Customer rage: Service issues making them yell more—and seek revenge for their hassles

by | Mar 14, 2023 | Public Relations

In step with the speed of digital interactions, consumers have developed an equally short fuse when it comes to customer service. A recently released academic survey shows that Americans are exhibiting more customer rage than ever—they’re experiencing more product and service problems than ever before, remain hopping mad with companies’ second-rate efforts to resolve their problems, and have become steadily more belligerent when they complain.

In all, the National Customer Rage Survey—conducted by Customer Care Measurement & Consulting (CCMC), in collaboration with the Center for Services Leadership, a research center within the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University—estimates that businesses are risking $887 billion in future revenue due to mediocre complaint handling (up from $494 billion in 2020).

The new research survey of 1,000 Americans is the 10th wave of the study, dating to 2003. In addition to trending customer satisfaction with complaint handling over the past two decades, the latest release of the rage survey breaks new ground by exploring the alarming incidence of customer uncivility tied to what has become commonplace in everyday business settings.

Customer rage explores the experience of complaining about a product or service problem

Customer uncivility explores the emerging marketplace phenomenon of rude, discourteous, and violent behavior stemming from socio-political conflicts between customers and businesses, such as differences of opinion about politics, sexuality, culture, and faith. This first foray into customer uncivility reveals that unseemly customer behavior tied to clashes in values between businesses and their customers may be the new normal, as nearly one of every two Americans encountered two or more acts of customer uncivility in the past year.

Top customer rage highlights of the study:

  • Seventy-four percent of customers reported experiencing a product or service problem in the past year, more than doubling since 1976.
  • Product and service problems can be disappointing, costly, and distressing. Fifty-six percent of customers felt that the problem wasted their time (an average of one to two days of lost time), 43 percent cited a loss of money (an average loss of $1,261), and 31 percent suffered emotional distress.
  • The level of “customer rage” is holding steady—63 percent of customers experiencing a problem feel rage about the experience.
  • Some troubling trends: Customers are becoming increasingly aggressive in their efforts to solve their problems with businesses. Forty-three percent raised their voice to show displeasure about their most serious problem, up from 35 percent in 2015. Also, the percentage of customers seeking revenge for their hassles has tripled since 2020.
  • Complaining is increasingly becoming a digital phenomenon. Digital channels such as email, chat, and social media have unseated the telephone as the primary complaint channel at 50 percent, increasing from a mere 5 percent in 2013. Complainants are also doubling down on social media shaming about their problems. In addition to complaining directly to the company, 32 percent of complainants posted information about their most serious problem on social media sites more than double those who posted in 2020.

Top customer uncivility highlights of the study:

  • Nearly one in five Americans (17 percent) have personally behaved uncivilly during the past year.
  • Americans view such value-based expressions of aggression toward businesses as a harbinger of larger societal ills. Twenty-two percent cited the moral decay of society as the primary reason customer uncivility is on the rise.
  • The social contract about the norms for individually protesting against businesses’ belief systems and values appears to be in flux. Americans disagree with “civil” and “uncivil” behaviors for expressing their value differences with a business. While 50 percent of Americans view less aggressive forms of behavior (such as yelling, ranting, arguing, giving ultimatums, and social media character assassination) as uncivil, the remaining 50 percent see these behaviors as either “civil” or as “depends on the circumstances.” Similarly, 25 percent view more hostile behaviors—like threats, humiliation, foul language, and lying—as civil or circumstantially acceptable.

“Even after 20 years of intensively researching customer rage, I remain astonished that, when sorting out ordinary product and service problems, acts of simple kindness and a sense of kinship are, all too often, in short supply. The incidence and public displays of customers and companies misbehaving are commonplace, on the increase, and can be downright scary,” said CCMC president and CEO Scott M. Broetzmann, in a news release.

“Perhaps of growing concern now is that customer hostility appears to be mutating like a virus. The expressions of malice and aggression triggered by differences in the value systems of companies and customers—so-called customer uncivility—only fuel the fire,” continued Broetzmann.

“Defusing customer rage is not rocket science. Although many customers are looking for repairs or refunds, they’re also hoping for a sincere apology and acknowledgment of their complaints,” said Thomas Hollmann, executive director of the Center for Services Leadership at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business, in the release. “These no-cost actions show that the company cares, is listening to the customer, and values them. It’s up to brands to communicate as humans with their customers. A sincere, ‘I’m sorry this happened,’ can turn a potential blowup into a lifelong customer.”

This independent study is based on a survey conducted initially by customer experience organization TARP for the White House in 1976. CCMC and the Center for Services Leadership have collaborated on the National Customer Rage survey since 2003.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter