Do you know who i am?

Your cultural background may determine how you react to bad customer service, suggests a study led by UQ Business School and conducted across the US, Australia, Thailand and China. Companies seeking to expand internationally, beware, one culture's polite complaint can be another culture's outraged outburst.

International Consumer Rights Day back in 2011 was a big day for one disgruntled Chinese Lamborghini customer. So appalled was he by the poor service he had received since buying the million-dollar car, he chose to take it back that day. But simply returning the car to the dealership wasn’t enough. He hired a team of nine sledgehammer-wielding men to destroy it on the steps of the dealership and posted the evidence on YouTube.

Smashing a car worth close to a million dollars is an extreme example, but customers from Eastern and Western cultures are increasingly expressing their rage. And thanks to YouTube, it’s a phenomenon that is getting plenty of attention.

When a McDonald’s outlet in Ohio ran out of McNuggets, one drive-thru customer smashed a window and hit two employees. A T-3 mobile phone store in Manchester, UK, was wrecked by a customer arguing over a refund, and in February this year, Chinese official, Yan Linkun’s rage was caught on CCTV at Changshui Airport when he missed a flight. In a role reversal, in early 2013, a Sydney chef was arrested after stabbing a customer through the hand with a metal skewer. The customer had complained that the service was slow.

Angry customers are bad for business, as are angry owners. Recognising early signs of rage is essential if organisations want to fix the problem before losing the customer and negatively impacting their brand. And when companies expand internationally they may learn that one culture’s polite complaint can be another culture’s outraged outburst.

A study led by UQ Business School and conducted across the US, Australia, Thailand and China highlights the factors behind rage episodes, specifically the customer’s cognitive appraisal processes that trigger them.

“Rage is occurring across the globe in stores, online and over the phone with potentially serious consequences not only for front-line employee but also for brands,” says Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy. “We have evidence of rage happening everywhere – in both Eastern and Western cultures,” she says.

Rage incidents, wherever they occur, stem from customers feeling that their human needs are being threatened, such as their sense of justice and self-esteem.

“Managing customer rage is about training,” McColl-Kennedy says. “Inexperience is often the problem. But there are lots firms can do, not least recognising that their front line staff are the eyes or the ears of the organisation.”

McColl-Kennedy says the threat people feel when their complaint isn’t dealt with satisfactorily applies across cultures. But how they show displeasure may differ. Organisations considering setting up a business in a different country are well served if they understand the cultural nuances of their new market.

In collectivist societies such as Thailand or China customers express dissatisfaction differently to those from more individualist societies like the US and Australia, according to the UQ Business School study.

Different cultures start with diverse views on what good customer service means. To Japanese consumers, for example, the Western “friendly” style of a front-line employee who greets and chats casually might be considered disrespectful.
Eastern cultures are more likely to adopt avoidance behaviours, says McColl-Kennedy; they resist change, are less risk taking, feel threatened by ambiguous situations, and are concerned about “saving face”, including others’ “face”.

In Asian cultures interpersonal relations are paramount. Satisfaction comes from the respect of a person’s “in-group”. In Western societies materialism and threats to a person’s resources may dominate. This does not mean Asian customers are less likely to complain – as the Lamborghini owner shows – they just do it differently.


Bill Rooney, founder of 6one5 Retail Consulting Group, was involved in training 5,000 retail staff at Changi Airport in Singapore over two years. With close to 40 million transit visitors connecting between over 200 destinations annually, Changi Airport is a cultural and retail melting pot.

Rooney says few Asian companies train their staff to deal with customer complaints. “Many have inflexible return policies, which can make customers outraged,” he says.
“We took six months to train a company out of the attitude that they were always right and the customer was wrong.”

Rooney found at Changi that Singaporeans tend to show less emotion and are fact driven. He implemented a program called Let’s Smile for all 5,000 staff. It was so successful that it fed into customs and police behaviour.

“We had some early problems getting staff to see that smiling is important – one of the comments we heard was that Chinese don’t smile,” he says. “When I pointed out Hong Kong Airport was No. 1 in customer service and all staff there smile, that helped convince them.”

“To get the best out of staff, recruit the right people with the right attitude; train them effectively, and have managers coach them regularly.”

Victor Janolino is a marketing practitioner who has run sales and marketing teams for multinational organisations across Asia. He says Asian societies are generally polite and tolerant, to save face as well as to give other people face.

“Asians tend to overlook shortcomings and try to make the best of the situation,” he says. “For example, Indonesians might refrain from showing anger, since anger is considered a weakness, while Filipinos are forgiving of transgressions.”

Janolino says this high level of tolerance may manifest itself in low customer complaint incidences relative to sales volume.

“Customers do not call in to lodge complaints directly with the organisation,” he says. “If the situation becomes worse – particularly if the product has competing brands or substitutes – the customer just moves on to the competitor.”

The risk is that companies can be lulled into a sense of complacency, believing customers are happy even when they are not, and their sales figures slip. In Janolino’s experience, marketing departments must analyse sales reports to a micro-market level and carry out regular field visits with the sales team to conduct in-depth customer interviews, to make up for the lack of complaints that come to the company spontaneously.

“This ensures that the product or service, as well as the after-sales services, remain aligned with customer expectations of quality (product and service performance) and timeliness,” he says.

McColl-Kennedy says there are often physical signs front-line staff can be alert to when an unhappy customer becomes angry:
a change in the tone of voice, or a reddening in the neck, for example.

She believes training is the answer. Role-plays, especially with customer responses from a variety of cultural backgrounds, can be helpful. Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are important steps to follow.

The customer must feel heard. “If they feel ignored, they believe their needs are not being recognised. Invite input into the solution. Explain what you will do to rectify the situation, and take the first opportunity to fix it. Don’t pass it off as unimportant. You may not get a second opportunity,” says McColl-Kennedy.

“At least when customers show early signs of rage you know a problem exists. A customer who walks away muttering about how they are never coming back loses you business and teaches you nothing. In this sense, some rage is good for business.”


Online forums where consumers can let off steam and have their complaints heard are springing up all over the internet.

The complaint line
An online gateway for Australian consumers that maps out the complaints process and how to escalate unresolved issues.

Australia’s longest running online consumer community. Notgoodenough came online in 2002 and now reports over 60,000 members.

Australian Government consumer complaints advice

F.U. Tube
A video complaints line hosted by ABC television’s The Checkout.

Last updated:
27 February 2019