Complainer Emptor! When Does Online Rage Become Unfair?


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“Give enough people a computer and a mouse,” Walter Mossberg said, “and you’re bound to get garbage online.”

That was 15 years ago, when Mossberg was the principal technology writer for The Wall Street Journal, and before social media became a powerful cudgel for verbal assault. Today, people also hurl anger and its byproducts into cyberspace, including complaint, criticism, fulmination, accusations, false statements, diatribe, harangues, and revenge. Bad Customer Experience (CX) fuels much of the vitriol. And for good reason: “The percentage of complainants who felt they got NOTHING as a result of complaining [through company-provided channels such toll-free call centers] increased from 47% in 2011 to 56% in 2013, according to the 2013 Customer Rage Survey.

Social platforms offer the perfect medium for exasperated consumers to get things off their chest. Click to complain! In fact, “posting information on the web about customer problems has almost doubled since 2011.” – a key finding from the Rage Survey. Companies collect the output, a digital slop of anguished storytelling and opinion, and place it in sterile repositories for data scientists to mull over. Marketers just call it negative sentiment, which sounds kinder than “I hate Internet Explorer.”

“Unfortunately, with all of that complaining, the implications of customer complaint behavior for organizations have been examined far less often. Yet, how an organization responds to a complaint can have a major impact on its customer’s post-complaint consumer behavior, from re-purchase intentions to likelihood to engage in word-of-mouth activities, and it may even affect the valance of the word-of-mouth message,” says Moshe Davidow, a professor at the University of Haifa, and a prominent researcher in corporate complaint resolution.

In 2013, nearly $76 billion of consumer revenue was at risk as a result of problems with products and services, according to the Customer Rage Survey. That’s the same amount as the 2015 worldwide revenue forecast for all tablet computers, the third largest consumer electronics category, behind TV’s and PC’s. “Companies are losing most of this revenue given the high levels of dissatisfaction with corporate complaint handling practices. Even though companies have substantially increased their spending on handling customer complaints, complainant satisfaction in 2013 is still no higher than in the 1970’s.”

When customers air this dirty laundry in public, revenue risks escalate. “Most research supports the idea that complainers on social media will complain to the company first, and only if they don’t get a proper response do they go on social media. In other words, if you want to minimize the damage of a social media complaint, it starts with handling the complaint internally, and then it won’t get to social media,” Davidow wrote me in an email.

Complainer emptor. Companies have responded with an effective antidote: sue the complainer. “In 2012, a Washington DC-based contractor sued a Fairfax [Virginia] woman for $750,000 over her one-star takedown of his work on her home. And the Virginia Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether Yelp will be required to turn over the names of anonymous users who disparaged Alexandria’s Hadeed Carpet Cleaners,” The Washington Post reported in March, 2015. In April, the court returned its verdict: Yelp is not legally obligated to share the identities of anonymous online reviewers.

In another case, a Yelp reviewer, Jennifer Ujimori, might have to pay $65,000 for her comment, “In a nutshell, the services delivered were not as advertised and the owner refused a refund.” The owner Ujimori referred to, Colleen Dermott of Dog Tranquility, based in Burke, Virginia, disagreed. She sued Ujimori, claiming that her statements posted on Yelp were inaccurate and caused Dog Tranquility to lose sales.

The case balances two rights: freedom of speech versus freedom from defamation. “People should be free to express their feelings about their service providers. Companies using the legal system to silence their critics has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights,” Ujimori said. Dermott countered that the contract Ujimori signed had a no-refund clause, and that she offered a credit for future services, and other accommodations, but Ujimori rejected all of them. “[The negative review] had a significant impact in that I’m a small-business owner,” Dermott said. “I have to rely on these review sites as a major source of advertising.” The wife of a soldier, Dermott is raising two children, and trains dogs for assisting veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Whose right is right? The court will decide.

“Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open content platforms on the internet . . . The foundations of the Internet were laid on free expression, but the founders just did not understand how effective their creation would be for the coordination and amplification of harassing behavior,” Ellen Pao, former Interim Chief Executive of Reddit, wrote in a July 17 editorial, The Ugly Side of the Internet. The recipient of withering online abuse, Pao spoke from experience.

“It’s got no signs or dividing lines and very few rules to guide.” When songwriter Robert Hunter wrote New Speedway Boogie in the ’60’s, his lyrics were prescient about social media etiquette. Consider this vignette from The Ethicist in The New York Times:

“My wife and I recently stayed at a very good hotel in South Beach, Miami. We were generally happy there until our third day, when our room was broken into and we were burglarized. Luckily, our out-of-pocket losses were only $100 or so. The hotel moved us to another room but seemed to show little concern beyond that. In the end, I made a huge stink and they refunded us one-half of our stay. I made no promise to not mention this in the online reviews of the property. My wife wants us to post online reviews about the burglary and the hotel’s response. I think it’s unethical to do this after they more than made good on our misfortune. Who is right?”

Good question. In response, legal scholar Kenji Yoshino wrote, “The thing that tips me in favor of writing is the responsibility to third parties. Is it unethical to withhold this information from other people who might want to stay at this hotel if the hotel is going to take a lackadaisical attitude toward burglaries? That would make me lean toward saying that it would be ethical to write the review. I’m just not sure that I’m willing to say that it would be unethical not to write the review.”

That’s a circuitous way to say, “I’m ambivalent.”

If you want clearer guidance, go with what author Amy Bloom wrote: “I don’t think that everybody in the world who stays at a hotel has an ethical obligation to write a review about everything that happens there. I couldn’t stand to receive all that information.”

Do public customer complaints asphyxiate revenue? Yes, if you own Dog Tranquility. No, if you’re United Airlines. The granddaddy of negative online rants, United breaks guitars – which had 17 million views on YouTube – produced nary a revenue hiccup. As of December, 2014, United flew 27.2 million revenue passenger kilometers, second only to American on the list of global air carriers. The transgression didn’t malign United as an enemy of the arts, and it didn’t thwart the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from retaining United as its official airline. “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on,” Robert Frost said. If he were alive today, he would fly United, too.

“Did you see the video that surfaced [in 2011] of a delivery person throwing a computer monitor box over a customer’s fence? Augie Ray asked in a blog, How Powerful is Social Media Sentiment Really? “Which delivery service was it, and did you purposely stop using them after seeing the clip? Answers: FedEx and no.”

Even though consumer outrage can be ephemeral, vendors are plenty jittery. And increasingly litigious. Complaining through social media has spawned a new legal beast, called a non-disparagement clause. The Union Street Guest House in New York used this one, which Colin Shaw wrote about on CustomerThink in August, 2014:

If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review.

Imagine your Aunt Diane, who you never wanted to invite to your daughter’s wedding, writing in a Yelp review, “The meal was fine, but the wine did not live up to the sommelier’s recommendation.” She just cost you an additional $500.

A less-wordy example mentioned in another article has even broader reach:

Any disputes between the parties remain confidential. Customers shall not make or encourage others to make any public statement that is intended to, or reasonably could be foreseen to, embarrass or criticize the company or its employees, without obtaining prior written approval from the company.

These contractual restrictions, often embedded into lengthy customer contracts, have provoked legislators. The Consumer Review Freedom Act, introduced in September, 2014, aims “to make it illegal for businesses to penalize customers who write negative reviews on Yelp or other online review sites. The bill was motivated by several examples of companies attempting to dissuade people from writing honest reviews by slipping non-disparagement clauses in their consumer contracts,” according to the website of Eric Swalwell (D-CA), one of the co-authors of the legislation.

Last year, California became the first state to approve a law that protects online reviews. “No consumer should ever face penalties for voicing their opinions on the services or products they have purchased, and California law is now clear that no company has the ability to silence consumers,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman John Perez (D – Los Angeles), said.

