University of Texas at Austin, USA
University of Texas at Austin, USA
The emergence of the Internet and its communication capabilities have changed the way consumers communicate their negative experiences with products and services. This chapter offers a comprehensive assessment of the Internet as a viable complaint communication channel and details its related threats and opportunities. An integrated conceptual model of consumer complaint behavior is proposed. It is suggested that an in-depth understanding of the psychological mechanisms that underlie consumer complaint behavior and the characteristics of online communication as well as the characteristics of the business may be essential in taking advantage of the Internet as a complaint communication channel. Managerial implications and recommendations for practical implementation are also suggested.
Consumer complaint behavior (CCB) is usually defined as a set of all behavioral and non-behavioral responses which involve communicating something negative regarding a purchase episode and is triggered by perceived dissatisfaction with that episode (Singh & Howell, 1985). As such, CCB has generally been viewed as falling into one of a set of consumer responses: voice responses (e.g., seeking redress from seller), private responses (e.g., word-of-mouth communication or exit), and third-party response (e.g., reporting to a consumer agency or taking legal action against the firm) (Singh, 1990a).
The emergence of the Internet and its communication capabilities has changed the way consumers communicate their negative experiences with products and services. Before the Internet, the name of the game was one-to-one communication between the consumer and the business. Most of the previous research in CCB literature therefore sought to identify factors that led dissatisfied consumers to exit silently rather than to voice their complaints. With the Internet, however, the game is now played out in the open and on a broader communication continuum (Widdows, 2001).
Through the Internet, for the first time in human history, consumers can make their thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints on products and services easily accessible to the global community of Internet users. The Internet becomes a sort of super-megaphone, giving any individual’s word-of-mouth (WOM) the kind of reach way beyond anything previously possible (Solovy, 2000). Many online retailers even encourage consumers to post their reviews of products and services (e.g., www.epinion.com, www.elance.com). These “published” opinions are actively sought out by other consumers with the goals of specific information input to purchase decision, the desire for support and community, and, perhaps, some degree of entertainment motives (Schindler & Bickart, 2002). Furthermore, the online feedback has worked as a viable mechanism for building trust in electronic markets, which is otherwise a very risky trading environment (Dellarocas, 2003).
Given the increase of Internet usage and the potential damage that negative WOM information posted on the Web can do to the bottom line, companies have worked hard to integrate online communication into their consumer service function (Strauss & Hill, 2001). A cursory examination of company Web sites indicates the significant presence of interactive capabilities for consumers to send in comments and complaints. Cross-media promotion such as an e-mail or Web site address printed on product packages with an 800 number under the line of “comments or complaints?” is also very common these days.
Clearly, developing Web sites with all the bells and whistles of interactive functions is not a difficult task for companies these days. The challenges that face today’s business, however, are how to engage consumers in a one-to-one relationship so that dissatisfied consumers will make use of the company’s Web sites to voice their dissatisfaction. This will require an in-depth understanding of the psychological mechanisms that underlie CCB. The purpose of this chapter is to provide a comprehensive assessment of the Internet as a viable complaint communication channel. An integrated conceptual model of CCB that describes the psychological processes consumers with a dissatisfying marketplace experience go through is provided. Based on this conceptual model, an assessment of online technology as a complaint communication channel and its related threats and opportunities are laid out. Finally, managerial implications and recommendations for practical implementation are suggested.
In one of the earlier attempts to conceptualize CCB, perceived consumer dissatisfaction (CD) was posited as a significant predictor of CCB (Bearden & Teel, 1983). CD was said to result from a combination of the discrepancy between expectations and performance and the importance of this discrepancy to the consumer (Landon, 1977). Although it appears intuitively obvious that the more dissatisfied consumers are the more they would engage in complaint behaviors, empirical studies conducted thus far suggest that this relationship is not particularly strong (Singh & Pandya, 1991). In fact, CD could explain no more than 20 percent of the variance in CCB (Bearden & Teel, 1983; Oliver, 1986).
