25th May 2015

British people would rather tell all their friends and relations about a bad experience at a restaurant or faulty product than formally complain, whereas Australians prefer to be up-front and solve the problem directly with the restaurateur or retailer, a cross-cultural marketing study of complaint styles has found.

Furthermore, the researchers from QUT and University of Warwick suggest this could be related to their finding that UK consumers tended to adopt their mothers' style of complaint while Australian consumers most often cited their fathers' methods.

The study, conducted by QUT's Professor Rebekah Russell-Bennett and Professor Lloyd C. Harris of the University of Warwick in the UK and published in the Journal of Marketing Management, involved in-depth interviews with 60 participants (30 in each country) conducted by the researchers.

It is the first to identify a link between the complaint style of one parent and a person's complaint style, Professor Russell-Bennett, from the QUT Business School, said.

"The relationship between the complaint style of one parent and an individual's adult complaint style has not been identified previously in the complaint literature," Professor Russell-Bennett said.

"British complainers tend to vent their frustrations through widely distributed (and arguably, untargeted) voiced complaints designed to share frustrations or inform audiences.

She said the UK study participants reported their own most common style of complaining was a passive style, apologetic in nature, although they agreed a problem-focused style was more effective.

"As one UK male consumer said: 'Oh, I think complaining is important, you should always complain if things aren't right!' but later said 'I always end up being the one saying 'sorry' - even if they are completely wrong!'."

Professor Russell-Bennett said, in comparison, Australian study participants rarely adopted an apologetic style and used an active style.

"Again, while acknowledging that other styles were often more effective, Australian informants consistently described their most commonly adopted style in terms that ranged between aggressive and assertive," she said.

"For example, an Australian female participant said: 'I believe that being forceful when complaining is effective because I think you need to be halfway between forceful and assertive'."

She said that when the participants were asked later in the interview about their parental role models it became apparent that Australians adopted their fathers' style while the Brits adopted their mothers'.

"An Australian participant who had earlier described a complaint with 'I was angry because they wasted my time...yeah, just really, really angry, frustrated,' indicated they followed their dad's approach and later said 'My dad is the best complainer. He gets things done ... I think he must intimidate people into getting what he wants.'

"In contrast, a UK female said: 'I don't like confrontation and I don't like upsetting people and I don't want to tell people they've done something wrong. If I complain to a company, I'm what you could call a passive, apologetic, typical Brit - don't want to make a fuss'.

"And, after indicating, she followed her mothers' style later said: 'My mum simply will not confront ... I've not once seen her make a complaint to a firm about service or products or anything! She'll just wait for them to sort it out, or not! Then she'll tell the whole world not to go there'."

Professor Russell-Bennett said the UK participants commonly said their mother was ineffectual when complaining directly to organizations.

One UK male said: "She just can't do it. She starts off saying 'sorry' then moves to passive-diffident and finishes up apologising for wasting their time and offering to pay them compensation! A disaster."

"In summary, parents appear to strongly influence the complaining behaviours of their children but the influence of parents varies. In the UK, mothers appear to exert a stronger influence, while in Australia, fathers seem to be the favoured role model."

Professor Russell-Bennett said another key difference was the way in which each group views the act of complaining.

"For the Australians, 'complaining' was seen as an activity consciously designed to resolve a problem (often a perceived injustice) that an organisation or individual had deliberately or unintentionally caused.

"The UK respondents, however, held a much broader view of 'complaining' that encompassed venting or sharing discussions with friends, family or acquaintances. Thus, 'complaining' is seen as a social as well as a resolution-oriented activity.

"This behaviour is viewed by Australians as passive whining and whingeing rather than the venting/educating complaining intended by the UK respondents.

"In contrast, the action-oriented, problem-solving vocal complaints of Australians are viewed by the British as unnecessarily aggressive and confrontational rather than the intended seeking of a practical solution to a problem."

"This finding reflects the common cultural stereotypes of both cultures."

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media, 07 3138 2999 or n.widdowson@qut.edu.au.

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