Differences in Organizational Responses to Consumer Letters of Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction

Cathy J. Cobb, University of Illinois
Gary C. Walgren, Arthur Andersen & Company
Mary Hollowed, University of Illinois
ABSTRACT - A limitation of existing research in the area of consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction is its almost exclusive emphasis on adult behavior Yet, children also experience satisfaction and dissatisfaction. They purchase products, and certainly by their preteen years, they understand on a basic level how the market system operates and how to react when it does not operate fairly. The present study examines corporate responses to unsolicited letters from adults and children expressing either praise or complaint regarding a company product. Particular attention is paid to the comprehension level of corporate communications. Intriguing, if tentative, insights are revealed.
[ to cite ]:
Cathy J. Cobb, Gary C. Walgren, and Mary Hollowed (1987) ,"Differences in Organizational Responses to Consumer Letters of Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 227-231.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 227-231


Cathy J. Cobb, University of Illinois

Gary C. Walgren, Arthur Andersen & Company

Mary Hollowed, University of Illinois


A limitation of existing research in the area of consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction is its almost exclusive emphasis on adult behavior Yet, children also experience satisfaction and dissatisfaction. They purchase products, and certainly by their preteen years, they understand on a basic level how the market system operates and how to react when it does not operate fairly. The present study examines corporate responses to unsolicited letters from adults and children expressing either praise or complaint regarding a company product. Particular attention is paid to the comprehension level of corporate communications. Intriguing, if tentative, insights are revealed.


You send out letters,

you get back letters,

that's for sure.

--Lazlo Toth

For many Americans, the 1970s were turbulent years. The political climate was marked by distrust and disillusionment. Economically, the country facet high inflation, high unemployment, and ultimately recession. Ecological concerns abounded. Exposes of unscrupulous business conduct let consumers to call for more social responsibility on the part of private industry. In short, the time was ripe for activism.

Enter Lazlo Toth, fictitious champion of absurd causes. Through the pen of writer/comedian Don Novello, Mr. Toth corresponded with America's highest corporate and government officials. In some cases, he voiced a complaint; in many cases, he expressed support; in all cases, he made a humorous statement about the nature of communication between individuals and institutions.

In reality, the Lazlo Letters (Novello, 1977) probably did little to create a positive attitude among companies regarding consumer communications. As Landon (1979) noted, businesses in the late 1960s and early 1970s commonly believed that "consumers who write complaint letters are cranks and weirdos." These companies cited the small number of complaints as proof that complainants were eccentric and exceptional. This, in turn, provided justification for the lack of a consumer affairs unit in the organization.

The activist 1970s, however, witnessed a dramatic growth in the number of consumer communications, with increases of up to 30 percent a year (Landon, 1979). According to Blum, Stewart and Wheatley (1974), as the amount of negative correspondence rose, so did other, more positive types of communication.

In response to this trend, researchers began to systematically investigate the area of consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction, amassing a sizeable body of literature over the course of 15 years. Robinson (1979), in a review of this research, noted the historical emphasis on the consumer. Studies have examined characteristics of complainers, theoretical bases of satisfaction, causes of dissatisfaction, and ways to measure the outcome of purchase decisions.

A second orientation has focused more on the business aspects of complaining behavior. Included in this research stream are subjects such as the incidence and type of corporate response and the function of consumer affairs departments within the organization.

Resnik and Harmon (1983) suggested that a limitation of existing research is its sperate treatment of consumer and managerial points of view. Communication of satisfaction or dissatisfaction is an exchange process, involving some sort of interaction between the consumer and the responsible party. Landon (1980) enumerated the steps in this process:

1. The Consumer evaluates the outcome of a purchase decision in the form of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

2. The consumer decides whether to make this outcome known to the company.

3. A communication is then transmitted to the company.

4. The company responds to this communication in the form of various types of action.

5. Finally, the consumer evaluates the response and decides on further action, if any.

Rather than focus on one party in the communication process, the present study examined the interaction between these parties, as suggested in Figure 1. We took as a point of departure the decision to communicate satisfaction or dissatisfaction to the company (step 2). With that in mind, the study examined the last three steps in the communication process.



Children and Adults as Communicators

Virtually all published research on complaining behavior has centered upon adult consumers as opposed to children. Perhaps this is because adults are more likely to make purchase decisions and, by extension, more likely to evaluate the outcome of purchasing acts. Then, too, a certain level of intellectual development is required to 1) understand how the market system operates, 2) judge the worth of products, 3) assign responsibility for product performance, and 4) articulate satisfaction or dissatisfaction to the responsible party.

