The 9 Causes of Customer Dissatisfaction to Avoid

Your customers are wired to remember negative experiences. For every poor unresolved experience, it takes 12 positive ones to make up for it.

That's why chasing customer satisfaction is a never-ending race and why inversion is a powerful principle in customer service. Instead of trying to delight your customers , your energy is better spent on removing the main causes of their dissatisfaction.

Man muss immer umkehren.

Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi

Carl's quote translates to "You must always invert". Like pearls develop in oysters through irritation, there are priceless insights to be harvested in the causes of customer dissatisfaction.

Understanding customer dissatisfaction

Not all customer dissatisfaction is equal. Research suggests that heightened emotions such as regret, disappointment or anger are likely to lead to complaints more than unhappiness alone:

Model of connection between failed service encounters and customer emotions.

It’s understandable that emotions run deeper when poor customer service carries greater consequences. For example, if you have to wait too long in a supermarket queue, you may be annoyed or frustrated, but not necessarily angry.

However, if airline staff mishandle your luggage to the extent that a valuable item is broken, you might be angry and eager to retaliate . Take the famous case of a customer who posted a viral video about the airline’s failings after trying to seek compensation for his broken guitar.

This gives us a clear prioritization. Instead of spending huge amounts on "wowing" the customer, focus first on minimizing the types of customer dissatisfaction that lead to strong negative emotions.

Now let's look at the different causes of customer dissatisfaction:

Service-based dissatisfaction

As customers, we are twice as likely to share a negative service experience over a negative product experience. This is because we don’t seek out customer support, but rather it’s foisted upon us.

Atomic customer service.

While we choose to buy products, we only engage with customer support to complain about a product or service or ask about something that is unclear. If we have to endure long waiting times or repeated escalations to get our issue resolved, these only add salt to injury.

In a previous blog post, we outlined the core principles of customer service . Poor customer service can be defined as the breaking of these principles which have been summarized here:

1. Slowness. No one likes to be put on hold, especially for time-sensitive problems. Yet, according to research, the average customer can expect to spend 43 days of their life waiting on hold.

The agony is further prolonged when a customer is ping-ponged from one department to another with no agent taking ownership of the case, because of lack of knowledge or empowerment to make decisions.

2. Inaccuracy. It doesn’t matter how fast you answer phones or emails if you’re giving your customers incorrect information about your product or service.

As a minimum, customers expect the information provided to them to be accurate, useful and applicable.

3. Inaccessibility. Have you ever had a complaint but no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t find the company’s phone number or email on their website? Instead, you’re asked to fill in a contact form where more often than not, you don’t receive a response.

Offering limited contact options means more effort for the customer. When we have a problem, we usually want it resolved quickly rather than complete numerous actions to talk to a human.

4. Opacity. Transparency in a business context is the open sharing of information from a business to its customers. Who hasn’t waited anxiously in a queue, not knowing how long the wait will be or the reason for the wait?

A Harvard study shows that customers are less likely to be impatient if they can see progress, even if it is only the appearance of effort. For instance, package tracking reports calm us down because we can see where the package is moving, even if the package has only moved from one distribution centre to another. Not knowing where a package is (if the tracking number hasn’t been provided), puts us on edge and makes us wonder where the hell it is?!

5. Rigidity. The reason we hate mandatory two-year phone contracts is because we like flexibility. Being locked into a contract with penalties for opt-outs makes us feel out of control and resent the phone provider. Likewise, it's extremely frustrating to become caught up in the cogwheels of a bureaucratic service machine .

6. Unfriendliness. Most of us can recall leaving a shop or hanging up the phone because of unfriendly customer service. In a survey carried out by PWC, 60% of participants stated unfriendly customer service as a factor for poor customer experience.

Product-based dissatisfaction

Most purchasing decisions aren't entirely rational . You may think you’re buying a new iPhone because of its new camera and features, but subconsciously it’s largely about showing off your status to the world.

Purchases of everyday products are also subject to our emotions. We may like to think that we’re choosing a product based on price, but ultimately our decisions are made because the brand resonates with our real or desired identity.

If a product doesn’t perform as expected, e.g. iPhone’s degenerating battery, we not only question our decision-making methods and the brand we've chosen, but also our identity.

Loyal consumers of a brand may forgive a perceived defect here and there, but this depends on the type of defect. The Kano model assigns three types attributes to products and services:

Threshold attributes (basics). These are the baseline expectations that a product or service should fulfill, e.g. the phone has a battery which lasts a good few hours.

Performance attributes (satisfiers). These increase a customer’s enjoyment of the product, but are not absolutely necessary, e.g. you can take high-quality pictures with your phone.

Excitement attributes (delighters). These features are in no way necessary but delight the customer when they come across them, e.g. the phone can be submerged three feet in water for thirty minutes without lasting damage.

A product which fails to meet threshold expectations will cause even loyal customers to switch brands.

Communication-based dissatisfaction

In an attempt “to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”, Pepsi released a controversial ad which appeared to trivialize protests against police violence toward minorities. Due to worldwide outrage, the ad was pulled merely one day after its release.

Another example is when language or culture isn’t taken into account when releasing a product to global markets. American Motors made this mistake when naming one of its models, the Matador , which translates to “killer” in Spanish. Although the name intended to convey strength and power, it felt unsurprisingly aggressive and dangerous to Spanish speakers.

Communication failures happen when brands don’t think clearly about how a marketing message or product will come across to their customers, because they chase viral videos rather than focus on the target audience.

Ultimately, the meaning of a message lies with the receiver. If a brand’s messaging fails to address its customers’ needs, wants, beliefs and values, it doesn’t matter how many views the ad gets.

Values-based dissatisfaction

According to a survey by Sprout Social , most customers want brands to take a stand on social and ethical issues. Shared values create trust because we are drawn to people who are similar to ourselves.

In a world of choice, it’s not enough for brands to lead with features and benefits. They also need to communicate clear values.

What happens when a brand violates these values? When Nestlé aggressively marketed baby milk in under-developed countries which inadvertently led to the deaths of infants, it was the target of worldwide boycotts.

Whether customers stand for behaviour that goes against their ethics depends on what the brand stands for. Amazon, for instance, is notorious for treating employees badly. But this does not seem to be affecting customer loyalty all that much because the core of Amazon’s business isn’t built on social values. On the other hand, if the Body Shop would behave in a similar way, their customers would likely be less forgiving.

What’s more, honesty in a relationship increases trust. Dishonesty, on the other hand, leaves the other party wondering what else you’ve lied about.

In the digital age, consumers can look up product/service reviews and discover a company’s history. Yet, the Internet is awash with stories of companies who lied to their customers for personal gain.

Customer satisfaction is a moving target. What makes the customer happy today may not make them happy tomorrow. As discussed in the introduction, it doesn’t drive loyalty behaviour. But the causes of customer dissatisfaction are timeless. They're a much more solid foundation to build your customer interactions on.