Consumers’ complaint behaviour. Taxonomy, typology and determinants: Towards a uni? ed ontology Received (in revised form): 16th August, 2003 Dominique Crie ? is Professor of marketing at the University of Sciences and Technologies of Lille, in the Business Administration Department (IAE). He manages the postgraduate degree course: statistical specialisation for marketing databases. He is also a marketing consultant and statistician, member of the Association Francaise de Marketing and of the Societe Francaise de Statistiques. ? ? ? ?
His research focuses on the customer relationship, particularly in relation to satisfaction, loyalty and retention. Abstract Complaint behaviour is a set of consumer dissatisfaction responses. It is an explicit expression of dissatisfaction, but dissatisfaction is only one determinant of this behaviour. Complaint behaviour can be analysed as various types of response but also as a process. This paper proposes an integrated framework of the various theories of complaint behaviour leading toward a uni? ed ontology and to interpreting it from a new perspective. Dominique Crie ?
IAE de Lille, 104, Avenue du Peuple Belge, 59 043 Lille Cedex, ? France. Tel: 33 (0)3 20 12 34 64; Fax: 33 (0)3 20 12 34 48; E-mail: [email protected] com INTRODUCTION This paper reviews a concept still relatively rarely considered by companies: consumer complaint behaviour. Within the framework of the relationship paradigm, complaint behaviour is a powerful signal which companies should take into account. On the one hand, it gives an organisation a last chance to retain the customer, if the organisation reacts appropriately, on the other hand it is a legitimate and ethical act toward the consumer.
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Generally, but not exclusively, complaint behaviour is one of the responses to perceived dissatisfaction in the post-purchase phase. In the ? rst section of the paper, a taxonomy of response styles used by dissatis? ed consumers is proposed. Then consumer complaint behaviour (CCB) is de? ned and situated with regard to these various types of response. Finally, after clustering ‘complainers’ and ‘non-complainers’, this paper tries to track down the main dimensions of the CCB taxonomy through a structuralisation of its determinants within a diachronic approach — the objective being to propose a clari? d conceptual and theoretical framework to integrate the large variety of works on the subject. The conclusion highlights a synthesis of this conceptual structure with regard to a uni? ed ontology. A TAXONOMY OF THE TYPES OF RESPONSE TO DISSATISFACTION A dissatis? ed consumer may adopt several types of response, classi? cation of which may be delicate. The taxonomy of responses ? rst requires a distinction between the notions of response and of action to be established. Indeed, the term ‘action’ implies a very speci? c behaviour, 60
Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003) Consumers’ complaint behaviour Table 1: A taxonomy of the types of response to dissatisfaction Towards enitity Response type Behavioural Public (Sellers, manufacturers, of? cial organisations, associations, justice) Complaint Legal action Return of the item Request for repair No action, with or without modi? cation of the attitude Forget or forgive Private (Family, friends, relations) Word of mouth Boycott/leaving Non-behavioural hile the term ‘response’ contains several modalities which are not exclusively behavioural, notably change of attitude or inactivity. This distinction establishes a ? rst dimension. The second is represented by the entities towards which responses are directed: the public one includes sellers, manufacturers and consumer associations or legal action; the private one includes family, friends or relatives. Finally, responses show different intensities according to the two previous dimensions. Responses may vary from inactivity to legal action — either simply to express dissatisfaction or to obtain repair or compensation (Table 1).
The heterogeneity of these various response types may be partially explained by the cause and intensity of dissatisfaction and by the nature and importance of the product or service of concern. On the other hand, consumers may mix or connect several response types for the same dissatisfaction. This aspect is relatively neglected by the literature, although Hirschman1 notes that complaint and exit are not two symmetric elements: when a customer leaves the company, he/she loses ‘the opportunity’ to use their voice, while if he/she uses the complaint ? rst, he/she is always free to leave later if the complaint does not succeed.
So exit can be a substitute for and complement to a complaint. The more expensive and complex the product, the more consumers are inclined to initiate public action, however the greater likelihood is that they will stay inactive or choose private action. 2–4 The authors of the ? rst stream of literature are numerous, but Hirschman’s work remains standard in the conceptualisation of responses to dissatisfaction through the model ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’. Exit is an active and destructive response to dissatisfaction, exhibited by a break of the relationship with the object (brand, product, retailer, supplier. . ). The verbal response (Voice) is a constructive response with an expectation of change in an organisation’s practices, policies and responses; it is characterised by complaints towards friends, consumer associations and relevant organisations. The third type of response (Loyalty) has two aspects, constructive and passive, the individual hoping that things will evolve in a positive way. For Brown and Swartz,5 it is especially a feeling of impotence that is the cause of this behavioural loyalty. ‘The neglect of the incident and the inherent inactivity’ can, however, be considered as evidence for loyalty.