Given that dissatisfaction is a sufficient but not a necessary precursor to complaining, Kowalski (1996) argued that a distinction should be made between people’s thresholds for experiencing and expressing dissatisfaction. Experiencing dissatisfaction (dissatisfaction threshold) is determined by the discrepancy between one’s expectations for a product and the actual performance of the product, whereas expressing dissatisfaction (complaining threshold) is contingent upon the utility of complaining. Therefore, researchers have invested their resources into investigating a variety of situational and personal factors that may help determine the utility of complaining.
Associated with the situational and personal variables, the “value of voicing the complaint” and “probability of successful voicing” constructs have been considered the underlying factors for determining the utility of complaint, and have received the most attention (e.g., Hirschman, 1970; Singh, 1990a, 1990b; Richins, 1983, 1985, 1987). Related to these factors, product importance (Bloch & Richins, 1983; Blodgett & Granbois, 1992), required time (Prakash, 1991), number of required contacts for resolution (Davidow & Leigh, 1998), the presence or absence of knowledge, skill and other resources (East, 1996), and the consumer’s perception of the responsiveness of channel members (Halstead & Droge, 1991) have also been investigated.
Although studies have been carried out, research into the understanding of the CCB phenomenon is often described as “fragmented” (Day, 1984). As indicated earlier, explanations of the conditions under which CCB occurs have typically been limited to research on situational and personal factors that influence the utility of complaining. Furthermore, CCB research lacks an integrated framework which describes the psychological process that consumers go through to make a complaint (Godwin, Patterson & Johnson, 1999).
One of the efforts to overcome these limitations in CCB research is to apply the cognitive appraisal theory (Lazarus, 1966; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) to the post-purchase process following a dissatisfying marketplace experience (e.g., Godwin et al., 1995; Stephens & Gwinner, 1998; Godwin et al., 1999). According to this theory, personality variables and those that characterize the environment come together in the appraisal of relational meaning of an encounter with the environment. The cognitive appraisal theory stipulates that cognitive appraisal precedes emotive reactions and coping mechanisms which are the psychological and behavioral actions taken by the individual to manage the demands of the emotion-evoking situation (Lazarus, 1993). Using this approach, consumer complaint behavior may be considered as one of the coping strategies that consumers use either to change the stressful transactions which occurs in the marketplace or to regulate the negative emotions that result from the transactions (Godwin et al., 1999).
The application of cognitive appraisal theory to CCB, such as Stephens and Gwinner’s (1998) cognitive-emotive process model of CCB, has made a significant contribution in providing a unifying theoretical framework for understanding CCB. In addition, it has brought back the disregarded role of consumer emotion in CCB. However, it should be noted that these efforts failed to integrate the relatively recent findings of consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction (CS/D) research into their model construction. Therefore, by incorporating the findings in the CS/D research, which will be discussed in the following section, into the cognitive appraisal theory-based approach, an integrated conceptual model of CCB is constructed. Figure 5-1 presents the model.
Figure 5-1: Integrated model of CCB
Traditionally, consumer dissatisfaction (CD) has been equated with the negative disconfirmation between perceived product performance and comparison standards that consumers use in forming summary satisfaction judgments. Indeed, the CCB research, including the cognitive appraisal theory-based approach, has accepted this proposition. However, it is important to stress that it is not the specific disconfirmation but rather the unique psychological process whereby the consumer evaluates and interprets the negative disconfirmation that produces CD (Bagozzi, Gopinath & Nyer, 1999). Even the same disconfirmation can be evaluated and interpreted in a totally different manner. Therefore, the negative disconfirmation between perceived product performance and comparison standards, rather than CD, is considered as an input into the ongoing consumer cognitive appraisal process.
