How Men and Women Complain About Companies

Businesses know that bad experiences often translate into negative word of mouth, when customers share their misfortunes with other potential customers. But who talks? And whom do they talk to?
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"Gossip—At every Sip a Reputation Dies." (Boston Public Library/Flickr)

Say you ordered a steak medium-rare and got one well-done. Or you waited in line for forever for your car rental. What’s the first thing you do after you suffer this indignity? You tell someone.

Businesses know that bad experiences often translate into negative word of mouth, when customers share their misfortune with other potential customers. Negative word of mouth is known to deter potential purchases, particularly when the communication takes place between "strong ties”—i.e. close friends or family—who are more likely to take your complaints seriously and remember them.

For this reason, a lot of research has gone into figuring out what sorts of negative experiences can push people to talk about their dissatisfaction far and wide. Studies have found that negative is more likely if the product or service was expensive, of if people believe that the problem is inherent in the product—the fault of the firm's, not their own.

But less research has looked at which kinds of consumers talk, and whom they talk to. Since the transmission point of a "strong tie" seems to correlate with the effectiveness of the complaint, it makes sense to ask: Who is most likely to talk to strong ties?

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research teases out this question, and finds that, in general, men will talk to any ties—weak, strong, you name it—about a bad consumer experience. Women, on the other hand, tend to skip the strangers and gripe to their close friends and family. The authors theorize that this may be because women are more motivated to protect those they care most about from similar hassles, whereas men are just letting off steam. Additionally, for those considered with how they will be perceived when complaining—perhaps as less-than-savvy or just plain whiny—close ties may present safer, less judgmental outlets.

Whatever the reasons, the findings indicate that businesses would be wise to make sure their female customers don't leave unhappy.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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