When Retailers Screw Up: How Can they Win Customers Back? (IO Psychology)

Retailers aren’t perfect. When they screw up, how do they try to get you to fall in love with them again?

Science to the rescue! In this study, researchers investigated customers’ spending after filing of a customer service complaint to a grocery retailer. Some customers received a coupon after complaining. Some didn’t. Some customers received a quick response from the retailer. Others received a slower response. Overall, they found that those who received the coupon actually spent less after filing their complaint, and those who received a quick response spent more in the time following.

Upon further digging, they found that for customers who received a slower response, the coupon made a big difference; a slow response AND a coupon reduces future spending greatly. This tells retailers to respond quickly to all customer complaints. However, if you can’t respond fast, giving a coupon may hurt your bottom line even more.

When you think about a coupon versus a quick response solution, it makes me think of being in a relationship. Ladies, when your man screws up, he might immediately apologize. He might buy you flowers. He might do both. (He might do neither; let’s be real.) If he chooses to buy you flowers, but never apologizes, you constantly look at those crappy, unattractive flowers as the cheesy substitute “thing” you got… the thing that now represents his second mistake. The flowers represent what you really wanted but didn’t get: your man immediately owning up to his mistake and sincerely apologizing for it. The flowers become undesirable in your eyes. Unhappy customers see the coupon as a reminder of being treated like crap.

But when your man immediately owns up to his mistake, apologizes, and you talk it through, ladies feel better. They feel listened to; they feel their point of view matters; they feel understood, attended to, and cared for. (This is starting to sound like a Lifetime movie…) It’s the timing and the care that matters, and this treatment impacts how you feel and act going forward.

This is a common “how” versus “what” scenario. The “how” you treat me is much more important that the “what” you give me. Coupons don’t fix the mistake. When not apologized for in a timely fashion, they represent the mistake. And they don’t help.

So apologize. Quickly. (And white tulips certainly don’t hurt…!)