When you complain, other people follow

When you express dissatisfaction with a transaction on a company's So-Me profile, others will follow what you write and, in many cases, intervene as a third party in your complaint. But the support you get from this third party can swing both ways according to new research from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University and Aalborg University. The research also offers advice on how companies should react.

A mother writes on the Danish toy giant LEGO's Facebook UK-page: 

"LEGO, I have a complaint!! I bought three of the Super Mario Adventure sets for our kids and there is no instruction booklet in any box. I am VERY DISAPPOINTED." 

Before LEGO has time to reply, another user intervenes and writes to the complainer direct. But what does she write? Here are two possibilities: 

"LEGO’s always cutting back on service, even though their products are getting more and more expensive. It's UNACCEPTABLE." 

Or she writes: 

"Just download the instructions for them, what is your problem? We live in a paperless age, get used to it." 

This is based on a true story. But only one of these two reactions is drawn from the real world. Which one do you think? 

The answer is at the end of this article, where you can also read LEGO's response to the dissatisfied customer. 

"The phenomenon is interesting because it’s become so much easier to intervene in other people's complaints on social media"

Assistant professor Masoumeh Hosseinpour,, Department of Management at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University

Coalitions – a new trend 

The above example is far from unique, and the apparent increasing tendency to get involved when someone complains on a company's website or Facebook page prompted three researchers from Aarhus BSS, Aalborg University and the University of Glasgow to examine the phenomenon more closely. 

The researchers' particular focus was on how these coalitions affect the tone in a given Facebook thread, and how complainants and companies react to the coalitions as they arise. 

"The phenomenon is interesting because it’s become so much easier to intervene in other people's complaints on social media," says Masoumeh Hosseinpour, an assistant professor at the Department of Management at Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University, who conducted the study together with Professor Holger Roschk from Aalborg University, and Associate Professor Jan Breitsohl from the University of Glasgow. 

To get an idea of the extent of the phenomenon, the researchers studied the official Facebook pages of 17 international retail and service companies in the UK – for example, McDonald's, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer – over a period of four months. The result was that in approximately 32 per cent of complaints, a coalition emerged between a third party and either the complainant or the company. 

Coalitions influence the tone 

The analysis also showed that the formation of coalitions after a complaint generally pushes the affective tone of the online conversation in a downward curve of between 16 and 32 per cent, such that the tone changes from neutral to negative. 

And this affects companies' options with regard to showing different forms of response to the complainant. In two experimental studies, the researchers show that forming coalitions also affects the complainant's propensity to accept different forms of response. 

In the first of the two experiments, 532 British consumers were presented with a case based on the Facebook UK-platform of the supermarket chain Tesco. The participants were asked to put themselves in the customer's shoes when a customer complained that her daughter had become ill after eating one of Tesco's baby food products. The participants were now divided into three groups, and they were met with three manipulated reactions from third parties. 

“I would feel the same mate. Tesco needs to be more transparent, this sounds really serious.” 


“Move on, your child might be sick from something else.  I often buy Tesco's baby food and I haven't had any bad experiences." 

The third reaction was neutral with an irrelevant post. 

Also read  Can hunger make you cheat?

"Our study shows that companies should be very aware of whether coalitions are one type or the other. Because coalitions can affect how the complainant perceives the company's reactions"

Assistant professor Masoumeh Hosseinpour, Department of Management at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University

Action and apology 

After some time, participants met with one of two possible reactions from a Tesco service employee, in which the chain either recommends not using the baby food and offers to test it (action), or it apologizes for the bad experience and expresses sympathy (apology). In a third reaction, participants were just met with three unrelated user comments. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the complainants felt greatly let down or betrayed by third parties if they back the supermarket chain instead of the complainant. But the feeling also affected how much the complainant was inclined to accept the company's attempts to deal with the complaint. 

The result of the experiment was that a coalition between the third party and the company reinforces the complainant's demands that the company take action, while the acceptance of an apology is weakened. 

In the second experiment, the researchers underpinned the results of the first experiment with a new group of participants and with the added variations that the third party now knew the complainant, that the manipulated episode and discussion now took place offline, and that the company's attempts to respond now also involved financial compensation. Despite these variations, the result was virtually the same. 

Clear communication 

"Our study shows that companies should be very aware of whether coalitions are one type or the other. Because coalitions can affect how the complainant perceives the company's reactions," says Masoumeh Hosseinpour, who adds that there is a big difference in how companies react to complaints, and whether they react at all. 

"Some companies respond consistently, and others never respond," she says. 

However, on the basis of the study, the researchers recommend that companies take a flexible and adaptable approach to potential complaints. Especially when they are online. 

"It all goes very fast, which is why it's important that companies react quickly and in a personal and positive tone," stress Masoumeh Hosseinpour and Holger Roschk. 

"Coalitions affect the complainant's expectations of what the company's response should be, and we recommend that companies clearly communicate what they have done or will do to resolve the problem when a third party supports the company, and that they offer an apology and an explanation if a third party supports the complainant."

Also read: The internet does not turn people into trolls – it just makes real-life trolls more visible

Need for more research 

The study has contributed knowledge about a relatively new trend in corporate communication with customers, but the researchers would like to delve even more deeply into the phenomenon. 

"It would be interesting to study other sectors than service and retail, and perhaps also more serious areas such as health," says Masoumeh Hosseinpour and adds: 

"People's personalities are different, and therefore it would be interesting to study more closely the motives behind both the complainants themselves, and the third parties' need to intervene." 

And so back to the example in the introduction. The correct answer is reaction number 2. In other words, a coalition between the company and third party. But in fact the first answer could have been just as true. The complaining mother also got support and coalitions from other third parties. LEGO responded to the complaint thus: 

"We’re sorry to hear that you were disappointed with us. We use digital booklets because they allow us to offer additional features like zooming in. We fully understand that some of our customers prefer a physical instruction book, and we apologize for the inconvenience that you and your children have experienced." 


We strive to comply with Universities Denmark’s principles for good research communication. For this reason, we provide the following information as a supplement to this article:  

Type of study
  • Published with double-blind peer review. 

  • Multi-study research. 

  • Metode: Text mining, experiments (scenario) 

External collaborators Aalborg University Business School, Aalborg University, Denmark, Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK.
External funding
  • The research was partially supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): P 34187. 

  • The University of Glasgow supported this research by funding the gold open access. 

Conflict of interest


Other None
Link to the scientific article https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/10946705231163884
Contact information Masoumeh Hosseinpour; mh@mgmt.au.dk