The Surprising History of Customer Complaints: What Changed, What Stayed the Same and What This Means for You

“They have failed to provide what they have promised. Their offers … were definitely misleading and inappropriately handled. The whole experience is taking forever and getting worse … every time I talk to them.”

“My biggest complaint is the harassment and how they would talk to me. They never told me about any way to help me payoff [sic] the account … Today I have finally paid the account down so that I can be rid of them.”

“I feel taken advantage of–I want my money and am so tempted to pull all funds and sew them in my mattress. If a ‘big bank’ can not [sic] protect my money which we worked hard for, then what are we, the general public, supposed to do???”

Customer complaints are as old as time. While these three are excerpts from genuine customer complaints, they have a lot in common with those dating back thousands of years.

The reasons people complain have stayed the same. What has changed is the way these complaints are expressed. They have evolved with changes in the way people communicate and advances in technology—and have influenced how we handle complaints today.

FRAMEWORK : Voice of Consumer

The Ancient to Medieval Worlds—and the Original Tablet

The first recorded customer complaint comes from Babylonia in 1750 BC. A customer uses cuneiform carved into a clay tablet to tell a merchant he is unhappy about the inferior grade of copper he received. The contents of that tablet are remarkably like a negative review on Yelp:

  • Poor product quality
  • Costs not as expected
  • Lack of trust as commitments were not honored

In this era, commerce is done by bartering, particularly in pre-currency civilizations. Most complaints are delivered in person, as customers speak directly to those providing products or services that fall short.

This tablet, however, indicates someone with money—who has the funds to hire a scribe and a messenger—wants to right a wrong in a trade that already happened. With the length and danger of the trip, it makes us wonder: what was the outcome of this complaint and was this worth it for the customer?

New laws arise to cover severe disputes. One example is the Code of Hammurabi from Babylonia in 1754 BC. Its 282 rules include one about a merchant shown to have cheated an agent who is selling his goods. He must pay that agent six-times the original amount owed.

Merchants start keeping ledgers. Initially, these note the amounts of goods bought and sold. As more universal currencies replace the exchange of goods, this line item is added. The idea is not only to track the goods changing hands, but to protect the merchant.

If a customer complains, the merchant can check the records. Just like today’s sales receipt, this allows for a factual account of a transaction, helping ensure fairness on all sides.

FRAMEWORK : Voice of Consumer

Colonialization and Mercantilism—Governments Get Involved in Commerce

As nations form and empires are built, governments and heads of state want to ensure their power. They start regulating trade.

This leads to the rise of mercantilism: governments try to maximize their profits through rules on imports to and exports from a colony. While customer service is still practiced at the point of sale, merchants are less able to set the prices and the amounts of products they can sell.

For example, Britain colonizes the Americas, extracting raw materials to be used in its products. Some of these products are sent back to the Americas and sold by approved British trading companies at set fees. Colonists also face paying extra taxes on the goods and penalties for buying elsewhere.

We can see the parallels today. Companies make products that are only compatible with the others they produce—unless you buy add-ons so these can communicate with each other. In a sense, consumers are punished for buying from other sources.

In colonial times, consumer reactions move beyond complaints to merchants and on to the government responsible for the regulations. They send written objections (in newspapers and pamphlets in America, as well as letters to the British monarchy and Parliament) about access to items such as tea, paper and stamps. When those go unnoticed, the colonists rebel from oppressive mercantilism.

In effect, the genesis of the American Revolution is a too long ignored consumer complaint. This illustrates the importance of listening to your consumers’ concerns and acting on these.

FRAMEWORK : Voice of Consumer

The First Industrial Revolution—a Real Wild West

In rural towns, businesses either focus on a specialty (blacksmith) or are general stores offering a variety of products. Because these communities depend on farming, which is seasonal, businesses operate on credit.

Individual owners decide how much confidence they have in a consumer—often on very subjective criteria. Negotiating prices or increasing a line of credit frequently depend on a consumer’s reputation and negotiating skills.

