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Car Trouble Inspires Academic Work

December 14, 2007

New insight in consumer marketing was inspired by the difficulties professor Dan Ariely had dealing with an automobile company after the transmission in his new car failed. “I was driving 70 miles per hour in heavy traffic, when my car suddenly shifted into neutral and began to slow down. I literally was almost run over, because I was surrounded by large trucks that wouldn’t let me pull over in order to get off the road.”

Ariely explains that the breakdown itself, while terrifying and annoying, would not necessarily have inspired his academic work. It was the poor treatment he received when he called for assistance that soured his view of the company which had manufactured his car. “They basically said, ‘I’m sorry for your inconvenience,’ even though I had just told them I was nearly killed because my car malfunctioned. It took more than a month for my car to be fixed, and they refused to reimburse me for accommodations I had to seek after I was stranded on the side of the road.”

This is why companies should consider in advance how they would respond to situations involving “customer revenge,” says Ariely in a fictional, but largely autobiographical, case in the December 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review. According to Ariely, customer revenge occurs when customers who feel they have been treated unjustly take extreme measures in order to bring harm to a firm. Many of these customers reach the point of revenge only after pursuing traditional customer service channels and coming away feeling even more dissatisfied because of the way they were treated by the very people tasked with ensuring customer satisfaction.

While some customers may be “professional complainers” who write or call businesses at every turn, others may have legitimate complaints and the means to air their grievances in very public forums. Executives facing disgruntled customers who threaten to go public with criticisms of their companies may feel like they are playing a game without knowing the rules. The stakes for executives deciding how to respond to such complaints are high, since failure to master the game quickly could have disastrous results for their companies.

Writing in Harvard Business Review , Ariely and expert respondents to his column explain that companies have a rich opportunity to use negative experiences to improve their relationships with key customers, instead of driving those customers away through scripted and uncompassionate customer service.  

“The Customers’ Revenge” is Harvard Business Review case R0712X, and is now available online .

Visit Fuqua's marketing area Web site to learn more about our research in this area.