Healthy economies depend on informed consumers, who, in turn, depend on free speech. Non-disparagement clauses protect businesses, but they throttle conversation. While getting government off our backs makes popular rhetoric, these bills are vital for ensuring that prospects and customers have balanced information. After all, corporate communications – even from the world’s most ethical companies – are, at best, distortions. “Frankly, I think there’s a special place in hell for someone who markets a product and says it will cure Alzheimer’s,” Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said. Stifling conversations about customer experiences makes everyone gullible to marketing hype.

But what protections should business owners have? Reviews foster transparency, but they spread plenty of misinformation, too. How fair is it for a customer to post an online complaint when she is misinformed or won’t accept amends, as the owner of Dog Tranquility contends? The financial harm to a company can be considerable. And the risk that a company could be driven out of business through a sustained campaign of misleading negative reviews is not theoretical. “People that want to distress other people can now do it in the comfort of their own home,” said Michelle Drouin, an Indiana University psychology professor who studies technology. “It has less repercussions than harassment offline, and the Internet allows for this emotional distance between the harasser and the victim . . . the anonymity and connectivity of the Internet have created a ‘sadist’s playground.'”

The best advice: De-escalate grumbling – before it turns into public rage. “It would be a lot cheaper in the long run, just to make sure the customer is happy, I mean isn’t that what it is all about?” Davidow wrote in his email. “No hassles, no runarounds. Just a whole lot of happy customers spreading positive word of mouth.”

Leaving only lawyers to complain.


  1. As damaging as complaints, and complaining behavior (and, yes, complaints may sometimes venture into defamation), can be to an enterprise, most companies still focus only on the negatives that are actually surfaced. Whether B2B or B2C, these represent a fairly small minority of the customer complaints and problems that actually exist. Organizations must recognize that, often, the better complaint defense is a good offense:

  2. Michael – thanks for your comment. I agree that only a miniscule proportion of customer observations are articulated to a company or its personnel. Maybe an apt term is ‘pre-complaints.’ “. . . You know, I really think I’d like this product/service/meal better if . . .”

    Anecdotally, I have observed that many people who converse with customers (the annoying industry term is ‘customer-facing personnel’) perceive they have no power to change anything, or to improve a customer experience. “I’ll take your concerns to management,” they often say to me. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    And I’ve worked with many organizations that deliberately embed massive structural impediments in between listening to what customers say and operations. Ostensibly, it’s in the name of delivering uniformity. “We just can’t have every employee calling audibles for our established processes.” I don’t understand why companies prefer that to what they’re trading off – hearing what customers really want, or expect.

  3. Employees feel that they have no power to “change anything” because the complaints and reviews are too often viewed by employees and companies as “one of”, i.e. anecdotal, etc. They fail to understand that complaints of the few could be the top of a proverbial iceberg. The result is a failure to establish a practice of mining these complaints for opportunities to improve their customers experience.

  4. Gregory: thanks for your comment. Even though GM blew off the initial consumer complaints about the Cobalt, the ignition switch problems were already known in their engineering department. Analysis of the case from the US Government investigation revealed that the company was poorly coordinated, and didn’t match the acknowledged engineering concerns with the complaints that began trickling in from customers. Complicating these issues were channel impediments. Many of the complaints were hitting the dealer network, but were being dismissed as ‘user error’ and never passed to the manufacturer. Had GM’s management not been so insulated, they could have detected patterns even earlier than they did.

    The same trap occurs with many other companies, albeit not as lethal.

  5. Andrew

    It occurs to me that stating that the dog trainer, is “The wife of a soldier, Dermott is raising two children, and trains dogs for assisting veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)” is not a pertinent fact in your argument. Why raise it?

    Graham Hill

  6. Graham: thanks for your question. I gave this much thought when I wrote this article, and, like you, I had dissonance about the relevance. I drafted the article without that information. I drafted it with. In the end, I decided to include this anecdote. What influenced my choice was to create a deeper, more nuanced picture of the situation. Many times, when I read such peripheral information in other articles, I simply discard it, believing that it doesn’t mean squat about the case – right is right, and wrong is wrong, and I don’t need added detail. Other times, these points provide me with more texture about the story, and while they might not change my opinions, I come away with more insight, perspective, and empathy than I otherwise would have had.

