An Attributional Approach to Postpurchase Conflict Between Buyers and Sellers

Valerie S. Folkes, University of California, Los Angeles
ABSTRACT - Postpurchase conflict is approached from an attributional perspective. Buyers and sellers may infer different reasons for product failure, resulting in disagreements over whether refunds are due. whether apologies are owed and other issues. Ways of avoiding conflict and possible solutions for conflicts are identified.
[ to cite ]:
Valerie S. Folkes (1984) ,"An Attributional Approach to Postpurchase Conflict Between Buyers and Sellers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 500-503.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 500-503


Valerie S. Folkes, University of California, Los Angeles

[Alan Andreason, Mary Curren and Bernard Weiner made helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper.]


Postpurchase conflict is approached from an attributional perspective. Buyers and sellers may infer different reasons for product failure, resulting in disagreements over whether refunds are due. whether apologies are owed and other issues. Ways of avoiding conflict and possible solutions for conflicts are identified.


When products fail to meet consumer expectations, conflict between buyer and seller becomes possible. Both consumers and marketers possess strong incentives for avoiding or at least minimizing dissension. At the extreme, disagreements can culminate in expensive court battles and legal decisions. We have all read about product liability suits costing firms thousands of dollars. Another example of the expense of buyer-seller conflict is the recent, unprecedented FTC order that GM set up an arbitration program to settle consumer complaints.

Despite the importance of postpurchase conflict, marketers lack conceptual frameworks and theorizing to understand buyer-seller disagreements. This paper proposes an attributional framework for identifying some sources of postpurchase conflict. as well as practical solutions. Thus, the paper is concerned with theoretical and managerial issues.


Before addressing conflict specifically it is necessary to present an overview of the attributional framework that guides my theorizing. This framework has been developed primarily by Weiner (1980) in the domain of achievement behavior. but has been extended to additional domains. including that of consumer behavior.

Attribution theory assumes that people search for causes of events. Evidence supports attributional search when outcomes are negative or unexpected (Folkes 1982; Wong and Weiner 1980). Thus, product failure should spur the consumer to causal search. Consumers may or may not arrive at the 'correct" or "true" reason for product failure. Being a phenomenological approach, attribution theory focuses not on "true" reasons but on perceived reasons. Perceived causes of events influence behavior. Thus. attributions for product failure affect s variety of consumers' responses (Folkes '983). For example, when a restaurant patron receives unpalatable food the perceived reason for this outcome influences how angry the customer feels.

The specific type of customer reaction depends on perceived attributional properties or causal dimensions. Three dimensions have been shown to influence consumer reaction to product failure (Folkes 1983; Krishnan and Valle 1977; Richins 1983: Valle and Wallendorf (Table 1). One dimension is stability, whether a cause fluctuates temporally or is relatively permanent over time. For example, a restaurant may serve unpalatable food because they are short of help that particular day or because the chef is incompetent. A second dimension, locus refers to the location of the cause. Locus distinguishes between causes having something to do with the consumer or having something to do with the production and distribution of the product. For example, a restaurant patron may consider a meal unpalatable because he or she has idiosyncratic tastes in food or because the restaurant prepared it badly. The third dimension concerns volitional control over the cause. Sometimes a person exercises control over product performance but other times constraints force a product failure. For example, a restaurant may serve bad food because the chef makes no effort to cook food properly. On the other hand the same event may be caused by something uncontrolled by the restaurant personnel, such as when a power failure disrupts the kitchen.

In sum, causes of product failure can be classified by their stability (stable or unstable), locus (buyer or seller related) and controllability (controllable or uncontrollable). The stability, locus and controllability of product failure influence how consumers react to product failure (Folkes 1983). Stability influences expectancies for future product failure and type of redress preferred. Attributions to unstable causes lead to uncertainty about future product performance, whereas attributions to stable outcomes lead to certainty about future performance. Similarly, attributions to unstable causes lead to more willingness to accept an exchange for the failed product rather than a refund. Stable attributions lead to stronger preferences for refunds.

Locus influences whether refunds and apologies are perceived as owed to the consumer. When product failure is seller related consumers feel they deserve refunds and apologies. When product failure is buyer-related refunds and apologies are perceived as undeserved.

Locus and controllability influence whether consumers are angry at the seller and whether they would like to hurt the seller's business. Anger and vengefulness are greater when failure is seller-related, particularly w',zen failure is perceived as under the seller's control. For example, when a repair is poor because the shop does not bother to train its personnel, the cause is under the control of the shop and consumers are particularly angry and vengeful. Thus, one source of buyer-seller hostility is the perception that product failure is controlled by the seller.

In sum, causal dimensions influence consumer reaction to product failure (Table l). Attributions for product failure influence whether buyers expect future failure whether buyers prefer a refund or an exchange, whether buyers perceive they deserve apologies and refunds from sellers, and whether buyers feel angry and vengeful toward sellers. Thus, attributions play an important role in consumer reaction to product failure.