Cognitive appraisal has been described as a process through which the person evaluates whether a particular encounter with the environment is relevant to his or her well-being, and if so, in what ways (Folkman et al., 1986). More specifically, Lazarus (1974) suggested that cognitive appraisal of an event is an evaluation of the event’s significance for the individual’s well-being (primary appraisal) and of one’s available potential to cope with the event (secondary appraisal). In the CCB context, it can be said that cognitive appraisal is a process whereby a consumer evaluates whether the negative disconfirmation is significant for his or her goals and whether she or he has the power to cope with the situation.
An important element of cognitive appraisal theory is that the interplay between primary and secondary appraisal determines which emotions are evoked (Lazarus, 1991a). For instance, Nyer (1997a) empirically demonstrated that, when an individual evaluated an event as one with high goal relevance and low goal congruence, he might experience more anger when given a chance to complain rather than without that opportunity. This is because, if individuals believe coping is possible using a particular coping mechanism (i.e., complaining in Nyer’s research), then the emotions associated with that particular coping mechanism (i.e., anger in Nyer’s research) are strengthened (Lazarus, 1991b).
In addition to evoking emotions, the consumer’s cognitive appraisal process may elicit CD directly or indirectly through affective responses. Fournier and Mick (1999) suggest that the culturally and individually constituted meanings of consumption are crucial for understanding consumer satisfaction in daily life. These meanings are closely connected to a consumer’s life themes and projects (Mich & Buhl, 1992) that determine goals in his daily life. In a similar vein, Singh and Pandya (1991) suggested that CD was a result of the discrepancy between expectations and performance plus the importance of this discrepancy to the consumer. Related to the impact of affective responses in forming CD, a few researchers have gone beyond the cognitively toned model formulations of CD to consider the affective nature of satisfaction (e.g., Olive, 1993; Westbrook & Olive, 1991; Westbrook, 1987). In doing so, they found that product/consumption affective responses contributed significantly to (dis)satisfaction above and beyond the negative disconfirmation of comparison standards.
In the integrated model, the consumer’s choice among a set of CCB responses is influenced by CD and affective responses. Research by Nyer (1997a, 1997b) found that post-consumption responses such as repurchase intention, word-of-mouth intention, and other reactions were predicted best by using measures of satisfaction plus measures of other emotions. Zeelenberg and Pieters (1999) also empirically illustrated that specific affective responses, resulting from the consumer’s cognitive appraisal process, may influence CCB above and beyond CD.
As coping mechanisms undertaken by consumers to change the stressful transactions which occur in the marketplace or to regulate the negative emotions that result from the transactions, CCB responses in turn can change subsequent appraisals and emotions. The experience and knowledge obtained in the complaint process may be entered into cognitive appraisals as a possibility for coping (East, 1996). In addition, coping itself may influence dissatisfaction by venting the frustration. While traditional research on CCB focused on the indirect benefit of CCB such as consumer-initiated market information that can be useful for strategic and tactical decisions, several recent studies (e.g., Bennett, 1997; Nyer, 1999, 2000) have examined the direct benefits of complaining. These studies found that outbursts of anger during complaints apparently led to feelings of relief and psychological well-being among consumers, which in turn significantly decreased dissatisfaction.
The main advantage of the cognitive appraisal theory as a framework for explaining CCB is its emphasis on coping potential as an important factor in the consumer’s complaint decision (Stephens & Gwinner, 1998). Coping potential is the extent to which people anticipate the probable success of their coping effort, given options for coping (Lazarus, 1991a). Companies can increase a consumer’s coping potential by instituting coping mechanisms which minimize the expected costs of complaining from the consumer’s standpoint. By doing so, these companies are in a good position to increase the number of individuals voicing their displeasure and, thus, have the opportunity to remedy the problem and retain consumers (Stephens & Gwinner, 1998).