Research designed to explain the various types of response to dissatisfaction is limited. Scales have been created for this purpose by Day et al. 6 but they are without methodological and Henry Stewart Publications 1741-2439 (2003) Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management 61 Crie ? psychometric validation. Only Bearden and Teel7 have investigated the various types of response using a Guttman scale. The data are collected from ? ve items of increasing intensity: (1) family and friends warning, (2) return of the item and/or complaint, (3) contact with the manufacturer, (4) contact with consumer associations or of? ial organisations and (5) legal action, notably when the customer does not obtain satisfaction with the seller. 8 Empirically validated, this scale does not, however, take into account the non-behavioural responses highlighted by previous research, and a single item relates to private action. 9 Of a rather formative nature, every item contributes in its own way to the development of the intensity of the responses. Day10 con? rms the relevance of the use of such a scale. The main aim of this taxonomy is to clarify the various responses a dissatis? d consumer could use, in order to track down more precisely those which the company can observe directly. DEFINING CONSUMER COMPLAINT BEHAVIOUR Among the various types of response to dissatisfaction, some of them more direcly concern CCB. The ? rst conceptual base of this phenomenon concerning post-purchase was stated at the end of the 1970s. 11 Jacoby and Jaccard12 de? ne it as ‘an action begun by the individual who entails a communication of something negative to a product (service), either towards the company or towards a third entity’. For Day et al. 13 it is the consequence ‘of a given act of consumption, following which the consumer is confronted with an experience generating a high dissatisfaction, of suf? cient impact so that it is, neither likened psychologically, nor quickly forgotten’. Fornell and Wernerfelt14 consider that the complaint is ‘an attempt of the customer to change an unsatisfactory situation’. Finally, Singh15 suggests that this behaviour, activated at an emotional or sentimental level by a perceived dissatisfaction, is part of the more general framework of responses to dissatisfaction which consists of two dimensions (see also Day and Landon16).
The ? rst dimension, grounded completely or in part in actions initiated by the consumer (conveying expression of his/her dissatisfaction not only to the seller, but also to third parties, friends or relations17,18), is behavioural but does not necessarily entail action towards the company; it is essentially within this dimension that CCB should be considered. The second dimension refers to absence of action by the consumer, for example when he/she forgets a generative episode of dissatisfaction. 19,20 In this way, CCB must, rather, be conceived as a process, ie its ? al manifestation does not directly depend on its initiating factors but on evaluation of the situation by the consumer and of its evolution over time. So, CCB really constitutes a subset of all possible responses to perceived dissatisfaction around a purchase episode, during consumption or during possession of the good (or service). In fact, the notion of ‘complaint behaviour’ includes a more general terminology which also involves the notions of protest, communication (word of mouth) or recommendation to third parties21 and even the notion of boycott.
This notion is conceptually inserted in a set of explicit demonstrations, generally towards the seller, of a consumer’s dissatisfaction. It seems then that it is necessary to include in the de? nition of CCB a set of responses, heterogeneous in their targets — the study of this behaviour not being separable from understanding of all the responses to dissatisfaction. 62 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003) Consumers’ complaint behaviour DISSATISFACTION Behavioural response Non-behavioural response Towards company Perceptible by the company
Towards market Not perceptible by the company Inactivity Change of attitude Complaint Legal action Leaving Negative word of mouth Repeat purchase or behavioural loyalty Simple complaint Repair compensation Figure 1: Responses to dissatisfaction and complaint behaviour In the rest of this paper, therefore, the term ‘complaint behaviour’ is used in the conceptual meaning of a public behavioral response to dissatisfaction. So, for a company, only part of these responses will be perceptible, including complaint in the sense described previously (Figure 1). On the other hand, it is the retailer who will be most affected by CCB.
The manufacturer is seldom sought out, so such crucial information reaches him only rarely, and often not at all. 22,23 A TYPOLOGY OF DISSATISFIED CONSUMERS Several authors have tried to individualise groups of consumers with regard to the type of response adopted in the wider framework of dissatisfaction. Most researchers offer a ‘normative typology’ within which the ‘complainers’ can be placed but without really distinguishing particular groups. These are opposed to the ‘non-complainers’,24–27 in this way these works are more concerned with responses to dissatisfaction than CCB in its strict sense.
They are poor in terms of possible categories and are not grounded in a rigorous analysis of response styles. Certain typologies nevertheless allow a few speci? c behaviours in the expression of CCB to be extracted, for example the ‘irritated actives’,28,29 the ‘activists’,30 the ‘complainers’, the ‘irates’,31 the ‘voicers’,32 the ‘slightly offended’ or the ‘champions’. 33 For Hirschman34 the complaint must be considered as feedback on the quality delivered by the company, the ‘complainers’ are called ‘alert customers’ (because they allow the company to improve the product or service) as
Henry Stewart Publications 1741-2439 (2003) Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management 63 Crie ? Table 2: Main types of complainers Behaviour Complaint (prostestation) Public action Voicers Champions Complainers Authors Dart and Freeman Weiser36 Etzel37 Shuptrine38 Bearden39 Day40 Gronhaug and Zaltman41 Singh42 Keng43 Masson44 Warland45 Singh46 Weiser47 Pfaff48 Warland49 Singh50 Dart51 Lost in action Weiser55 35 Private action Slightly offended Irates Authors Weiser52 Dart53 Singh54
Request for repair Measures of retaliation Active upsets Irritated Detractors Activists opposed to ‘inert customers’. The complaint is then a factor of enhancement for company performance. Taken as a whole the typology of dissatis? ed consumers overlaps with that of the responses to dissatisfaction and develops its structure at the same time as the intensity of the CCB modalities chosen by consumers, going from simple complaint to retaliatory measures in a register of public or private actions (Table 2).
Generally speaking, the various typologies outlined do not allow retailers or manufacturers to appreciate the complexity and variety of CCB in order to respond in an effective way, but it is likely that certain behaviours will be more speci? c in a given situation. For example, within the framework of a dissatisfaction bound to durable goods (high price and high commitment), one would tend to observe among ‘complainers’ a stronger proportion of ‘irritated actives’ or ‘irates’. In a weakly competitive market they will tend to be ‘activists’.
