Sep 07

[Things I'll Never Understand] People Who Complain About Bad Service, But Keep Coming Back For More

Photo Credit: MistoAcrillico (Flickr.com) Used under Creative Commons license.

Things I’ll Never Understand is a feature where I examine marketing problems from a slightly different point of view. Some of the stories look at unusual customer behavior, and others look at services or products that seem pretty ridiculous to the casual observer. But all of them have one thing in common — they don’t make any sense to me.

I’ve got a friend who has been having a nonstop battle with the local cable company over her cable internet service. What’s amazed me through the process is not how inept the cable company has been (having experienced their particular brand of service myself in the past), but how unwilling she’s been to cancel her service and find a service provider that won’t aggravate her so much. My friend will complain about this cable company to anyone who will listen, and yet refuses to take the advice of anyone who suggests a superior alternative.

Let me start by providing some background. Here in St. Louis, we’ve got one choice for bona fide cable service (Charter Communications), but we’ve got several options for high-speed internet and digital cable services. To be perfectly frank, none of the options are really that great – they all have their ups and downs, and none of them are particularly good at customer service. All of them cost roughly the same, though the prices vary depending upon speed, quality and service areas. But if you were to place the alternatives on a line that ranged from “unacceptable service” to “acceptable service,” many of the alternatives would be closer to the acceptable end of the spectrum than the cable company would be.

In terms of switching home internet providers, the actual switching costs are pretty low – the primary investment involved is in the time you have to be available for the new service to be set up. Of course, if your service is down with your cable provider, you’re likely to invest a lot of time waiting on service calls, as my friend has already. This friend is also convinced she’ll incur an early termination fee if she cancels her service (my suspicion is that she’s mistaken), but as I pointed out to her, if her service isn’t working reliably in the first place, she’s probably better off in the long run paying the EFT and trying to get a signing discount from her new service provider to offset the switch.

And that’s where things just start to get maddening. My friend refuses to switch. She hates the cable company, says that they’ve wasted hours of her time, and complains that their service technicians are idiots. This is a classic situation where a disgruntled customer should move on. And yet my friend insists that she stay with this service provider, and even plans to try to haggle out a discount for continued service.

In the frustration of realizing that my friend wants to complain loudly, but refuses to accept the advice of anyone else, I’ve been thinking about other situations where customers tend to complain about lousy service, but keep coming back. Here are some others I’ve recognized:

Walmart. I don’t shop at Walmart, and it’s not for¬†idealogical¬†reasons; it’s because Walmart provides lousy service and is not a very nice place to go shopping. I’ve also found, by shopping around, that Walmart tends not to have the lowest prices on most items, and that it often has items that are of a lower quality simply because they’re specially made for Walmart. I’m not alone in thinking this; many people I know constantly complain about all of these aspects of shopping at Walmart. And yet they keep going back, primarily because they appreciate the convenience of the place, even if shopping there can be decidedly inconvenient when you need help, can’t find what you’re looking for, or are waiting to be checked out by one of the three checkers actually working the 30 lanes they’ve got available. (The convenience of inconvenience will be a theme… keep it in mind.)

McDonald’s: Once again, I really have nothing against McDonald’s; I worked for one in high school, and managed one in college. But I’d say that their food is fairly inferior to what you can find at some of their competitors, and while their prices are fairly low for many items, the value is not especially high when you compare similar items available at other fast food chains. (For example, around here, Denny’s has all-you-can-eat pancakes for $4; that’s much better than the $2.50 you pay for three McDonald’s hotcakes.) McDonald’s is great at serving food quickly when their processes are in place, but when an order gets messed up, it’s a real hassle to sit and wait for things to get corrected. I’ve been on both sides of the counter, and believe me — the system is most efficient when orders are simple and small.

So, why do people keep going back? Again, it’s an issue of convenience. McDonald’s is almost everywhere, has virtually the same menu wherever you go, and is associated with fast, cheap food. Even if it winds up being inconvenient (and almost everyone I know has a McDonald’s story that makes me shake my head in disgust), McDonald’s seems like the convenient choice.

Shopping Malls. Here in St. Louis, we’re starting to have a real mall crisis — most of our malls are losing stores due to complex corporate lease agreements and downturns in business, and there’s rarely one mall that has everything a person can want. Honestly, I feel like going to the mall is less about actually shopping and more about finding something to do when the weather’s not nice. Even then, it can be pretty dull; my local mall is almost exclusively clothing stores and food vendors now, with only a handful of stores that have anything different to offer.

So, why do people go to malls, despite knowing that they’re going to pay full price for most items and have trouble finding what they’re actually looking for? In this day and age, it’s very easy to shop online, and if you have a good understanding of your size and how things look on you, it’s not difficult to order clothes. The only time my wife really needs to go to the mall is when she requires something a little more formal that requires fitting, like a dress or a suit. And, to be honest, we don’t even need to go to the mall for that; just a clothing retailer that carries the sorts of things she likes to wear.

Malls are, once again, about the convenience of inconvenience. They’re inefficient, they’re overpriced, and they’re often an ordeal to endure. And yet, people keep going back.

So, what’s going on here?

Based on these examples, and my friend’s cable company situation, I’m starting to wonder if there’s an aspect of consumer behavior where we are willing to put up with some amount of negative experience because we are convinced that convenience is our primary objective. This is a little different from the “Zone of Tolerance” concept, which regards the amount of tolerance we’re willing to show to a service provider before we switch. This is actually an effect where we can hate the choice we’ve made, complain about it, be visibly on edge when we’re dealing with service that’s below our expectations… and yet still return for more punishment down the road.

Unfortunately, this is not the sort of behavior I tend to engage in, so it’s going to have to be filed away as something I’ll never understand. But it is interesting, and it seems, by my thinking, to have some relation to the popular choice. (I don’t hear too many people suffering through continued bad experiences with, say, Burger King or Kmart. They just stop going there.)

What are your thoughts? Share them below!