In terms of increasing the consumer’s coping potential, online communication technology has done more than merely adding a channel for complaint. Online communication technology has in fact altered the perceived balance of power between the individual consumer and the company. From the standpoint of the consumer, online communication differs from traditional means of complaint communication such as a consumer service counter, telephone, and postal letter because it allows consumers easy, free and almost instantaneous access to companies (Strauss & Pesce, 1998). Further, consumers can disseminate their “word of mouse” to the global community of Internet users with just one click.
Another potential that online communication technology has in terms of increasing the consumer’s coping potential stems from the fact that it is a “lean” medium. Media differ in their ability to convey information (Bodensteiner, 1970). In general, oral and synchronous media (e.g., face-to-face and the telephone) are believed to be richer in carrying information than written and asynchronous media (e.g., e-mail). This is based on: (1) the medium’s ability to give immediate feedback, (2) the variety of communication cues, (3) the personalization of the medium, and (4) the attainable language variety (Daft & Lengel, 1986). When gauged on these criteria, online communication as a written and asynchronous medium falls somewhere between the telephone and non-electronic written communications in terms of richness (e.g., Trevino et al., 1990).
Although lean media have limitations in the types of information that can be carried, they help insulate the communication initiator from possible distressing reactions of the communication partner. Furthermore, by filtering out the social cues, lean media shield consumers from disclosures that may undermine the initiator’s self-presentation. That is, what is missing in lean versus rich media may be seen not as a problem, but as an opportunity to manage self-presentations by regulating information exchanged between communication partners (O’Sullivan, 2000). Research on mediated communication empirically showed that individuals apparently used “lean” media effectively for social interactions (e.g., Parks & Courtright, 1996; Rice & Love, 1987).
The psychological costs of complaining such as the negative social consequences that may result from complaining should be figured into the consumer’s overall perceived costs of complaining (Kowalski, 1996). CCB involves the communication of something negative about a product, service or purchase episode (Singh & Howell, 1985). People who complain may be labeled as whiners and, sometimes, experience embarrassment when the negative information is not well received and the receiver disapproves of the complaint and/or the complainer. Associated with the potential negative impressions of the complainer, the effects of individual sensibility to the impressions that others are forming of them have been studied extensively in CCB research (Marquis & Filiatrault, 2002; Kowalski & Cantrell, 1995; Slama & Celuch, 1994; Richins, 1980). According to these studies, consumers with high self-presentational concerns tend to feel more reluctant to react publicly because of their greater concern for impression management. On the other hand, Marquis and Filiatrault (2002) empirically found that subjects with high public self-consciousness tended to report more indirect complaining intentions such as negative WOM behavior than those with low public self-consciousness.
As a lean medium, online communication may reduce the consumer’s psychological costs of complaining and, consequently, increasing the consumer’s intention to voice their dissatisfaction. This is because online communication technology may be used to avoid direct confrontation and to limit the need of personal public justification. Even those consumers who are preoccupied with self-presentational concerns may register complaints directly to the firm using e-mail or posting their complaints on the company’s Web site. Without the availability of online technology, these consumers might vent their frustration, dissatisfaction and negative reactions by engaging in private actions such as negative WOM.
Another advantage of the cognitive appraisal theory as a framework for understanding CCB is that it brings back the disregarded role of emotion in CCB as one of the most common functions of complaining. Kowalski (1996) suggested that complaining serves as a way for people to vent their frustrations and dissatisfaction. Alicke et al. (1992) empirically demonstrated that the desire to vent frustration was the most common motivation underlying complaints in social interactions.
It should be noted that negative WOM communication tends to be non-instrumental in nature (Marquis & Filiatrault, 2002; Nyer, 1999). Although consumers know that negative WOM communication cannot accomplish any instrumental goal such as the focal company’s remedial actions or redressing grievance, they nevertheless complain about their dissatisfying marketplace experience to their friends or relatives. Complaining makes people feel better.
