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Study Finds Corporate Responsibility Makes Customers More Forgiving

David Shankbone
Are customers more willing to accept bad customer service from good corporate citizens?

According to researchers at Washington State University, shoppers may be more likely to accept bad customer service from a company if they know that company supports causes they agree with.

WSU social psychologist Jeff Joireman said tales of bad customer service spread fast these days -- on Yelp, on YouTube, on Twitter.

“And once that stuff’s online it’s really hard to control,” he said.

But Joireman said corporate responsibility programs play on the consumer psyche in an interesting way. It turns out, when we know a company gives to charitable causes, those long lines and botched orders make us less angry and even feel guilty about badmouthing the company later.

“Your first instinct might be to spread negative word of mouth and get revenge, but then you might think, if you do that, you might harm the firm that’s doing things that you value,” Joireman said.

Joireman said a firm’s best strategy is to give customers a way to influence where the company donates.

The findings are based on questionnaires given to college students and U.S. consumers recruited online.

The paper is scheduled to come out in the next issue of Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.

Joireman said the findings shouldn’t suggest that charitable contributions are a substitute for apologizing to a customer or compensating them for egregious mistakes.

“You can’t just donate money to good causes without also intervening after the service failure,” Joireman said. “But what we find is that these contributions to charitable causes, if they match the values of the consumer, are effective at reducing negative emotions and negative behavior intentions.”

Researchers conducted two studies. In the first, 142 college students and 198 consumers recruited online were given a questionnaire and asked to consider a hypothetical coffee shop that gives to environmental causes. They were presented with a scenario where they experience a long wait and when their drink comes, it’s not what they ordered. People who considered themselves environmentalists were less angry and less likely to badmouth the coffee shop later when they were told the coffee shop contributes 15 percent of profits to causes the consumer supported. However, customers who had opposing views on the environment were even more annoyed by the bad service.

In the second study, a group of 154 consumers recruited online were told the coffee shop would give customers an option when they paid for their order: they could choose among four charitable causes the company would donate to.

“Any time a firm chooses one narrow cause to support they risk alienating some of their consumers,” Joireman said. “So the best way to get around that is to offer a wide variety of causes and give consumers a choice over how the firm allocates their charitable contributions.”

Joireman said the feeling that the coffee shop was aligned with the customer’s values ended up reducing the feeling anger in most customers, and lessened regret at choosing the shop. It also increased customers’ anticipated guilt about spreading bad word-of-mouth about the business.