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Complaining Customers & Calling Out Businesses Online (Survey Results)

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Calling Out Businesses Out Online

Call it the era of the empowered customer. On social media and review platforms, consumers can now strike back against unsatisfactory companies, voicing their displeasure as publicly as possible.

This "callout culture" is changing the way brands engage with their audiences. Companies are scrambling to resolve confrontations and avoid further embarrassment. For small businesses, online accusations can be even more devastating.

According to some experts, it can take dozens of glowing reviews to reverse the reputational impacts of a single scathing complaint. So we decided to explore customer callouts in great detail, investigating how and why they happen and what companies do to address them.

To study these issues, we surveyed over 1,000 individuals about their experiences voicing complaints via online platforms. Which offenses provoke such complaints, and do they actually force companies to act?

To understand the motives and outcomes of customer callouts, keep reading.

Confrontational Customers

Who's Complaining?

Across demographic groups, online complaints are now common practice: a majority (51%) of respondents said they had called out a company on social media before.

Who's More Likely to Complain?

While millennials were the most likely to issue callouts, older respondents were close behind. In fact, 44% of baby boomers had complained about companies via social media, a testament to this generation's growing presence on such platforms.

Interestingly, men were slightly more likely than women to call companies out, a finding that might reflect gender norms. Indeed, experts say that our culture often empowers men to express frustration, whereas women feel compelled to contain their anger.

Where Do People Complain?

Respondents were most likely to voice their complaints via Facebook, with 61% choosing to vent on that platform. The next most common platform was Twitter, which was used by less than half as many (30%).

Yet our findings indicate that Twitter callouts may be more effective: people who tweeted their displeasure were significantly more likely to receive a prompt response than those who used Facebook.

Companies may be especially sensitive to Twitter because of the platform's distinct potential to amplify complaints and unify disgruntled customers. Massive backlash campaigns such as #DeleteUber attest to the power of the retweet and hashtag to foment customer rebellion.

Accusations by Industry

Top Company Tpes Called Out Online

Certain companies seemed particularly likely to provoke customer callouts.

Most Called-Out Industries

Of the respondents who had called out a company, 30% said they had directed their complaints at a chain restaurant. Precedent suggests that such complaints (online or off) can be effective in altering food quality: Domino's Pizza revamped its ingredients in response to customer grievances.

Retail brands, the second-most popular target, have been called out for insensitive advertising, including content perceived by many to be racially offensive.

Some People Dislike Particular Industries

In many cases, callout frequency seemed to reflect widespread antipathy toward particular industries. Internet providers, for example, receive relatively low customer satisfaction ratings.

Similarly, car salespeople are widely mistrusted, perhaps explaining frequent callouts of companies in the auto industry.

Industries That Embrace Social Media Criticism

In other sectors, however, brands have embraced social media as a means to resolve customer complaints quickly.

According to one recent analysis, the average North American airline now responds to 92% of social media complaints in under an hour.

Callout Causes

Why People Call Out Companies

In calling out companies, respondents were the most likely to be prompted by personal frustrations rather than philosophical objections. The top cause of callouts was a bad experience with a product or service, while poor customer service was another leading reason.

Ideological issues, such as a company's political leanings, incited callouts far less often.

High-Minded Motives

Interestingly, however, 52% of people who called out companies claimed to do so to raise awareness of a particular concern. This statistic echoes recent research suggesting callouts are intended to raise awareness.

Another 50% said they hoped to help others avoid the same issue. These high-minded motives were much more common than transactional ones, such as the desire for a refund or discount.

Apologies and Changed Behavior

Fully 53% of respondents believed the brand would change its behavior in response to social media criticisms. In fact, many respondents said the companies they called out had taken concrete action to address their complaints.

Roughly a third said the brand had apologized or offered compensation publicly. An even greater percentage said they received the same offer in a private message. As these findings demonstrate, brands increasingly view social media as a key channel for customer service - how ever harsh the feedback may be.

Complaint Credibility

An Outsider's Perspective

Although somewhat different than social media callouts, online reviews can profoundly alter a business's image among potential customers.

