Complaining: The great equalizer


After experiencing unsavory restaurant service or being ignored by a service employee, the question remains whether filing an official complaint is worth the time and effort.

People from a wide variety of backgrounds are likely to complain, according to a new report on the nature of consumer complaints co-authored by Marquette associate professors Dennis Garrett and Peter Toumanoff.

“Are Consumers Disadvantaged or Vulnerable? An Examination of Consumer Complaints to the Better Business Bureau” looked at about 24,000 complaints during a 13-year period for evidence of a common denominator in a complainer’s behavior and character, according to the report.

“Disadvantaged consumers had traditionally been defined as being older, less educated, lower incomes and minority consumers,” said Garrett, an associate professor of marketing. “However, our study showed that a consumer’s age, educational level and minority status were not related to their likelihood to complain.”

One link the report did find was that lower-income consumers were least likely to complain directly or use a third-party service, such as the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau, to form their complaint.

Randall Hoth, president/CEO of the Wisconsin BBB, said in his experience he has seen a consistent trend of less complaining from younger individuals.

“Young professionals and college students have to realize they have the power to be savvy consumers,” Hoth said. “They have the right to complain if they receive a dissatisfying service and should be more comfortable doing just that.”

Hoth said he generally feels college students see effective complaining as a waste of time, or they lack the knowledge that there are services that exist to help them.

Recently, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater students complained after a nearby tanning salon offered discount tanning sessions before abruptly closing. Students who had already bought sessions did not receive refunds.

After a complaint was filed about the salon, a student posted Twitter and Facebook statuses urging fellow students to take action if they were wronged. According to Hoth, the BBB received about 200 complaints regarding the tanning salon in just 24 hours. Hoth said he saw the student-led complaint as an encouraging sign of students taking action.

Not all students are complacent when it comes to complaining. Michael Aleshire, a sophomore in the College of Business Administration, said he understands the power of the customer and holds companies and providers to a high standard.

“Complaining is a very effective way of consumer feedback,” Aleshire said. “Without it, the consumer isn’t using their purchasing power to its full potential. Companies also suffer because if their service or product is inadequate, they don’t have the feedback to resolve conflicts or improve.”

Aleshire said students often think the complaint process takes up too much time and does not deliver enough results.

According to Hoth, the BBB is taking steps to increase awareness on the usefulness of complaints. In addition to rating companies, the BBB is in the process of starting a campaign to inform consumers of trustworthy individuals and companies in the marketplace.

Alerting students and young professionals to effective complaining are still among the BBB’s priorities, Hoth said.