Discrepancies between causal inferences of buyers and sellers can lead to conflict. Buyers and sellers may agree that a product has failed but attribute failure to different reasons. For example, suppose a consumer buys an "Alpha" brand watch for a low price and it doesn't keep time well. The consumer purchased the watch thinking it was an "Omega" brand watch. He believes that the manufacturer chose this brand name so consumers would confuse this poor product with the better "Omega" watch. Thus, he perceives product failure as seller-controlled and stable. The consumer is angry and thinks he deserves a refund and an apology. But the seller perceives product failure as consumer-controllable. The consumer should have paid more attention to what he was purchasing. The seller would feel that a refund is undeserved, the consumer's anger is unjustified and no apology is owed.

In this example, conflict occurs partly because the locus of the two causes is different. Whenever underlying causal dimensions differ for buyer and seller, product failure leads to different consequences. In the previous example the consumer would feel he deserves a refund and an apology while the seller does not If buyer and seller agree the cause is seller-related but disagree on causal stability, the consumer and firm would agree that the consumer deserves restitution but disagree over the acceptability of a replacement rather than a refund. A third type of attributional discrepancy occurs when buyers believe product failure is controllable by the seller but -he seller does not. In this case the buyer feels angry and vengeful but the seller feels that his or her actions are not reprehensible. In contrast, if both buyer and seller perceive product failure as controlled by the seller both should agree that the buyer should be angry and desire revenge. Perhaps they would agree that not just a refund but also compensation should be given.

In sum, conflict can spring from discrepancies in the locus. stability or controllability of the cause of product failure (Table 7). By knowing which causal dimensions are disparate in the attributions of buyer and seller we can determine what is at stake in the conflict. For example, we know whether buyer and seller hill disagree on the acceptability of a replacement versus a refund or if they will disagree on whether a refund is deserved to begin with.



Sources of Attributional Discrepancies

Why would buyers and sellers arrive at different causes for the same event? Differences arise from motivational and informational biases. Ego protective or hedonic biases may lead a consumer to avoid making consumer-related attributions for product failure and lead a firm's employees to avoid firm-related attributions. In addition, buyer and seller may arrive at different causes because certain information is more salient to one than the other. For example, publicity about product defects may lead consumers to ignore other potential causes of product failure (e.g., Jacoby and Jaccard 1981). Attributional discrepancies also spring from the tendency to stop causal search after arriving at a satisfactory cause instead of searching for the "best" cause (for a review, see Kelley and Michela 1980). Thus, a car dealer may see an angry consumer and make general, negative trait attributions, including incompetence in caring for cars. Alternative and more plausible attributions may not be considered.

One solution to conflict arising from informational discrepancies involves providing the other with missing information. For example, consumers are often ignorant of typical product performance. When encountering a consumer with a failed product, sellers might state performance norms (e.g., "we've never had this break down before; I'm sure the replacement won't have this problem"). Controllability information may be particularly important for the seller to relay since this influences consumers' anger and desire for revenge. The firm can communicate good intentions by such actions as providing a broad warranty, maintaining a reputation for service and ensuring that salespersons demonstrate concern about customers' experiences with their products.

Conflict can also be prevented by encouraging consumers to consider alternative attributions before confronting the seller. Some instruction manuals list possible consumer-related causes of product failure (e.g., the television does not work because the cord is unplugged, because of a blown fuse, etc.). Communicating product limitations and servicing instructions may also reduce buyer-seller conflict. When a garment is labeled "dry clean only" the consumer who washes the garment must attribute the subsequent damage to him or herself rather than the manufacturer. Without the label, conflict could develop over the cause of product failure.

Relationships Among Causes

Conflict becomes even more complex when multiple possible causes of failure are present. Buyers and sellers may differ on which causes are necessary or sufficient for product failure. For example suppose a consumer purchases a small appliance, such as a toaster and it stops working shortly thereafter. The consumer first attempts to fix it herself and in doing so damages the toaster. When the consumer returns the toaster the seller might claim that the product failure is consumer-related on seeing the damage she caused. The consumer, however, might perceive the original, seller-related cause as a sufficient cause of failure.

In this example, buyer and seller disagree on which of several causes is crucial for product failure. Minimizing the number of causes present can minimize conflict. Consistent with this notion, consumer protection manuals and product instructions discourage consumers from attempting their own repairs when product failure may be manufacturer related.

Even greater conflict is likely when multiple causes are necessary for product failure. For example, suppose a carton of milk spoils the day after purchase. This is partially because the grocery does not refrigerate dairy products properly. But this would not in itself have caused the milk to spoil so quickly. It is also necessary for the consumer to be slow in refrigerating the milk. Thus, both causes are necessary for the milk to spoil quickly. Failure due to multiple necessary causes of different dimensions can lead to contradictory judgments about appropriate responses to product failure. In the milk example how should blame be partitioned? How much of a refund should be given? The complexities of sorting out causal contributions when multiple causes are necessary for failure suggest conflict will be difficult to avoid. However, it may help to warn consumers of product performance ceilings. In sum, conflict becomes more complex when a number of causes could contribute to product failure and the multiple causes differ in their underlying dimensions (locus, controllability, stability).

