Customer rage

Customer rage is on the increase, fuelled in part by the prevalence of social media. And if organisations don’t want to be on the receiving end, they’d better start working with their customers.

It seems simple enough: if customers are important to your organisation – work with them. A company that is receptive to its customers’ needs, including their complaints, is rewarded with loyalty. But complaints are often mishandled, and this can lead to powerful feelings of customer rage – to the detriment of the business involved.

Last year, a woman looking to buy a bridesmaid dress visited Melbourne fashion retailer Gasp. When she hesitated over a particular dress, the assistant yelled at her that she had wasted half an hour of his time. She complained, but the store refused to acknowledge any fault. In fact, their email response was, at worst, insulting, at best, inflammatory.

The story went viral, with people around the world criticising, and locals boycotting, the store. Shots of Gasp’s Chapel Street outlet with no customers were broadcast on television news networks. Eventually the company apologised, but it took three months and delivered irreparable damage to the brand.

All organisations need processes to deal effectively with customer complaints. Unmanaged, customers’ negative emotions build up. Annoyance and frustration become anger and resentment; next step – customer rage. The customer is lost to the company – and the brand damage is done.

A study lead by UQ Business School and conducted across Australia, the US, Thailand and China, highlights the causes of customer rage and suggests the different ways organisations can manage dissatisfied customers.

The good news is that customers don’t typically go into rage at their first frustration. Disgruntled customers usually give the firm an opportunity to fix the problem. But each time an attempt to solve a problem fails, negative emotions become stronger, ultimately resulting in rage.

Janet McColl-Kennedy is Professor of Marketing at UQ Business School and project leader. “Before getting to this point, the organisation has been given on average five opportunities by the customer to redeem itself,” McColl-Kennedy says.

She cites one case where a woman made 11 calls to the call centre of an Australian insurance company and two in-store visits over five weeks to get a legitimate refund of $500. At each encounter the customer felt the employees seemed “not to care”, and showed no empathy or willingness to solve her problem.

She went from surprise to concern, then annoyance, to frustration and, ultimately, extreme anger, which she expressed by swearing and slamming down the phone. Eventually the insurance company returned the money, but the customer was unhappy and shared what had happened with as many people as possible.

This customer’s “sense of helplessness, desperation, no one would listen to me” are feelings echoed by many of the disgruntled consumers interviewed for the UQ Business School study. “I felt cheated”, “I felt manipulated”, “He was trying to cheat me”, are the kinds of frustrations that build up in customers when they feel they aren’t being heard.

It’s not that customers don’t expect things to go wrong. Products break and systems fail. It’s just that when there are problems, customers look for companies to show concern and work with them to fix the problem.


The research into customer rage from UQ Business School is ongoing and the latest findings highlight the differences in the way different cultures express their rage.

“Customers from Western societies tend to express their rage more openly compared to customers from Eastern societies; but don’t be fooled, they may well be plotting their revenge,” says McColl-Kennedy. “Our research shows that Eastern customers tend to hold in their negative feelings until they cannot hold them any longer. If they explode, it is likely to be to a much greater extent than their Western counterparts. And customers can take revenge on companies years later.” McColl-Kennedy explains that revenge can take many forms: destroying company goods, facilities or property, injuring front line staff and worse.”


McColl-Kennedy says that if mild negative emotions are not corrected they build to boiling point and extreme emotions and rage behaviours emerge. This makes life difficult for all parties. If front-line employees are not adequately trained to deal with customer rage, the situation is more likely to escalate to damaging behaviours towards the organisation’s employees, property and the brand.

“Through Facebook, Twitter and other communications, people find out about how others are suffering, and come together,” Lisa Montgomery, chief executive of non-bank lender Resi Mortgage Corporation, says. “This self-organising brings people together to get some restitution for a service that has gone wrong. Vodafail is a great example.”

The website Vodafail – with twitter feed and Facebook page – was set up in 2010 by Adam Brimo, an unhappy Vodafone customer, and has attracted huge publicity. The site allows Vodafone customers and employees to share their experiences and frustrations with the telco provider, and the world, and continues to attract posts. “This type of social organising will happen more in the future,” Montgomery says. “As someone recently advised business: social media will be your sword or your shield.”

McColl-Kennedy suggests four strategies to help organisations avoid rage: take pre-emptive action; prevent customers from failing; recruit the right people for the front-line; and train employees to anticipate and cope with unhappy and angry customers.

“Often people who are good at customer service are promoted off the front-line” says McColl Kennedy, “so they are lost from the areas where they do the most good. More focus needs to be on training staff to deal with unhappy customers. The cost is minimal. The returns can be huge.”

St George Bank is one company that appears to be taking the right approach: they have long stated to employees that complaints are an opportunity to salvage a relationship. This culture has meant staff don’t take complaints personally and are uninhibited in reporting or dealing with them in a rational rather than emotive manner.

“While most organisations have complaint handling processes in place, there remain serious implementation issues at the customer-employee interface,” McColl-Kennedy says. “Firms need to be proactive. Never allow a customer to leave with their problem unresolved. Exiting, spreading the word or, worse still, taking revenge, even far into the future when the company has forgotten about it but the customer hasn’t.

The consequences are sure to be disastrous.”

Last updated:
25 February 2019