If the usual quality level of products is weak, ‘detractors’ and ‘irates’ will be observed. Finally, within the framework of a well-established relationship a majority of ‘champions’ or ‘slightly offended people’ would be expected. TOWARDS A DIACHRONIC APPROACH TO CCB The literature does not propose a systematisation in the organisation of antecedents and determinants of CCB. This de? ciency is essentially due to the fact that CCB is regarded as an immediate act and not as a process. In fact, this concept lacks a clearly identi? ed theoretical framework which allows the rganisation of a heterogeneous set of factors that initiate and modulate it and which can take into account resemblances and differences that also comply with the more global notion of dissatisfaction responses. Indeed, an ambiguity in the study of CCB results from the fact that it should not include, by semantic de? nition, the non-behavioural aspect of responses to dissatisfaction or customers leaving. The 64 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003) Consumers’ complaint behaviour iachronic nature of the phenomenon of complaint could probably explain similarities and differences which exist between these two concepts. The number of implied variables strengthens the idea that CCB is not an instantaneous phenomenon, it is the outcome of a process of preliminary evaluations under the in? uence of initiating and modulating factors. This approach also raises the question of the effect of time on a consumer’s initial impulse to complain. CCB occurs after increasing re? ection by the consumer. 56–57 and Stephens and Gwinner,58 offer the ? rst longitudinal approach to CCB on the basis of in-depth interviews.
For them, CCB results from a double cognitive evaluation. 59 The ? rst is de? ned as a process by which the individual estimates how much in? uence a particular situation, in a given environment, has on his/her well being. The second may be analysed as a problem resolution strategy. The CCB depends then on the situation and on the psychological resources of the individuals. Within this framework, it is then relevant to think that generally the intention to complain or protest must occur at the same time as dissatisfaction and under the in? uence of initiating factors.
This primary intention is then the object of various distorting or modulating factors meaning that the ? nal outcome is often different from that intended, it can be highly altered or just not come about at all. This idea then leads to the consideration of a number of non-behavioural responses to dissatisfaction or responses not perceptible by the company (cf. Figure 1) as being in some way failed CCBs. It is thus relevant to analyse how this intention arises and changes over time. After a phase of initiation represented by the initial level of dissatisfaction, then a phase of re? ction necessary for the integration of its cause and for the evaluation of the possible responses, there follows a phase of decision and of action which will in fact re? ect only the residual dissatisfaction at the conclusion of the process. This remaining dissatisfaction can nevertheless be reinforced to reach a higher level than that of the initial dissatisfaction, for example if the consumer is strengthened in his/her decision, either by the problem worsening, by the salesperson’s attitude or by the encouragement of third parties. In that case, measures taken by the consumer can be more signi? ant than those initially intended. Nevertheless the process does not stop with the voicing of the complaint, it also includes evaluation of the company’s response and concludes with the ? nal behaviour which ensues from it (repurchase or exit). It is then advisable to restore, in a diachronic framework, various streams of literature whose main object is to explain the result of this process. Indeed, when researchers take time into account in CCB, it is essentially the available time to protest that is considered60 and not the period separating the episode of dissatisfaction from the response to it.
But, the procedural knowledges are connected in time. They echo information relative to processes, that is to say sequences of actions, or sequences of reasoning in the sense that they order, or at least structure, the progress of several operations, possibly several procedures. This cognitive approach to complaint behaviour places it totally within the framework of a decision process. TOWARDS AN INTEGRATION OF THE VARIOUS ANTECEDENTS AND DETERMINANTS OF CCB In a simplistic way and besides its diachronic aspect, it is possible to distinguish within the conceptual part of the literature related to the determinants
Henry Stewart Publications 1741-2439 (2003) Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management 65 Crie ? Psychological sphere - Sociocultural factors - Frustration/assurance - Learning - Attribution - Attitude/complaint - Experiences - Educational level DISSATISFACTION Negative word of mouth Economic sphere - Structure of the market - Frequency of purchases - Interactions buyer / seller - Costs of the complaint - Probability of success - Expected profit - Incomes - Switching barriers - Equity - Loyalty - Information
TYPE OF RESPONSE Complaint Legal action Inactivity Leaving Ethical sphere Figure 2: Antecedents and determinants of CCB of CCB, three spheres of factors which interact with different weights to lead, eventually, to CCB or to other modalities of response to dissatisfaction such as de? ned above. The psychological sphere is made up of individual variables re? ecting the propensity to CCB. The economic sphere groups together elements of cost and exchange structures. Finally, the ethical sphere incorporates transactional equity, concentrating on the erception of the value of the link with the company and on the accuracy and helpfulness of the information given, for example, regarding ways to resolve the disputes, etc (Figure 2). On the other hand, the diachronic approach to CCB requires its various antecedents and determinants to be anchored on two points: ? rst on the initiating factors and secondly on the factors modulating the mode of complaint. This point of view allows not only integration of the various explanatory theories and the synthesis described above but also for a short path to complaint to be distinguished from a long one.
This distinction, notably, can take into account the role of time and of both types of factors on CCB. In a short path the in? uence of the modulating factors is less, the complaint occurring mostly at the sale point, almost simultaneously with delivery of the product or service. It is an immediate emotional reaction rather than an extended process. In a long, extended path, however, there are more modulating factors which seem to shape the type of response. (The variables of the ethical sphere work as initiators, those of the economic sphere have a modulator role and those of the psychological sphere can be classi? d as either type. ) On the whole, four entities are directly involved in CCB: the product or service, the customer, the supplier and the episode of dissatisfaction. These various actors allow, within the framework of a diachronic approach, the multiple antecedents and determinants of CCB (Table 3) to be re-ordered. 66 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003) Consumers’ complaint behaviour Table 3: Various determinants of CCB according to the stage and the actor
Stage of CB Actor Product/service Initiation of CB Dissatisfaction level Modulation of CB Structure of the market Alternatives Purchase rate Price, complexity of the product/service Attitude, Experience/CB Learning, Information/CB Loyalty Education, Age, Sex Ethnicity Way of life Secondary evaluation of response possibilities Absence of management of post purchase Ease of access to the company Switching barriers Switching costs Customer/seller interactions Size of the company, business sector Expected pro? t Transaction costs of CB Probability of success Importance of consumer organisations Customer
Perceived frustration Perceived inequity Assurance (self control) Will to act Primary evaluation of the dissatisfaction Supplier Quality defect Incident/product or service Episode Situation, circumstances Dissatisfaction attribution Time-spatial simultaneity of the dissatisfaction and response possibilities Initiating factors of CCB Several factors may lead to CCB. Introducing and determining, partly, a consumer’s choice of a given type of response to dissatisfaction, they allow on the one hand a better understanding of consumers’ motivation for CCB and, on the other hand, a forecast of what response will be the most likely to be adopted.
