New Study Reveals White Lies about Customer Dissatisfactions Cost Us Money

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The squeaky wheel may get the grease but most of us make informed decisions about when to complain about minor customer service infractions and when to muffle our squeaks. A new study now indicates that when consumers tell white lies about customer service dissatisfactions, it often ends up costing them money.

Researches Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv wanted to examine what happens when we tell white lies to gloss over the minor dissatisfactions we encounter as consumers. Although it might seem as though no harm could come from telling a waiter our meal is fine when we don’t love it, or telling a hairdresser we like our new do when in fact we’re not thrilled with it, Argo and Shiv discovered that such is not the case.

One of the places they conducted their research was in restaurants where they surveyed both diners and servers. They found that 85% of diners admitted to telling white lies when their dining experiences were unsatisfactory (i.e., claiming all was well when it wasn’t). However the real interesting finding was that diners who told white lies to cover up their dissatisfactions were then likely to leave bigger tips than those who did not.

Why would diners who were less satisfied with their meals and who lied to their server about it leave an even bigger tip as a result? The researchers propose that cognitive dissonance was at play. Cognitive dissonance refers to situations in which our actions do not match our beliefs, creating a state of psychological and emotional discomfort. We tend to resolve cognitive dissonance by making efforts to align our actions with our beliefs by tinkering with one of them (either the action or the belief). Cognitive dissonance tends to operate unconsciously and not in a premeditated manner.

As to the current study, we all have an acceptable range of dishonesty. When our white lies fall outside that range it can trigger cognitive dissonance as we feel uncomfortable about our dishonesty. We might then try to reduce our cognitive dissonance by engaging in behaviors that actually favor the wrongdoer (as by doing so we ‘make up’ for our dishonesty). As a result, we not only tell the waiter our steak is delicious and then spit it out into our napkin as soon as their back is turned, we then tip them even more for our regurgitation.

Interestingly, 95% of the servers in the study indicated they knew when customers were lying about such things (i.e., saying the food was satisfactory when it wasn’t) and 100% of the servers (none of whom were trained psychologists) believed such lies translated into bigger tips.

In my book The Squeaky Wheel I discuss many instances and give numerous examples of the negative psychological, relationship and financial consequences we encounter by being ineffective complainers. Here is one more to add to that list—we pay more in tips when we fail to speak up about an unsatisfactory dining experience.

As readers of The Squeaky Wheel can attest, learning effective complaining skills benefits us as consumers (financially), benefits us psychologically and emotionally, and benefits our personal and workplace relationships. It also helps reduce our cognitive dissonance in situations of consumer dissatisfaction.

Of course, we could just keep spitting out our steaks into our napkins…

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Reference: Argo, J. & Shiv, B. Are White Lies as Innocuous as We Think? Journal of Consumer Research. April 2012 Vol. 38



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Comment for New Study Reveals White Lies about Customer Dissatisfactions Cost Us Money

Jeff Toister

Very interesting research and insights. I wonder if you have seen any research on the other white lies customers tell? Many customers, when they do decide to complain, exagerrate the problems they have encountered.