Disagreements Over Whether the Product Has Failed

Up to this point I have been discussing asymmetry in buyer-seller attributions for product failure. Yet, asymmetry can exist on a deeper level: the buyer may attribute product failure to the seller but the seller may not even agree that the product has failed. Conflict may occur because a firm believes the product has performed satisfactorily whereas the consumer does not. Conversely. conflict is unlikely when the firm believes the product has failed but the consumer does not. This could happen when, for example, an automobile manufacturer recalls cars but the consumer believes the car performs satisfactorily. Obviously, this type of situation is unlikely to produce conflict because there is little incentive for the car manufacturer to change the consumer's mind.

What leads consumers to believe a product has failed when the firm does not? Advertising and promotional puffery can build consumers' expectations beyond the product's capabilities. Solutions to conflicts arising from this discrepancy involve conveying realistic product performance standards. Sometimes overly low rather than high expectancies can lead a consumer to perceive a failure where one does not exist (Jacoby and Jaccard 1981: Westbrook 1980). For example, a negative "halo" effect can influence perceptions of a product's performance. That is. perception of some negative attributes for a product can lead consumers to infer other negative attributes are also present. In addition, inferring stable causes for product failure can lead consumers to expect failure in the future (Folkes 1983). These expectations may distort perceptions of product performance. For example, consumers who believe a restaurant has a bad chef will anticipate bad food on returning to the restaurant and may distort their perceptions to fit this expectation. Solutions to this sort of problem lie in making salient temporary or unstable causes for product failure.

A factor that may aggravate conflict over whether the product has failed is the mismatched cognitive tasks of consumer and firm. Buyer and seller are focusing on different problems. The consumer's judgment that the product has failed is followed by attributional search and then determination of appropriate action. For example, the consumer has decided that the meat she purchased is spoiled, inferred that the store is at fault and concluded that a refund and apology is deserved. The refund and apology is now the focus of the consumer, with the earlier consideration largely forgotten. However the firm's focus is on the earlier issue, whether the product has failed. In 2 sense the consumer has progressed up the decision tree while the seller demands that the consumer back up to an earlier level.

The firm may have trouble getting the consumer to perform this cognitive readjustment. In making this request of the consumer, the firm implicitly insults the consumer's judgment. Moreover, the consequences of accepting the firm's viewpoint may be negative for the consumer. Instead of receiving an apology from the firm, the consumer may owe the firm an apology for misjudging the product. Furthermore, once individuals arrive at explanations for events these beliefs tend to persevere. Perseverance occurs even when the data on which the beliefs are based are shown to be erroneous (Anderson, Lepper and Ross 1980). All these factors should increase conflict

Faced with this sort of conflict, what should the seller do? Optimally, the seller should question product failure quickly enough to pre-empt the consumer's deliberation over causes and consequences For example, providing consumers with a toll-free number to call when experiencing difficulty allows a firm to respond quickly. When quick communication is impossible, tile firm should seek some means of easing the consumer's retracing of cognitive steps. Ideally the request to retrace cognitive steps should not overtly challenge the consumer's judgment. For example, the consumer could complete a form requiring specific information on how the product has failed and providing a checklist of possible causes. Filling out a form has the advantage of being less confrontational than face-to-face questioning.

In sum, conflict can arise from the seller's perceiving the product as performing satisfactorily while the buyer does not. This occurs when, for example, buyers expect very good or very poor product performance. Conflict is probably aggravated because the buyer focuses on the consequences of product failure while the seller focuses on the product's performance.


In sum, attributional processes may play a central role in postpurchase conflict. Buyers and sellers may disagree on the cause of product failure, on which causes are necessary or sufficient for failure or on whether a product has failed. However, these conflicts depend on buyers and sellers communicating their discrepant beliefs. In many cases communication may not occur.

Consumers' failure to complain to firms may often stem from assumed attribution. 1 discrepancies and consequent conflict. Similarly sellers may withhold their "real" attributions to placate customers. Concerns about attributional conflict may even influence purchase decisions. For example, a potential purchaser of a risky product may prefer a seller that seems willing to accept blame for product failure.

Despite the importance of attributional processes, they do not provide a complete understanding of postpurchase conflict. There are other, nonattributional sources of consumer complaint behavior. For example, buyer and seller may disagree on definitional issues, over what constitutes appropriate action. For example, both may feel an exchange is warranted but disagree about what is an equivalent replacement. Or they may agree on the appropriate form of restitution but may disagree on what is a reasonable amount of delay in receiving it. These sorts of conflicts may be unusual. Dornoff and Dwyer (1981) found considerable agreement between retailers and consumers on restitutional actions. In fact, managers report giving restitution for failed products that is more generous than consumers request (Resnik and Harmon 1983).

Although there are limits to the attributional approach to conflict described here, there are advantages to approaching complaining behavior from this perspective. First, consumer complaining behavior can be seen as part of a broader issue, that of buyer-seller conflict. Second, an established theoretical perspective provides the framework. Third, the approach is broad enough to apply to a variety of products and types of interactions. Finally, the theoretical analysis guides the way to practical solutions to conflict.


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