Contagious Dissatisfaction


contagious dissatisfaction
Most businesses wouldn’t question that it’s a good idea to resolve problems quickly to prevent erosion of their reputaton, but many don’t do a particularly good job of it. Even when it’s too late to fix the actual problem, an apology can mollify that customer and even result in reversal of the public criticism (see Apologies Really DO Work).

Martin Lindstrom, author of the best-selling Brandwashed, conducted a simple but telling experiment in a cooperative restaurant.

We set up a table in the middle of the restaurant, and four actors were hired to pretend to be friends sharing the conviviality of a meal. They all ordered the soup, since it was the only starter on the menu, thus allowing an element of control. After breaking some bread and taking his first mouthful, one of the actors called for the waiter and proceeded to deliver a three-minute rant about the scalding temperature of the soup. As the soup continued to be served to the other tables, the complaints began rolling in. By the end of the dinner, 26% of the guests had made similar complaints. Each bowl had come from the same pot, so either they had extremely sensitive tongues or they had all been influenced by the initial complaint. [Emphasis added. From TIME Ideas: Monkey See, Monkey Buy.]

The Nocebo Effect

This isn’t unlike what is shown by research on medication side effects. Subjects given placebo pills with no pharmacological effects will often report experiencing the stated side effects of the “drug.” If people are told they may experience nausea, some actually will.

The implication for brands and marketers is similar: if people have reason to expect problems with your product or service, perhaps due to the complaints of other customers in social media, they may experience or report those same problems – even when they don’t exist!

Fix. Apologize. Stop Contagion.

In Lindstrom’s experiment, more than one our of four diners complained about the temperature of the soup. This massive outbreak of dissatisfaction was triggered by the overheard complaint from just one diner at one table. The neuromarketing takeaway here is that to stop complaints and dissatisfaction from going viral, you need to get in front of problems quickly. Fix the problem. Apologize. Anything you can do to mute the complaining quickly will prevent contagious dissatisfaction from spreading.

Have YOU seen a dissatisfied customer infect others? Leave a comment and let the rest of us know about it!

  1. Margaret J. King says

    There is an important takeaway from the cultural / social side in this article: People’s perception is shaped by the perception of others, or humans take their cues as to what is real from each other. This is why the lead national election states are so important: they simply cue all other states by their position in the timeline. Fashion works in the same way: taste leaders can carry new styles simply by wearing them, no matter how strange they look on the rest of us. What separates trends from long-term patterns is how well short-time innovations work for the middle of the bell curve (67% of the population) over the long term.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I agree, Margaret. We are all slaves to our expectation, that’s why $50 wine tastes better than $5 wine, even when it’s the same cheap stuff! I’d like to think that if I were a diner in Lindstrom’s experiment, I’d taste the soup and think, “That’s odd, mine seems OK.” But a quarter of the diners were expecting too-hot soup and that’s what they got.


  2. Steve Fogg says

    I agree that dissatisfaction is contagious!

    On a larger scale though….

    I just blogged about Qantas and the way they grounded their whole fleet because of an industrial dispute and the damage it caused to their brand. I monitored the twitter frenzy via twitter sentiment (which was cool) and the overall negative sentiment was massive. People retweeted people’s witty smackdown’s of the company that spread through twitter. Kind of a similar thing but people seem to be a lot more open to critiquing a company online than in person, unless someone starts it off like in your example.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I do think company miscues that might have been minor issues in the past can get amplified by social media, Steve, and even go viral. Contagion at its worst!


  3. Dhaval Mehta says

    People will always be more tuned into something if someone they trust has shared a warning with them.

    In the case of social media, if one person’s experienced a genuine problem and another has as well, it just gives courage to the 2nd person, who may have otherwise been quiet to speak out.

    It does not necessarily mean that the product is NOT flawed. The product could very well be flawed and just that one person’s courage to speak out has now developed a strength amongst the masses. When you take a look at any revolution, this is the case. Whether it’s Occupy Wall Street or any other movement.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point, Dhaval. There are really two drivers here… One is that, as the experiment showed, perceptions can be altered by what others say. The other is that someone else complaining about a real problem will both draw your attention to the problem and feel emboldened to speak up yourself. Either way, it behooves marketers to act quickly when someone complains, both to correct any actual problems and also to mollify the complainer.


  4. Dhaval Mehta says

    Agree 100% but often marketers, or at least in many situations I’m personally involved in there is an issue of lack of customer care on the part of the corporate giant. They’re so used to not caring about customer opinions that they just let it go and end it with a “Oh, we’ll try to resolve that for you” and end it.

    It’s really unfortunate, but most major corporations in India, especially the likes of Vodafone and Airtel (two of the largest mobile service providers) fall under this “we’re too big to care”

  5. Shaun Daniel says

    I’m going to tread into some dangerous philosophical and political waters here and pose the question: How might this research relate to a cultural phenomenon like racism, or even sexism?

    I can see applications from a number of angles. First, there is the classic form of racism, where culturally-derived perceptions of one racial group by another (usually dominant) group provoke feelings of superiority and even antagonism. Second, given a history of dealing with racism (as we have in the United States), wouldn’t this research also indicate that the suggestion that a group might be racist would influence one’s experience in interacting with that group and might lead to claims of racist behavior where in fact there was none?

    Before anybody jumps on me, I’m certainly not arguing that racism and racist behavior doesn’t exist. It definitely does. And it’s a problem we need to address, surely. The same thing is true of sexism and many other -isms. I just wonder if we should be having a much more nuanced discussion about it and thus developing a more nuanced understanding of our experience of race (or sex) and how we interact and react to one another… If a cultural contagion can spread dissatisfaction, shouldn’t we be careful about being contagious as well as curbing its spread?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I think there’s little doubt our opinions are influenced by those around us, including those you mention, Shaun. Equally so, I’d think, would be our willingness to articulate those beliefs.


  6. Patrick Renvoise says

    Indeed there is a strong, easily measurable effect of the power of others opinion on our own behaviour. Although Lindstrom reports this effect, the credit should be given to Robert Cialdini who first reported this in the first version of his book The Psychology of Persuasion in 1984. Cialdini reports 6 laws of influence and he called the one in question the law of social reinforcement…. which indeed has many implications in brand or crisis management!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point, Patrick. Cialdini has been an enormous contributor to the field of persuasion.


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