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How to Manage Different Consumer Personalities

A neuroscience-based approach

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Matt Wujciak

Consumer Personality

With the rapidly evolving field of data science, we’ve been able to use technology trends like AI and predictive analytics to continuously build more definitive consumer profiles based on  measurable variables, like an individual’s purchasing frequency for a given product or brand, credit availability, geolocation, and household income. With the emerging study of neuroscience (and new technological innovations and research investments surrounding the field), we’re now also able to measure consumer thought patterns, like the time you hassled a 17-year-old pizza boy for a faulty order (even though everyone knows it’s not the pizza boy’s fault).

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Those kinds of emotional interactions between a consumer and brand are now not only extremely insightful in monitoring customer satisfaction profiles, but identifying and defining psychological consumer profiles as well. 

The Complaining Consumer

Neuroscientists, psychologists, and data engineers have found that consumer complaining is a habitual action because our thoughts and feelings trigger thousands of neurons, which then join in a larger network in the brain when we think about a given brand. Repetitive thinking causes us to activate the same set of neurons each time a memory or advertisement triggers cognitive processing of that brand, having a spiraling effect.

Throughout the past decade, a number of global business leaders, data experts, and psychologists have studied this topic, identifying numerous consumer personality profiles. Let’s focus on two types of consumer complainers that contrast each other drastically but can be managed easily if handled correctly.  

Chronic Complainers

According to one study, for every 25 dissatisfied customers, 1 will complain. Maybe that person had a bad day and rarely complains or maybe they complain every time their expectations aren’t exceeded. A Chronic Complainer (the type of customer who irrationally yells at a  17-year-old pizza boy) takes the most patience of any consumer. 

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According to University of Florida marketing professor and researcher Allen Wysocki, “[a] sympathetic ear, a sincere apology, and an honest effort to correct the situation are likely to be the most productive” when dealing with this type of complainer. It sounds simple, but active listening with an intent to find resolution is far more effective than insincere empathy. Despite their constant irrational complaining, they tend to be good customers and will happily tell others about your positive response to their complaints. 

Chronic Complainers are more likely to take their customer experiences (positive or negative) to direct email (still the most popular technology platform for complaints according to an NBC Qualtrics study). Psychology Today stated that Chronic Complainers “have a tendency to ruminate on problems and to focus on setbacks over progress. Some research suggests that making a habit of complaining can ‘re-wire’ the [neurological circuitry of the] brain so that those particular thinking orientations become ingrained. It is possible to re-wire this re-wiring to make it more positive.”

These complainers tend to be the most vocal directly to the brand, as their brain chemistry produces a spiraling effect on how they view the brand. In other words, they scientifically subconsciously convince themselves that their complaints are more and more valid over time, leaving them more likely to switch to a competitor brand. Chronic Complainers don’t know they’re Chronic Complainers because the altercation they had with a brand is worse in their head than in reality.  

It’s important to identify chronic complainers and actively listen to their complaints in order to instill clarity, find a proper accommodation or solution, and keep a quality brand reputation.  Remember, customer complaint management shouldn’t be standardized.

Complaint management should be evaluated and handled on a case-by-case basis depending upon the classification of the consumer and the significance of their complaint. Chronic complaints can be a painful liability for customer service teams and business owners or a life-time asset depending on how much strategic effort you are willing to give them. 

Passive Complainers

Unlike Chronic Complainers, Passive Complainers are introverts. And surprisingly, they’re far more dangerous because they believe taking their problem to the organization is not worth their time and would probably not fix their problem. Just because they’re passive does not mean they’re not active. In fact, Passive Complainers will voice their dissatisfied opinion of a brand or service to everyone except the business itself. 

According to a recent Forbes article, Brightpearl surveyed 4,000 consumers and 200 retailers in both the U.K. and the U.S., and the results were astonishing to say the least. Over a quarter of us will endure bad service without openly complaining, citing reasons such as "I don't want to cause a scene" and "I'm not good with confrontations."

While the shy Passive Complainers tend to avoid face-to-face confrontation or complaining directly to a business, 48% said they'd tell friends and family, whereas only 28% will complain to those responsible. Passive Complainers don’t believe the organization will solve their problem, but that doesn’t mean they do not feel as if they’ve been taken advantage of. They’re more likely to publicly voice their opinions via social media (not email, like Chronic Complainers). They just won’t @you. 

When it comes to Twitter, for example, (a popular consumer complaint platform, specifically for Passive Complainers), only 3% of brand mentions actually use the company’s Twitter handle. Instead, they usually use the company or product name as their method of public complaint. (i.e. “screw Wendy’s” vs “screw @Wendys”.

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And even if customers do attempt to tag your handle, they may spell it wrong. As a result, a lot of social media marketers and PR experts who only monitor their direct mentions may have a false impression of their brand’s reputation. Utilizing search features of your existing social media management software like Hootsuite, Oktopost, or Sprout Social to search for your business and product names (not just your handles and hashtags), as well as commonly misspelled versions of your handles and hashtags is a good way to monitor Passive Complainers. 

Once we understand who we’re targeting, then we can categorize and define consumer profiles beyond traditional customer behavior metrics or purchasing habits. In turn, businesses will know how to manage consumer personalities, meet consumer expectations, and rectify unexpected pain points.