  7. Hi Andrew

    For companies operating a multi-sided market platform such as EBay or Uber, reviews of vendors by customers and vice versa is part and parcel of operating the platform. It provides both vendors and customers with valuable information when deciding whether to transact or not.

    For companies operating in single-sided markets such as most businesses today, reviews of the company by customers on 3rd-party sites provides customers with valuable information about the company’s behaviour, particularly once they have your money and you want redress because of a faulty product. Should companies post reviews of their customers? I believe not. Firstly, because it tells other customers that they have had problems with other customers. Secondly because it shows that they couldn’t resolve the complaints privately. And finally, because it shows that they are vindictive.

    Customers carry most of the trump cards. They are free to walk away from a company without explanation for any reason. And they are free to tell as many people about it as they want. It should be self-evident that any company suing another customer for making a negative comment about it should be avoided by other customers like the plague. Who wants to be a customer of a vindictive, self-oriented, unresponsive company.

    Graham Hill

  8. Graham: I agree that companies should not post public reviews of their customers as a matter of course – a position that I did not advocate in this article, but a topic that was discussed in another one by Adrian Swinscoe (Should You Fire, Rate, or Educate Your Customers), in which I posted a comment.

    In any case, I believe that companies should never make casual decisions to sue customers, and a company should never threaten customers with fines or legal action to preempt candid, honest opinion about a product or service. Even in cases where a vendor succeeds in winning a verdict against a wrongful reviewer, there are no true winners.

    Still, just because a company decides to prosecute a case against a reviewer doesn’t make them vindictive, self-oriented, or unresponsive. It doesn’t turn me off as a customer. But an ongoing pattern of litigation does.

    As some cases demonstrate, vendors have legal rights, and in certain instances, they’d be idiotic not to consider options for enforcing them.

  9. Hi Andrew

    Whilst I agree with you in principle, I do not agree with you in practice.

    If a customer of a customer engages in an active campaign of wrongful misinformation against a company and cannot be persuaded by the company to stop then it would have a strong moral case to take the customer to court to force them to ‘cease and desist’. Damages should be rewarded on the basis of a reasonable assumption of lost business. (Let’s ignore the ridiculous tort law system in the US for the sake of this discussion). This is a clear case of wrong doing by the customer.

    However, if a customer simply posts a negative review on a review site without engaging in a campaign of misinformation the company is clearly morally wrong to take the customer to court to force them to remove the review. In this case the company is using the law as a bludgeon to stifle disagreement. And it is ludicrous to claim damages as the result of a single customer review, even if the review is independently picked up my media channels as a result of the legal action.

    Are you honestly suggesting that this is the way forward for companies who receive a negative review? That they should simply hire a lawyer and seek to stifle dissent and then claim spurious damages? That lawmakers have scrambled to introduce laws to prevent exactly these kinds of legal excesses suggest that they also do not see this as the way forward either.

    Markets only flourish in an environment of openness, transparency and honesty. The moment a company decides to retreat behind an impenetrable veil of legal action to stifle those same things is the moment that markets start to wither and die. Be careful what you wish for; you might get it!

    Graham Hill

  10. Graham: You may be misunderstanding what I’m saying, or I’m not expressing it clearly. This is what I wrote: “Healthy economies depend on informed consumers, who, in turn, depend on free speech. Non-disparagement clauses protect businesses, but they throttle conversation. While getting government off our backs makes popular rhetoric, these bills are vital for ensuring that prospects and customers have balanced information.”

    No, I’m not suggesting legal action as a ‘way forward’ for vendors. I’m acknowledging that it’s as a choice to be considered under certain circumstances. And I have already said that companies should not use the threat of legal action to stifle dissent (“a company should never threaten customers with fines or legal action to preempt candid, honest opinion about a product or service.”)


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