To look at people's beliefs about these, we only surveyed those who had not posted a callout on social media.

Negative Reviews Are Powerful

While most respondents said they gave equal weight to negative and positive reviews, 23% said they found negative reviews more influential.

The impact of bad reviews is hardly lost on business owners: some have even sued reviewers for tarnishing their businesses.

Which Platforms Do People Trust?

Respondents found Yelp reviews to be the most credible overall, perhaps because the platform specializes in rating small businesses. Still, Yelp has come under fire in the past, with critics charging that they do too little to regulate unfair or inaccurate posts that could devastate an establishment.

Facebook and Reddit reviews were also regarded as relatively credible, whereas Glassdoor reviews were seen as the most suspect.

Personal Criticisms

While most respondents felt calling out a company was acceptable, they were much more hesitant about personal criticisms. Just 56% said it was acceptable to target a business owner or CEO, and only 35% approved of calling out an employee.

Perhaps people realize the gravity of such specific criticisms: In some instances, poor reviews can cause employees to get fired.

Advocacy vs Entitlement

Across demographic groups and platforms, users are embracing the power of the callout to address companies' perceived shortcomings. Yet, as our results suggest, their motives aren't typically vindictive.

Using Callouts Wisely

In voicing their complaints, many people seek to raise awareness of an issue, warn other potential customers, or influence a company's behavior for the better.

Additionally, while most respondents believed criticizing a company was appropriate, most also felt it was unacceptable to call out an individual employee.

In this sense, online complaints may promote better corporate stewardship while leaving aside petty grievances and personal attacks. Still, it is incumbent upon customers to use their newfound power wisely.

So before you express your anger on social media, pause to consider your intentions. Are you actually seeking a solution, or simply venting because you can?

Improving Customer Experience

By the same token, companies must seek to proactively improve all aspects of the customer experience.

One important aspect of that effort is enhancing the performance of your website: no one wants to wait for their pages to appear.

At WhoIsHostingThis.com, we can definitely help in that department. With our expert reviews and hosting guides, you'll have your site running better in no time.

Methodology and Limitations

To perform this study, we surveyed 1,009 people on Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform. Respondents needed to say they had an account on at least one social media network to qualify for our survey.

If respondents failed an attention-check question located roughly halfway through our survey, they were disqualified, and their results were excluded.

The generational breakdown of our respondents is as follows:

  • Baby boomers: 151
  • Generation X: 429
  • Millennials: 429

The gender breakdown of our respondents is as follows:

  • Men: 461
  • Women: 545
  • Other: 3

The source of the data in this study is dependent on self-reported data, which comes with several potential problems. These include but are not limited to selective memory, telescoping, and exaggeration.

Share Our Work

Want to discuss the power of customer callouts with friends and family? Feel free to strike up that conversation by sharing our project.

If you do choose to use our work on social media or your own website, we do have a simple request. Just link back to this page to attribute our team fairly.

Thanks in advance for your support and cooperation!

Frank Moraes

About Frank Moraes

Frank has worked in the tech industry since the early 1990s — as a writer, programmer, and manager. He’s an insatiable blogger and “Don Quixote” fanatic. In his spare time, Frank writes experimental plays — usually involving puppets like Grumpy Squirrel in his image.


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February 25, 2020

Insightful piece of research. It would be interesting to read about and further explore the generational breakdown of the complaints.

Some questions that could be interesting to explore are:

– Are “Boomers” more accepting of slips in customer service?
– Do “Boomers” have lower expectations when it comes to customer service?
– Are “Millenials” and “Gen-Zs” housing unreasonable expectations in comparison to where the service industry and its current ethos lays?
– Do “Millenials” and “Gen-Zs” have a keener eye for errors, are they more attuned to noticing fairness in value?

The rate of cultural change and development is definitely reflected across all industries, and considering that the leadership of the most prominent companies and service providers is always lagging a step behind the generation of consumers, it seems to me that the expectations/perspectives of the services offered are bound to cause some form of conflict.