The true test of any relationship is not during the good times, but during the bad. Nowhere is this more true than in the relationship between a customer and a company.
Research from the University of Toronto underlines the importance of a strong brand and good relationship with each customer when it comes to them having a gripe against your company.
They found that people form connections with brands in much the same way as they do with other people. How the customer rates your brand depends heavily on how the brand adheres (or breaks) the implicit relationship agreement they have with it.
In particular however the researchers wanted to test how the brand relationship influenced behaviour when consumers had to make a complaint. They found that the outcome was heavily dependent upon the type of relationship the customer had with the brand. For instance if the relationship was an exchange relationship, ie purely a financial one, or a communal one, ie one that's based more on trust and partnership.
So, the researchers set-up a number of unfair situations whereby the customer didn't get what they paid for and was not compensated for this mistake by the brand (something most of us can relate to I'm sure). When the customer then complained to the brand, they were treated with respect and dignity (ie fairly). Interestingly though, their feelings after that attempt to smooth the situation differed depending on whether they had an economic or communal relationship. Indeed any benefits from trying to smooth things over only occured if the relationship was communal. If it was purely financial then the brand may as well have not bothered.
The researchers suggest this is because in a communal relationship the mere attempt to make the situation better was compensation enough. In a financial one though, the customer wants cold, hard cash, and if they don't get it, they're not happy bunnies.
This pattern doesn't occur all the time however. A second study revealed a reversal of this pattern, ie one where respectful treatment meant more to those in a purely financial relationship than in a communal one.
This occured when the brand had delivered on their promise. In such instances the financially motivated folks had already got what they wanted out of the relationship, so any extra love was above and beyond what they expected, so they ended up feeling more warmly towards the brand. For those in communal relationships however, they always expect warmth from their dealings with the brand so it's no big deal for them.
“In a nutshell, the type of relationship that consumers form with a brand influences what aspect of fairness they attend to and that in turn effects how they assess the brand when facing either fair or unfair outcomes,” explains the research team.
These findings are significant to businesses that are managing issues of perceived unfairness.
“Adverse outcomes happen sometimes. People are treated badly or a product fails,” they continue. “Marketers must understand the type of relationship that they have with the consumer so they can figure out how to make good that unfair outcome.”
So you need to figure out what kind of relationship you have with your customers before working out how to respond to a particular situation.