Ordinarily consumers need to be dissatis? ed in order to complain but other variables are necessary to switch from dissatisfaction to complaint. Such variables may lie in attribution of the cause of dissatisfaction or in psychosociological characteristics of the individual consumer (see Table 3). Dissatisfaction Dissatisfaction is a necessary antecedent of CCB, but is often not suf? cient61,62 (see also Jacoby and Jaccard,63 Westbrook64 and Ping65 on the notion of complaint without dissatisfaction66). It is the activating factor of the process. 7 Besides, Oliver68 underlines the existing relationship between the intensity of the dissatisfaction and this behaviour. 69 Grandbois et al. ,70 Richins,71 Maute and Forrester72 prove that the gravity of the problem is correlated in a positive way with the various responses to dissatisfaction including CCB. The more the dissatisfaction increases, the more the verbal complaint strengthens and the more the probability of leaving the company grows. For Singh and Pandya,73 the relationship ‘intensity-type of response’ is not linear and admits threshold effects.
When the level of dissatisfaction exceeds a given threshold consumers tend to use either negative word of mouth or leaving or appeal to a third party. On the other hand, the relationship between attitude to the Henry Stewart Publications 1741-2439 (2003) Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management 67 Crie ? complaint and CCB itself can be modulated by the intensity of the dissatisfaction. 74–76 Attribution of the cause of the dissatisfaction Psychosociological factors
To lead to CCB, the consumer has to identify clearly the party responsible for his or her dissatisfaction during a given consumption episode (Table 3). In numerous cases it is the consumer himself/herself, for example when he/she judges he/she did not make the right choice. So, even if for Valle77 the attribution of responsibility for dissatisfaction operates as an intermediary between the confusion and the response which follow, it is advisable to classify it as an initiating factor of CCB. According to Weiner et al. 78 a success or failure can be attributed either to elements under the control of the individual (internal cause[s]), or to environment or situational factors (external cause[s]). On the other hand, the performance can be attributed to invariant factors (stable) or evolving with time (unstable). The type of attribution achieved by the consumer determines a priori the response that may be chosen. If an external attribution is necessary for a private type action, a legal action or a request for repair, in the case of an internal attribution it is especially inactivity which dominates. 9 Usually, consumers who perceive the cause of their dissatisfaction as being stable (the same problem may recur) or controllable (the individual thinks that the retailer could have prevented the trouble) are more inclined to leave the product or the company and to engage in negative word of mouth than those who think that the problem has little chance of recurring and that the supplier could not prevent it (see also Folkes80). Some individual characteristics are to be considered as initiators of CCB, although they can also play a modulating role according to the situation (Table 3).
Fornell and Westbrook,81 according to Mischel,82 associate CCB with the feeling of frustration felt by a dissatis? ed consumer. Frustration arises not only when the objective assigned to a given behaviour is blocked or interrupted before its ful? lment, but also when the result achieved has a lower level than that sought, or when its realisation requires more resources than the consumer can, wants or expects to spend to reach the desired objective. This feeling is also present when the means to reach the satisfaction, both at the resources level and at the wanted object level (product or brand), are reduced or suppressed.
Along the same lines, frustration can arise in situations of purchase intention (unavailability of the product or of the brand) or in post-purchase situations (dissatisfaction of use or of ownership). The more substantial the frustration, the greater the risk of aggressiveness and CCB. For Stephens and Gwinner83 the stress of dissatisfaction adds to the daily stress and CCB is connected to a double evaluation of the situation during a cognitive process. Three constituents form the primary evaluation of the stress: (1) the level of modi? ation of the individual objectives; (2) the incongruity between these objectives and the incident; (3) the level of the person’s ego infringement (humiliation, self-esteem, ethical values). A second evaluation of possible response strategies is then initiated according to: (1) the responsibility attribution for the confusion; (2) the possibility of solving the problem (capacities of the individual, probability of success); (3) the feeling that things will go better afterwards. If 68
Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003) Consumers’ complaint behaviour the resulting stress of the primary evaluation can be reduced by a solving strategy (secondarily estimated), the probability of CCB is great. If, on the other hand, this strategy risks increasing the initial stress, the main probability turns out to be a non-behavioural response or a response towards the market (see Figure 1). Other individual characteristics may also in? ence the start of a complaint process,84 eg loyalty to the brand, product or supplier; the level of quality assessment, the educational level and tastes; the ability to detect quality differences (a function of experience) and the acquired level of information; perception of the ‘cost/pro? t’ ratio of the possible actions. For Lapidus and Pinkerton,85 the consumer–retailer relationship is one of social exchange and, therefore, equity theory may be applied in order to explain the initiation of CCB.