Online WOM activities, however, differ from those in face-to-face situations in many aspects. From the standpoint of the consumers, WOM communication is no longer a passive coping strategy used to vent their frustration and anger. In the online environment, WOM communication becomes a problem-focused coping strategy used to inform other potential consumers and effectively punish/influence a target company to take its problems seriously. It also regulates the negative emotions that result from the transactions with the sense of influences or “making a difference.” Furthermore, anonymity between online WOM communication participants may relax social constraints, which results in the participant’s total willingness to vent their negative emotions.
From the standpoint of the marketers, online WOM communication may provide both opportunities and threats. Traditionally, marketers have had some level of control over voice complaints in terms of both preventive and recovery strategies. WOM, however, has been almost impossible to control, difficult to measure, and represented a distinct threat to firms with dissatisfied consumers (Halstead, 2002). Now, with online WOM communication, marketers can monitor Web sites where its products are likely to be discussed. Companies can modify products or improve services in response to common complaints. If companies consider the complaints unwarranted, they can try to refute these complaints through their marketing communication efforts (Gelb & Sundaram, 2002). This is a trend that has grown recently in the online environment and it actually helps marketers hear what their consumers are saying. These days, some complaint sites will deliver a consumer’s complaint letter posted on its Web site to the target company (e.g., www.planetfeedback.com). In this manner, marketers can gain insights into brand performance or access to vocal consumers (Neff, 2000).
On the other hand, it may be virtually impossible to monitor the immense volume and variety of WOM information available online. The tremendous growth of online complaint sites and online consumer forums makes them easier for consumers to identify and access than the companies’ own Web sites. Interestingly, it was found that a number of consumers used the Internet complaint forum as their first attempt to lodge a formal complaint (Harrison-Walker, 2001). When marketers fail to monitor online WOM communication properly, not only are complaining consumers still left with unresolved issues but also the negative WOM may propagate among consumers. Kowalski (1996) suggested that complaining is often contagious. In other words, hearing another person’s complaint may lead to cognitive rumination on the part of the listener and often enhance the listener’s own feelings of dissatisfaction.
Online communication technology can reduce the physical and psychological costs of complaining, which in turn make consumers perceive themselves to have strong coping potential. As a result, consumers may engage in problem-focused coping in which they deal with the marketplace experience by voicing their displeasure directly to the target company. In this manner, marketers will gain the opportunity to retain the consumer both by redressing the problems and providing the opportunity for consumers to drain off their pent-up negative emotions.
A company that is able to increase its consumers’ coping potential may be in the best position to engage consumers in a one-to-one relationship. In other words, a key issue in attracting dissatisfied consumers to interact with the company may be altering perceived balance of power between the individual and the company (Stephens & Gwinner, 1998). Otherwise, consumers, left unattended, would find a way to punish the target firm. To this end, the online communication technology also grants consumers enormous potential in the retribution process.
In order to shift power perceptions, marketers need to actively communicate their responsiveness through all of their external communication (Stephens & Gwinner, 1998). Richins (1983, 1985, 1987) has consistently found that the choice between WOM and complaint behavior is influenced by perceptions of retailer responsiveness. Halstead & Droge (1991) also reported that the consumer’s perception of the responsiveness/caring of channel members (manufacturers especially) regarding problems and redress most consistently predicted CCB response. To communicate their responsiveness, marketers may advertise or make visible their responsiveness on all publicly viewed materials. In addition, by connecting with complaint Web sites which deliver consumers complaints to their partners such as planetfeedback.com, marketers may gain positive publicity about their responsiveness as well as access to vocal consumers. For example, planetfeedback.com is posting the companies that do a great job of responding to consumer letters.
Even though online WOM communication may function as an opportunity for marketers by providing access to vocal consumers, online WOM communication also presents considerable threats to marketers because it is difficult to manage. From consumer’s perspective, the relative anonymity of WOM may make the motivations of unseen strangers offering recommendations suspicious and therefore reduced trust in those complaint sites or online forums. In addition, the enormous amount of WOM information available online may be too much for consumers to process effectively.