This evolves into today’s credit system, determining if we can buy products and get access to more credit. The relationship between consumer and company now is mathematical rather than personal, removing subjectivity in an attempt to be fairer.

In the first industrial revolution, consumer complaints once again are largely verbal—between buyers and shop owners. People in the West have little immediate recourse other than to travel a greater distance to another town and barter/purchase goods there. However, the federal postal service, railroads and the telegraph allow them to make their complaints known to their territory and state governments, as well as the manufacturers in the east.

(Image quote source: 1A Culture of Credit: embedding trust and transparency in American business by Rowena Oligario.)

FRAMEWORK : Voice of Consumer

The Second Industrial Revolution—Faster and Cheaper, but Not Always Better

The main theme is efficiency. How can products be made, and services delivered, in a shorter time? How can we lower the overall cost, so more people can afford it? How can we use the railroad to transport products faster and cheaper?

Henry Ford’s innovative assembly line becomes the symbol for this era. Now businesses can reach a size and influence never before possible. Doing business on this scale leads to trusts and monopolies. They can fix prices, make lower quality products, and ignore consumer complaints. Customers often feel helpless in the face of these behemoths.

Two new crusading forces appear as consumer advocates. The first is a rise in journalists, dedicated to exposing poor production processes. As consumer awareness of unfair business practices grows, they complain through public protests.

The second is the creation of consumer protection groups. Some are government-sponsored, such as the Bureau of Consumer Protection, which gives people an official avenue to complain when companies ignore them. Independent organizations include the Better Business Bureau, which allows consumers to see which companies use trustworthy practices.

Parallels are visible today. Consumer advocacy stories remain a staple of the TV news programs. Agencies are established to ensure consumers’ voices are heard. People have official avenues to complain if they are not satisfied.

FRAMEWORK : Voice of Consumer

Digital Revolution—Phoning It In

The telephone becomes a new vehicle for complaints. As more people enter the workforce, it’s no longer easy to find time to go to a store to complain. They can call on their own time, at their convenience. Additionally, store owners may contact manufacturers in different states or countries to quickly resolve consumer issues.

Because faster/greater production results in not-yet-sold inventory, there is a need to stimulate demand. That leads to the rise of department and grocery stores, which carry a variety of merchandise. Time-pressed consumers can make one visit to get several needs met.

This makes customer service a little more difficult. Store employees must handle a variety of different complaints, which reduces the quality of the service they provide.

Businesses create customer service departments and call centers to assist customers and resolve issues. Staying true to the theme of efficiency, the goal for a call center is to streamline the process of helping people with the company’s products or services. This often makes contact with a customer service representative impersonal and more bureaucratic.

We are still living with this system. Many consumers opt to bypass it by ordering online and skipping customer service entirely: just returning products that don’t meet their needs.

(Image quote source: 2Top 10 Product Recalls”. Time. July 2, 2009.)

FRAMEWORK : Voice of Consumer

The Information Age—Instantaneous Complaints Around the World

We are experiencing the explosion of avenues in communication. Every company has a website, and customers know how to get information or whom to call/email/chat about questions or problems. Social media for instant information and access is standard and expected. Consumers reach organizations in the comfort of their homes, at a time that’s convenient for them, and expect immediate response.

The internet has moved complaints from a “customer to company” pathway to a “customer to hundreds or millions of others.” With social media, companies must understand the complaints causing them to lose sales and the business consequences of a viral video or negative Yelp review. Companies are now hyper-aware and must scan the virtual horizon for risks and threats and react as fast as possible. Customer service remains reactive as it was in the last century.

Companies can be proactive, as there is information and insight to be extracted and analyzed by collecting consumer complaints data. Listening to customers enables larger scale fixes and identifies trends and the need for change. With this hyper-awareness comes a greater opportunity to build new products and features, allowing the voice of consumers to be a powerful force in your growth.

It’s time to take a deeper dive into your own customer data. Listen to your customers’ voices and identify opportunities. When consumers understand your company listens to them and adjusts its practices to reflect their needs, you’ll win more accolades than complaints and achieve sustainable success.

(Image quote source: 3