The consumer compares his/her inputs/outputs ratio with those that he/she perceives to be received by the seller. Naturally this comparison can be biased according to the trend (positive or negative) of the revealed inequity. The complaint appears then as an attempt to reduce the perceived inequity (see also Blodgett et al. 86). Secondly, the costs inherent in the complaint and its perceived outcome can be considered as inputs and outputs of this theory. Finally, learning theory can also be mentioned: the inclination to CCB is essentially a function of past experiences87–90 and of their outcome. 1 Modulator factors of CCB Dissatisfaction can be organised around two congruent factors: the former is situational, the latter temporal. It can indeed occur where the product is purchased or the service is delivered and thus be immediate, but it can also take place at a distance from the act of purchase. In the same way, the response to dissatisfaction can be either immediate or deferred. So the CCB can consist of rather a short path in the case of a dissatisfaction on the spot and of an immediate response, or a long circuit in the case of delayed dissatisfaction with regard to the purchase act or of a postponed response.
It is then, especially in this last situation, that numerous variables can intervene to modify the consumer’s actual response, by moderating or aggravating it: ultimately the intensity of the CCB will thus depend on an evaluation of the situation during a temporal process. The market structure, sociocultural characteristics or evaluation of the various costs associated with CCB will act as modulators of the process outcome. The market structure The market structure can be regarded as an element in? uencing the response type choice adopted by a dissatis? ed consumer (see Table 3).
For Hirschman,92 consumers are ready to voice their complaints in two circumstances: (1) the way they balance the certainty of leaving and the uncertainty of an improvement in the product or service quality and (2) the estimation they make of their capacity to in? uence the organisation by voicing their concerns. These two factors are far from being independent. Fornell and Didow93 situate CCB in the larger ? eld of rational choice — with the slight difference that choice in economic theory is in the pre-purchase period, while CCB is generally a post-purchase phenomenon.
The objects of choice are also different: products and services in the ? rst case, type of response in the second. In this theoretical framework, they show that verbal action can be Henry Stewart Publications 1741-2439 (2003) Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management 69 Crie ? expressed as a preference function and as the possibility of purchasing elsewhere. Indeed, in a restricted competitive environment, verbal action will be the only possible action for a dissatis? ed consumer. 4,95 In contrast, when competitors are numerous, the customer’s leaving becomes the most likely reaction and his/her action is then situated at the market level (see Figure 1). Therefore, the market structure appears as a powerful determinant of CCB. On the other hand, and within this framework, sensitivity of the various customer segments, either to price or quality, shapes the dominant response type to dissatisfaction. Those sensitive to price may leave the company, those sensitive to quality are more inclined to complain. 6 It also seems that buyer–seller interaction frequency (ie purchase rate) plays a part in the preference for verbal action. 97 The more frequent these interactions the fewer the public actions. 98 On the other hand, Barksdale et al. 99 report that the lower the level of purchase at the same supplier, the greater the tendency to CCB. New purchases lead to more complaints and the usual suppliers receive more complaints than the new ones. For Weiser,100 the degree of ease of access to the company and the willingness of the customer to complain are determining elements in the choice of a response type. In a more speci? way, Andreasen101 emphasises, within the framework of nearly monopolistic markets or markets perceived as such, that the response type is a function of the: perceived heterogeneity of the offer quality; level of knowledge; level of perceived switching costs; probability of success of a verbal action both for the individual and the community; supposed complaint level of other consumers; and the degree of loyalty to the product, brand or supplier. The attractiveness of the alternatives or the availability of substitutable goods shows a strong relationship with the response type adopted by the consumer. 02 In the same way, the more important the company the more the number of complaints. 103,104 Day et al. 105 classify in three categories the factors which can in? uence the propensity to CCB: (1) the circumstances de? ning the interests at work and evaluation of the costs and likely pro? ts of a search for compensation; (2) the characteristics of the individuals or the situation surrounding the costs and the purely psychological pro? ts of alternative actions, as well as the general tendency of the mediation interventions; (3) market conditions and the legal climate.
For Day et al. , this latter category determines the probability of a favourable outcome to the action taken. Generally speaking this type of action will also depend on the nature of the product or service, the usable channels of complaint and the third parties which could intervene. On the other hand, for Andreasen and Best,106 the inclination of consumers to perceive problems depends on the nature of the exchange. For services this propensity is greatest, because they are, by nature, more dif? cult to assess (see Shuptrine and Wenglorz,107 Bearden and Masson108).
But there is also a unit of time and place during service delivery which favours CCB. Referring to the attribution theory, Zeithaml and Bitner109 consider that because the customer is an actor in service delivery, the customer appropriates more willingly a part of responsibility in his/her dissatisfaction and tends to protest less often. Sociocultural factors Some sociocultural factors have to be acknowledged as modulators of the complaint process (see Table 3). For Day 70 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003)
Consumers’ complaint behaviour et al. ,110 (1) the standards of life and the effectiveness of the marketing system, (2) the degree of regulation and control of economic activities and marketing practices and (3) the availability of information to help consumers make their choice or to know where to complain, represent three groups of characteristics to be taken into account for a cross-cultural approach to the phenomenon. Richins,111 within the framework of an international comparison, shows that in the USA the factors most correlated to CCB are price, the dif? ulty the consumer faces in resolving the confusion by himself and the attribution of the cause of dissatisfaction. In the Netherlands Richins found the correlating factors were price, responsibility for the damage and its felt intensity. The most determinative variables remain the attribution of responsibility and the perceived consequences of a complaint, two variables less correlated to CCB in the American sample. Cornwell, Bligh and Babakus112 clearly highlight that ethnic origin plays an important role in CCB especially through values and the way of life.
