a major driver for consumers, with 27 per cent saying they view it as of utmost important when deciding which companies they will do business with. Quality, being easy to do business with and a skilled workforce follow in second, third and fourth place respectively.

The survey will make grim reading for many companies which have profited from our laziness in the past. Just 28 per cent of those polled declared themselves satisfied with their current providers, while 41 per cent feel no loyalty to those they do business with. Just 15 per cent say that they feel some degree of loyalty.

According to Accenture, the 21st century Irish consumer is increasingly going online before they buy: some 74 per cent frequently search for information about companies and their offerings on the internet – in Accenture-land, frequent means a few times a month.

It also found that 67 per cent of consumers now use social media to explore their options before they buy while 46 per cent write about personal experiences on social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter.

When online, 36 per cent of Irish consumers trust comments about companies and brands if they come from people they know – a number which seems small to Pricewatch – and 26 per cent say negative comments affect their purchasing decisions, again the number seems small.

“This research paints an interesting picture of the changing Irish consumer,” says Vicky Godolphin of Accenture. “Traditionally, Irish consumers have been loyal to particular brands, but this is changing. They are now researching products and services online, while relying on information from friends, instead of information from the company.

“Very telling for companies is that over a quarter of consumers allow negative comments to [affect] their purchasing decisions and 30 per cent have posted negative comments online. The message is clear: any company that doesn’t have a digital strategy to deal with customer satisfaction issues could find itself punished swiftly and publicly.”

The survey says that 25 per cent of people have switched retailers after experiencing poor customer service or high prices; some 21 per cent have moved internet service providers, with the same percentage abandoning home telephone service providers if they have let them down. A slightly smaller amount, 17 per cent have switched utility companies.

When it comes to marketing, 87 per cent of consumers find that having a provider promise one thing but deliver another is the most frustrating thing and 75 per cent say that this will have an impact on their buying considerations.

It found that 49 per cent of Irish consumers expected more from customer service than they did a year ago, with 78 per cent expecting it to be easier to access; 64 per cent wanting it to be faster; and 63 per cent expecting a more knowledgeable customer service agent.

“The Irish consumers is getting more demanding. They are price conscious but are unwilling to sacrifice quality or customer service in their quest for value. Companies who don’t deliver on customer service will pay the price as customers switch. This means there’s a shift in the traditional balance of power away from companies, as consumers increasingly call the shots,” Godolphin says.

A separate study published by the National Consumer Agency (NCA) also indicates that consumers are now more willing to assert their rights than they were previously, with more than 75 per cent feeling confident of and protected in relation to their consumer rights. It says that 72 per cent of consumers claim to be knowledgeable about their consumer rights, the highest level to date.

The level of empowerment varies across the different social economic groupings. Unsurprisingly, the wealthiest people demonstrate higher levels of empowerment than the poorest.

According to the NCA, airlines have the lowest satisfaction rating for customer service; the highest levels were found in relation to supermarkets and shops selling clothes or shoes with satisfaction levels of 91 per cent recorded. The main method of contact with customer services in these two sectors was in person, which would tend to suggest that a better outcome may be achieved through face-to-face contact.

Bad customer service is not just bad for the consumer – it is also bad for business: some 57 per cent of consumers said they would stop doing business with a provider if they received bad customer service.

Almost one in two (46 per cent) consumers stated that they would tell people they know about a bad customer service experience with a provider.

THE TWITTER VIEW: ARE YOU MORE LIKELY TO COMPLAIN?

If I’d complained and shopped around for the last five years as much as I do now, I’d be financially sorted! @fitztarg

Yes to both. I’m currently in a 39-day battle with @AirFranceFR. Five years ago I would have given up after a week. @lbcoen

More likely to complain. Not sure if it’s to do with recession or that I’m becoming more like my mother as I get older. @KirstinWithAnI

More likely to complain, yes, that much older and more demanding. But I have always shopped around. @Craicerjack

I’m more conscious of getting value for my hard-earned cash. I’m working more hours for less money than five years ago. @Susie_2Z

I’m way more concerned with getting what I paid for re service and getting the best price. @ShivNoonan

No more likely, was always a curmudgeon, more likely to shop around. @emmacdoyle

IF YOU'RE NOT HAPPY: SIX POINTERS FOR THE BATTLE

DON’T PUT IT OFF

If you’re unhappy with the service you’re getting in a face-to-face setting, don’t let the rage build up. Complain quickly and calmly and, even if you’re a ball of seething rage, never raise your voice – that always ends in tears.

KEEP TRACK OF IT

If telephone customer support lets you down, make sure to document all the contact – including the dates, times and names of the people you have spoken to. When taking a complaint to a regulatory authority, the more extensive your documentation, the better. Hang on to all receipts, invoices, letters and emails in connection with products and services you have bought.

PUT IT IN A LETTER

If you are being ignored by a company’s telephone support, don’t just keep ringing them over and over again – that way lies madness (and sadness). Instead send a letter outlining your concerns. Make sure you send it to a named person and get to the point. Clear and concise letters are more effective than 16-page epics handwritten in green ink.

REGISTER YOUR COMPLAINT

The old trick of sending a complaint to the most senior people in the company does occasionally work, but it’s not foolproof. A better way to make sure your letter is at least read is to send it via registered post. Someone has to sign for it and therefore can not dodge responsibility at a later date.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

Don’t be fobbed off by stupid talk of warranties expiring. If you are making a complaint, contact the National Consumer Agency or visit their website ( consumerconnect.ie) to find out exactly what your rights are. You probably have more than you think.

KEEP AT IT

Sometimes companies make it difficult for you to complain in the hope that you will just give up. Persistence pays off – most of the time.