The Outrage Economy


I was brought up to take the good with the bad, to be polite at all times and always see the other person’s position.

I have spent a lifetime unlearning this upbringing. I have been forced to learn the fine art of outrage.

The Outrage Economy

We now live in an outrage economy. Outrage is the only engine of action in many service organisations:

  • want escalation of a slow process? Resort to outrage
  • want a variation in narrow rules? Resort to outrage
  • want the service you paid for? Resort to outrage
  • want to be heard? Resort to outrage
  • want attention? Resort to outrage at scale

Outrage now powers basic interactions. Organisations have taken customer service flexibility away. Employees are constrained, optimised and disempowered. In many cases this means that they are unable to do their jobs. They need customer outrage to be able to escalate, to loosen processes and solve recurrent issues. The only way to get something done is to invoke the customer retention or a complaint resolution process in response to customer outrage. I have even been invited by customer service employees to express greater outrage so that they could help me better. For example “What I am hearing is that if we don’t solve this for you now, your business with us will be at risk. Is that correct?”

This pattern of interaction means organisations are training their customers to resort to outrage with ever increasing speed. You don’t want to go through the IVR again so you had better get outraged now and hope the team leader has more power. If it going to take outrage to fix a process, why not get outraged now.

If the only channel of service that works is social media, then I will rant there first. Some organisations even have pre-emptive outrage on social media with customers complaining about service processes before they start. Social media seems to be the only place many organisations care about their reputation with customers.

Stop the Escalation of Outrage

Nothing goes better because of outrage. Outrage only destroys value. Outrage weakens relationships and destroys brands.

Let’s start looking for ways to solve issues without requiring customers to rant and complain. There are a few simple steps:

  1. Understand how your processes actually work for customers in interactions: Processes that make sense around the board table often fail in human interactions. Requiring a warning that the warranty will be voided if an item has been used inappropriately might be wise when taking an item for repart but it may also sound like a criticism or a threat to a frustrated customer who just wants the item fixed. Follow issues back from the frontline to those distant places in the organisation that cause them.
  2. Give your people the power, resources and support required to do their jobs: You measure their performance. Do you spend as much time measuring how well you support their interactions with customers? In an age of global integrated logistics, does it make sense that you only move things between your locations once a week? If a morning of flights are going to be delayed by fog, advising customers is great but have you planned how you will manage the situation? If calls are unusually high, is it time to put on extra staff or suggest alternatives to resolve the issue? Enabling single point resolution is more than designing a narrow question that a customer must answers yes to confirm that you have solved their needs.
  3. Give your people the discretion to empathise and delight customers: It is really hard to be outraged at someone who is allowed to be human.  Empathy can be the second most important element to de-escalating the situation for an outraged customer. Let your people apologise for genuine errors. Move beyond the platitudes because otherwise we know your aren’t really concerned about our ‘inconvenience’. Give them the freedom to do a little more than needed to fix things pre-emptively.

An organisation that cannot respond to its customer needs fails the sole reason the organisation exists. If your customers are getting even slightly outraged it is time to learn how to become more responsive.

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