Webster113 also ? nds an in? uence of ethnic factors when the effect of social variables is controlled. Furthermore, women generally have a greater inclination to complain and people living in rural areas are more prone to negative word of mouth. 114 For Farhangmehr and Silva,115 educational level is a determining variable; the higher it is the more consumers tend to complain in a dissatisfaction situation (see Gronhaug,116 Morganosky and Buckley117). In their study, the reasons for silence on the part of the consumer are: the effort and waste of time involved (44. per cent) which can be compared with the expected gain; the feeling of not being understood or that the problem will not be resolved (30. 3 per cent); and not knowing where and how to complain (21. 1 per cent) which is related to the consumer’s information level. Obviously these proportions can vary with the opinion that consumers have about the possibility of resolution of their problem according to the sector or company concerned. 118 Gronhaug and Zaltman119 show that economic indicators such as income have only a weak explanatory power and that it is the same for demographic factors. 20–123 For Singh124 the ‘complainers’ tend to have superior incomes, a higher educational level, are still working and are younger (also Bearden et al. 125). Laforge126 indeed shows that elderly people complain less, this in agreement with the sociological theory of learned helplessness which makes the individual passive because he/she perceives the situation as uncontrollable. The costs of the complaint In reference to the works of Landon,127 the pro? t of a complaint is a function of the result minus the cost of complaint.
This result is itself estimated with regard to the importance and the nature of the damage sustained. The consumer’s preference for verbal action is then related to the expected value of the complaint outcome (connected with the importance of the dissatisfaction) minus the associated costs. 128 The latter depend notably on the image of the company, especially in the resolution of disputes, on the consumer’s experience of CCB and on the nature of the dispute. An arbitration is thus achieved between cost and pro? of every possible action so as to gain maximum utility. 129 Gronhaug and Gilly130 use transaction costs theory131 in order to explain the various consumer responses to dissatisfaction. Three dimensions of this theory (speci? city, uncertainty and exchange frequency) can be invoked to Henry Stewart Publications 1741-2439 (2003) Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management 71 Crie ? explain CCB. Does approaching the distributor or manufacturer entail speci? c costs? Generally, CCB requires time and effort thus generating a mixture of ifferent types of costs, eg opportunity cost of the elapsed time, deliberation costs, transportation costs — these can be called CCB transaction costs. These costs are speci? c to the envisaged response type whether it is actual or not. They cannot be paid off afterwards, at best they could be used as a learning stage in order to reduce them during a later complaint. Uncertainty arises from any transaction (ie complaint) and the consumer looks for information to reduce this uncertainty to a bearable level. Finally, the complaint frequency has a direct in? ence on its organisation, possibly becoming a ‘routine’, thus reducing the associated costs. This theory thus explains more frequent CCB when consumers have superior educational level: they know their rights so the level of uncertainty associated with the complaint is reduced and there is, therefore, a global decrease of the perceived costs of a complaint. Nevertheless, as a general rule, the majority of dissatis? ed customers do not complain. Kolodinsky132 insists moreover on the assessment, by the consumer, of the temporal cost of the choice of an appropriate response.
Furthermore, as the search for a new product or supplier also generates numerous costs, it is often the case that the dissatis? ed consumer refrains from any action. 133,134 MANAGERIAL IMPLICATIONS FOR HANDLING COMPLAINTS Businesses are, too often, completely hopeless at dealing with complaints, although complaint management has become an important issue for many companies. Some elements of the various theories mentioned above allow managers to understand better the complaint process in order to cope with it better.
First of all, and within the framework of relationship marketing, complaint management is a major strategic issue. On the one hand complaint management has a retention function in the sense that where a customer satis? ed with the treatment of his/her complaint gets a second-order feeling of satisfaction his/her con? dence with the company is strengthened. Thus companies that respond to consumer dissatisfaction and complaints with appropriate recovery strategies and satisfactory complaint resolution can turn dissatis? ed consumers into satis? ed ones, positively in? uencing repurchase rates (eg Bearden and Oliver135).
To decrease the effect of dissatisfaction and the incidence of further negative actions, companies need to show, at the least, that they are responsive to legitimate complaints. But, if problems are resolved poorly, they are only the beginning of a multitude of ‘hidden’ actions which do not come to the attention of the business. So, proper handling of customer complaints improves repeat patronage intentions and reduces negative word of mouth. 136 Finally, in dealing with complaints, truly marketing-oriented companies must examine not only the costs of the remedy, but also the cost of not settling the complaint.
The usual rationale is that complaints represent valuable feedback to companies that allows them to take corrective action vis-a-vis the defective product or ` service as regards either the critical incidents137 or adjustment of the offer to match customer expectations. Both actions are of strategic nature: the ? rst is concerned with customer relationship management and retention, the second with an equally long-term strategy, ie continuous improvement of the product or service in order to ? t customer expectations. 72 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management
Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003) Consumers’ complaint behaviour From an operational point of view, the complaints handling process begins before the customer addresses his/her complaint to the seller or manufacturer. All must be done in order that the various costs associated with this behaviour are reduced, so that complaints are encouraged, facilitated and even solicited in order for companies to take corrective action. Kotler138 suggests that the best thing a retailer can do is to make it easy for a customer to complain.
For example, Saint Maclou, a French nationally-advertised carpet manufacturer and retailer, indicates on each bill the name of the person to contact if a problem arises and, if the trouble remains unresolved, the name of a more empowered executive is given. Access to the company thus has to be multichannel. The customer must be assured that he/she will be listened to and that his/her problem will probably be successfully resolved. Lastly, and according to justice theory, the consumer must be conscious that the failure will be corrected fairly, that is to say with impartiality, transparency, effectiveness and fairness.