Traditionally, attribution theory has been used to investigate the inferences that consumers draw from WOM activity with unfamiliar sources (Chatterjee, 2001). According to Hilton (1995), when negative information is presented regarding an object or event toward which a receiver maintains a positive attitude, the receiver will shift his or her impressions toward this contradictory information and experience cognitive imbalance. This cognitive imbalance will be subsequently overcome by the receiver’s attributing the negativity of the message toward the communicator. In the online environment, where the motivations of the communicator may be uncertain, this attribution tendency may go to a high extreme.
In a similar vein, Laczniak et al. (2001) suggested that brand name might have a direct effect on the attributions generated by receivers of negative WOM communication. They empirically demonstrated that the more favorable brand name reduced the persuasiveness of negative WOM communication because impression-inconsistent information was deflected away from the brand and discounted through the attribution process. In the online environment, Chatterjee (2001) found that the harmful impact of negative consumer reviews on perceived reliability of retailer and purchase intention were mitigated by the consumer’s familiarity with the retailer.
It seems that the evaluative predispositions toward products and companies are effectively acting as filters through which WOM information flows. Considering the characteristics of the online communication environment, the consumer’s predispositions toward brands may work more actively on the persuasiveness of online WOM information than information communicated through any other medium. Marketers may offset the harmful effects of online WOM communication by gaining high levels of equity for their brands.
Given the indispensability of traditional communication channels (e.g., telephone and letters), the variety of new channels (e.g., e-mail and Web sites), and the prospect for even more technology-based options (e.g., videophone), the need to find effective communication channels for consumer complaints and to manage a company’s resources on those channels is mounting. Unsupported communication channels may make dissatisfied consumers even angrier and give up voicing and, in turn, to actively engage in negative WOM. In addition, since it is necessary to monitor online WOM communication on a continual basis, the need to effectively allocate a company’s resources among consumer service functions is tremendous. Therefore, instead of following the latest fads, companies need to consider the characteristics of their business and the nature of their consumers in order to integrate online communication as a component of their consumer service strategically.
For example, online communication technology as a complaint communication channel may provide superb opportunities for those goods and services that could be embarrassing to discuss in person. Online communication as a lean media may reduce consumers’ psychological costs of complaining and discussing their product or service experience. Marketers of these types of products and services may allocate a large portion of their resources on managing online communication with consumers. In addition, online communication technology may provide excellent opportunities for companies to receive feedback from consumers in industries where the cost of direct consumer contact is prohibitively high (e.g., consumer packaged goods) (Bowman & Narayandas, 2001). Companies in this category would benefit by focusing more on managing online communications with consumers than other means of communication.
On the other hand, service providers may be in a more vulnerable position than product manufacturers in terms of online WOM communication. Dissatisfied consumers in the service industry are more likely to have non-instrumental motivations in complaining. For this reason, service providers may benefit from focusing on monitoring online WOM communication activities among consumers, being more proactive in seeking consumer feedback, and providing personalized responses to consumers.
Based on the integrated conceptual model of CCB proposed in this chapter, the opportunities and threats with online technology as a complaint communication channel are discussed. With the Internet, consumers have been empowered with reduced physical and psychological costs of voicing their complaints as well as sharing their experiences with other consumers. The challenge that marketers are facing now is how to make use of the consumer’s increased coping potential that comes with the availability of technology. Based on an evaluation of the unique characteristics of their business, it is suggested that marketers may want to consider focusing their resources on: (1) clearly communicating their responsiveness to consumers, (2) adequately managing communication channels with consumers, and (3) strengthening their brand equity. Given the rapid advancement of the Internet and its communication capabilities, the time is probably ripe for further research into the intricate dynamics between consumers and companies. To that end, the conceptual model proposed in this chapter will serve as a useful road map.
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