How to Avoid Consumer Frustration with (and Return of) New Products: Managing Emotions by Setting Reasonable Expectations
Stacy L. Wood
University of South Carolina
C. Page Moreau
University of Colorado at Boulder
While consumers believe they evaluate new or innovative products on a “logical” assessment of benefits, new research shows that the consumer’s emotional reaction to the learning process has a surprisingly strong impact on product evaluations. According to research conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Wood, associate professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina, and Dr. C. Page Moreau, associate professor of marketing at the University of Colorado, and published in the July 2006 issue of the Journal of Marketing, when consumers were surprised by learning difficulty and experienced negative emotions (e.g., frustration, anger), there was a lasting negative impact on evaluations. Importantly, however, negative emotions did not decrease product evaluations if consumers expected learning difficulty. Wood and Moreau hope their research can help firms promote product acceptance (and avoid costly returns) by encouraging marketers to set realistic expectations about the challenges or difficulties in learning how to use new technologies.
New high tech products are a way of life for today’s consumers, but many innovative new products face a special hurdle to marketplace success: their complexity makes them difficult for consumers to learn how to use. While consumers may desire the functionality of a particular new product feature—say, the ability to hot-sync one’s mobile phone’s calendar feature to a desk-top computer’s calendar program—learning how to use such a feature may take some learning effort. How do consumers react to the learning curve? The answer often is, “not well.” Consider your own experience with complex products such as computers, software, mobile phones, mp3 players, TiVo, etc. Likely, our own experience mirrors what has been shown through marketplace research—consumers’ expectations of usage difficulty have caused a significant number to delay purchases, while actual usage difficulty has caused many to return purchased products.
We used two empirical studies to demonstrate this consumer-centric process of innovation. The first study was a laboratory study examining participants’ reactions as they learn how to use an innovative new PDA. The second was a longitudinal quasi-experiment examining participants’ reactions to a new web-based course management interface throughout the course of a semester. While the frustrations of wrestling with a new product’s instruction manual are familiar, three surprising findings emerge from these studies.
First, positive or negative emotions that arise from the learning process are not related to the products’ benefits (or lack thereof) but are independent assessments of the process of learning. In other words, difficulty in learning to use a product can create negative emotion even if the product is good (i.e., has strong net benefits). For example, a consumer may find a new product feature is both desirable and works well, but still have a difficult time learning how to use that feature. While the product features themselves might generate positive emotions if they are good, the learning process creates distinct emotions that are independent of the more traditional “consumption emotions.”
Second, although these “learning” emotions are process-oriented, they still have a significant and stable influence on product evaluations. In this way, we evaluate a product more positively when it offers a smooth learning process, independent of our assessment of the product’s net benefits. While it may not seem rational (since the pain of learning is only experienced initially and the product’s use may far outlast this initial learning period), these learning emotions can impact more stable overall evaluations of the product. Perhaps, as consumers, we blame a product when it has made us feel stupid and reward a product when it has made us feel smart.
Third, the emotion experienced by the consumer during this learning process is driven primarily by the consumer’s expectations for learning and early use. Thus, a consumer may experience the same challenging learning experience as positive if she anticipated difficulties prior to use or as negative if she did not. This last finding suggests that consumers’ emotional experiences can be influenced by both managers, via the early formation of expectations, and by the consumer’s own product-related expertise. Consumers with expertise in the product category will be differently impacted than novice consumers.
Marketers or salespeople may be tempted to make unreasonable claims about how easy a new product is to use as such claims are likely to increase a consumer’s likelihood of trial. But this research shows that setting unreasonable expectations for ease of use can cause a backlash of negative learning emotions that will impact the consumer’s evaluation of the new product. Marketers must take care to encourage trial while setting fair expectations. How might this be done? Best Buy’s new Geek Squad program may be one humorous way to remind consumers that it sometimes takes a “special kind of person” (i.e., a nerdy technophile) to set up complex consumer electronics. The mere presence of the Geek Squad offer may serve to set consumers’ expectations so that, if they set up the product on their own, they are happy, but they are neither surprised nor upset if they find that they need to call in the experts.
Given the growing problem of innovation discontinuance (i.e., when consumers reject a new product after purchase or trial), understanding how marketing communications (e.g., product demonstrations, advertising, programs) and consumers’ own expertise interact to influence expectations is important. Especially for quickly evolving electronic and high tech products, product returns are costly both in terms of retail logistics (e.g., lost sales, restocking costs, repackaging and selling used products) and lost opportunities. If a consumer has successfully made it through the early steps of the innovation adoption process—awareness, evaluation, and purchase—and then rejects the innovation post-trial, he or she may be unlikely to consider other alternative choices or related innovations in the future or, even worse, may be a source of negative word-of-mouth. This research helps managers to better understand how to avoid such situations.
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