As the majority of dissatis? ed consumers leave the company without complaining, managers have to overcome customers’ natural disinclination to complain. Thus this process is concerned with service recovery, that is to say, the recti? cation of mistakes or compensation of customers. Service recovery is de? ned as the response a provider makes to a service failure;139 service failure usually requires dissatisfaction on the part of the customer. It begins with thanks for the approach by the customer: salespeople or staff need to learn to use ‘complaint welcoming’ procedures.
Then the complaint must be listened to. Psychologically speaking it is important for the customer to cope with his/her frustration through a kind of debrie? ng by oral or written expression of the trouble. For instance, complaint letters to Railtrack in the UK rose to an all time high in 2001, without the writers realistically expecting any immediate bene? t other than the ability to articulate their frustration. Complaint, especially voice, gives the customer an opportunity to ‘tell their side of the story’ which serves as a kind of reward for the customer. 40 Furthermore, Levy and Weitz141 argue that a salesperson’s willingness to listen can be an important source of consumer dissatisfaction and complaint intentions. A salesperson’s willingness to listen has been described as the degree of attentiveness a person shows. 142 According to Palmroth,143 a salesperson must ask questions until s/he understands the full nature of the complaint without appearing to place blame on the customer. These salespeople should be seen as trustworthy, friendly, expert, honest, helpful and concerned.
The third step is concerned with the acknowledgment of the failure, if justi? ed. (If not, it is necessary to explain why and, according to the attribution theory, to gently point out the misuse of the service or product. It should also be noted that some consumers may complain not out of dissatisfaction but in an effort to gain fraudulently from retailers or manufacturers. ) This is, however, related to the salesperson’s familiarity with the product and awareness of any possible problems with the merchandise in question.
Apologies are the next step and empowered contact employees must be able to offer immediate redress where possible or advice on the way to proceed, always in order to reduce customers’ costs and frustration. Indeed, of customers who register a complaint, about 60 to 75 per cent will do business with the provider again if their complaint has been resolved, and this Henry Stewart Publications 1741-2439 (2003) Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management 73 Crie ? gure goes up to 95 per cent if the customer feels that the complaint was resolved quickly. Furthermore, providing compensation is a common response to customer complaints. In addition to the tangible bene? ts received, customers typically see the compensation as a symbolic expression of regret by the provider. 144 In a word, courteous and fast treatment by front of? ce personnel can enhance favourable post-complaint responses145 and staff must persuade the customer that all will be done to ensure that the trouble does not recur. Other authors provide some rules of thumb.
For example, Davidow146 presents a model framework that divides the organisational responses to complaint into six separate dimensions: timeliness, facilitation, redress, apology, credibility and attentiveness. Nevertheless, according to Mitchell,147 a study shows that 51 per cent of his sample who had complained about a service and 23 per cent about products were less than completely satis? ed with the responses they received. The importance of regulatory authorities in determining how complaints should be managed in a marketing sense, and their active involvement in researching this area and etting standards should also be noted. Generally speaking the legal analysis assumes that it is important that companies are involved in ? xing problems with consumers. But more often, sector-based organisations are proactive and promulgate codes of conduct or of deontology in order to provide a conventional frame for a wide range of business activities, including complaints. For instance, Consumer Complaint Form (CCform; coordinated by the Federation of European Direct Marketing) is a European Commission Information Society Technology funded project to reach a consensus between business, consumers, academics and egulators on new, more ef? cient and transparent processes for complaints management. The CCform project aims to develop an online, multilingual complaint form and a best practice business process. With CCform, consumers will be able to make complaints in their own language, and then the form will be translated into the companies’ preferred tongue. Note that cultural norms appear to change the way people react to dissatisfaction and so the response type. Consumers will be able to track the progress of their complaint, and, if necessary, escalate their grievance to a dispute resolution service or regulator.
CCform can be used by any company doing business by e-commerce, distance selling or local retail operations. 148 Complainants may have recourse to a third party and an escalation in the process can result. In this sense, the complaint handling can also be seen as a dispute prevention mechanism. On the other hand, and from a customer relationship management point of view, CCB is an important early warning. Furthermore, Powers and Bendall-Lyon149 have shown that the number of complaints increased as a result of the introduction of a complaint management programme in an hospital context.
Complaint management programmes enable organisations to receive complaint information in order to identify and accommodate dissatis? ed customers and identify common failure points in order to improve service quality. Each complaint either by phone, face to face, letter or e-mail, should be recorded in the database. The manager should be able to link each product, customer and complaint together. For example, a customer with an increasing complaint rate may be in a leaving phase and should be carefully monitored. Indeed, and although customer 4 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003) Consumers’ complaint behaviour relationship management aims to establish and maintain ongoing customer relationships by focusing on the speci? c customer’s needs in order to deliver high levels of customer satisfaction and company loyalty, one major aspect of customer relationship management is the effective handling of customer complaints. CONCLUSION AND FUTURE RESEARCH This paper allows CCB to be placed and de? ed within the larger framework of responses to dissatisfaction and then suggests an integrating framework of diachronic nature. Until now research into CCB has taken a deductive approach, researchers trying to deduce its causes from contextual or individual elements without being really interested in the process taking place in a temporal space of variable duration. The various works of literature studied offer different explanations for CCB but few of them consider the sequence and interaction of initiating or modulating factors in a process.
CCB is indeed essentially described in its immediate nature, that is to say as an instantaneous event. Nevertheless, the nature and intensity of response to dissatisfaction certainly depend on the type of experience and on the responsible product/service but they also involve two other actors (the supplier and the customer) in a diachronic framework. The variability of individual reactions, notably revealed by the lack of a clear typology of ‘complainers and noncomplainers’, results from a different weighting of constitutive elements of the process over time.
The joining together and organisation of these elements, from which three large areas can be isolated (the utilitarian sphere of the economists, the ethical sphere of equity and the psychological sphere, notably represented by attribution), supply a synthetic approach by describing CCB in two stages: initiation and modulation. The initiation phase is related to the dissatisfaction level which determines the opening of the process. It is then followed by a search for attribution of the problem and by the perception of the inequitable character of the transaction engendering frustration or stress which the individual will try to minimise.
It is during the evaluation of the problem resolution strategies that modulators, such as experience and attitude towards the complaint, personality of the individual and his/her sensitivity to quality, will or will not allow the process to evolve towards the actual complaint. Other factors of this type can be isolated, such as loyalty level and information level, the degree of nearness (commitment) in the relationship with the supplier, the market structure (particularly the possibility of choice alternatives) and ? ally, the hoped/expected utility of the complaint with regard to the perceived costs as well as the accessibility of the company for CCB. If CCB is taken to be a process it becomes easy to link together all the response types following an episode of dissatisfaction and this knowledge is helpful for complaints handling, eg in encouraging the customer to complain or in avoiding his leaving. The TARP study150 indeed indicates that 90 per cent of dissatis? ed consumers initiate no action and leave the product, brand or company.
So, the managerial implications arise not only from contextual factors but also from the diachronic aspect of the phenomenon. Although initiators are only weakly accessible to action by the manager, except by avoiding dissatisfaction and by strengthening the perceived equity of transactions, some Henry Stewart Publications 1741-2439 (2003) Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management 75 Crie ? modulators can be amended so as to lead the dissatis? ed customer to complain more frequently. Thus the company can contribute to the modi? ation of consumers’ attitudes towards CCB by: rendering more favourable the perception of previous experiences; restoring a feeling of equity after a complaint; decreasing the costs, particularly the psychological ones; and ? nally, establishing interpersonal relationships that reduce the attraction of alternatives. It is necessary to reward customers who complain by including them in this step and by getting them used to this cultural change. It is necessary to insist on the urgency of a dissatisfaction communication to the company and to shorten the response delay (free phone number, speci? coupon, website, CCform. . . ) in order to minimise the negative constituents of the modulators. From a passive role of complaint reception, the company has to evolve towards a proactive stage in the genesis and the actual expression of CCB. It is then necessary to gather information about dissatisfaction as quickly as possible in order to divert a process which would otherwise probably lead to the customer leaving. So, complaints must be regarded more as a marketing tool than as a cost (better service to the customer and customer retention); they constitute a fundamental element of relationship marketing.
This synthesis should encourage the number of research studies into the diachronic side of CCB, in the sense that any dissatisfaction (of external attribution) requires that the consumer get in touch with the company. So, the relationship between dissatisfaction, complaint intention and actual response deserve to be clari? ed in connection with time. It is also advisable to analyse more exactly consumers’ expectations of complaints. It is indeed by satisfying these expectations that marketers can hope to increase the number of ‘complainers’. References 1 Hirschman, A. O. (1970) ‘Exit, voice and loyalty: Responses to decline in ? ms, organizations and states’, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 2 Day, R. and Landon, E. Jr. (1977) ‘Toward a theory of consumer complaining behavior’ in Woodside, Sheth and Bennett (eds) ‘Consumer and industrial buying behavior’, North Holland Publishing Co. , Amsterdam, pp. 425–437. 3 Richins, M. L. (1987) ‘A multivariate analysis of responses to dissatisfaction’, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 24–31. 4 Levesque, T. J. and McDougall, G. H. G. (1996) ‘Customer dissatisfaction: The relationship between types of problems and customer response’, Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 264–276. 5 Brown, S. and Swartz, T. (1984) ‘Consumer medical complaint behavior: Determinants of and alternatives to malpractices litigation’, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Vol. 3, pp. 85–98. 6 Day, R. L. , Grabicke, K. , Schaetzle, T. and Staubach, F. (1981) ‘The hidden agenda of consumer complaining’, Journal of Retailing, Vol. 57, No. 3, pp. 86–106. 7 Bearden, W. O. and Teel, J. E. (1983) ‘Selected determinants of consumer satisfaction and complaint reports’, Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 21–28. 8 Barnes, J. and Kelloway, K. R. 1980) ‘Consumerists: Complaining behavior and attitude toward social and consumer issues’, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 7, pp. 329–334. 9 Singh, J. (1988) ‘Consumer complaint intentions and behavior: De? nitional and taxonomical issues’, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 52, No. 2, pp. 93–107. 10 Day, R. L. (1984) ‘Modeling choices among alternative responses to dissatisfaction’, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 11, pp. 496–499. 11 Day and Landon (1977) op. cit. 12 Jacoby, J. and Jaccard, J. J. (1981) ‘The sources, meaning and validity of consumer complaining behavior; A psychological review’, Journal of Retailing, Vol. 57, No. , pp. 4–24. 13 Day et al. (1981) op. cit. 14 Fornell, C. and Wernerfelt, B. (1987) ‘Defensive marketing strategy by customer complaint management: A theoretical analysis’, Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 337–346. 15 Singh (1988) op. cit. 16 Day and Landon Jr. (1977) op. cit. 17 Day (1984) op. cit. 18 Richins, M. L. (1983) ‘Negative word of mouth by dissatis? ed consumers: A pilot study’, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 68–78. 19 Hirschman (1970) op. Cit. 20 Day and Landon Jr. (1977) op. cit. 76 Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management Vol. 11, 1, 60–79 Henry Stewart Publications 1741–2439 (2003)
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