Admittedly, there is a wealth of literature on the acculturation of children into the marketplace. Studies have examined how children acquire, structure, interpret, and use information, particularly mediated information.

We know something about children's spending and saving behavior, and even more about their purchase requests and parental yielding. But researchers invariably treat the purchase decision as the last stage of the children's consumer behavior process. We could find no study which took the outcome of the purchase decision as a beginning point in examining children's satisfaction and dissatisfaction behavior.

There are several reasons why children's post-choice behavior is important. For one thing, children exert considerable influence in the buying process. They make direct requests both at home and in the store, asking for items by brand name as early as kindergarten (Ward et al., 1977). They also purchase many products themselves. Weekly allowances are fairly typical as early sc age five or six. By their preteens, young people often are working at odd jobs to increase their discretionary income.

To what extent do children evaluate the outcome of their purchase decisions? According to Gesell et al. (1977), they begin to judge some products as "a gyp" by the age of seven; by the age of ten, their sense of what is good and bad is fairly well established. Further ewidence of the development of evaluative skills comes from Ward et al. (1977). They found that 2/3 of third graders and 3/4 of sixth graders in their sample had negative experiences with products.

It seems reasonable to assume that by their preteen years, children understand on a basic level how the market system operates and how to react when it does not operate fairly. In fact, Robinson (1977) hag suggested that "[adult] complaint action may be a function of personal values acquired in childhood." If that is the case, then the positive and negative experiences children have with products may have an impact on their adult consumer behavior.


The purpose of this study was to examine the nature of organizational responses to unsolicited letters of satisfaction and dissatisfaction from both children and adults. Special attention was paid to the comprehension level of business communicationsCthat is, the extent to which the corporate message could be understood by its intended recipient.

Three major research questions were addressed:

1. Do companies respond differently to unsolicited letters of praise versus complaint?

2. Is there a difference in company response to communications from children versus adults?

3. How do children comprehend corporate communication?


Seventy-two letters are sent to consumer goods manufacturers in reference to the performance of one of the firm's products. The letters varied along two dimensions. One half were written from the perspective of a child; the rest were written from the perspective of an adult. Half of the letters expressed satisfactions with the product, while the remaining half indicated consumer dissatisfaction.

The letters were constructed explicitly for this proJect to ensure uniformity of content. Each communication included the following general pieces of information:

- identification of letter writer;

- purpose of letter;

- reason for satisfaction or dissatisfaction;

- request for some reply.

As part of the identification process, the letters from children stated the age of the letter writer (12 years old). The letters from adults stated the writer's occupation (professional), in lieu of age.

Obviously, a letter written by a child will vary from that written by an adult in terms of legibility, wording, abstractness of ideas, organization, and general writing style. To ensure that companies would recognize the age differential, we had 12-year-olds actually write the children's letters. The only guidelines we placed on the content were that the four pieces of above-mentioned information (identification of letter writer, etc.) be included.

The project spanned a total of six consumer goods categories, three of which were food related (cereal, pizza, snacks), and three of which were not (shampoo, cosmetics, clothing). Within each product category, three firms were examined to enable both within- and across-industry comparisons. Effort was taken to select product categories with applicability to both adults and children in at least the seventh grade (e.g., the cosmetics item studied is used by practically all women, young and old alike).

To summarize, then, each company received a total of four communications, one corresponding to each cell in the matrix shown in Figure 2.



The unit of analysis was company response. As a first step, the data were content analyzed according to Krippendorff (1980) to determine:

- form of corporate communication;

- action(s) taken or promised in the communication;

- nature of enclosure(c).

Of particular interest was the extent to which the corporate communication could be read and understood by its intended recipient (i.e., child or adult). One means of measuring the complexity of written material would be through the use of readability formulas, such as those commonly utilized in the fields of education and journalism. Accordingly, two such techniquesCthe Flesch Count and the Fog Index--were applied to each primary business response (in most cases, a letter).

The Flesch Count

The best known formula in the history of readability measurement was developed by Rudolph Flesch. Its popularity can be attributed to both accuracy and ease of application. The Flesch Count measures the difficulty of reading a passage on a scale from 0 (practically unreadable) to 100 (easy for any literate person). It is calculated as follows from writing samples of approximately 100 words:

1. Count all sentences and all words. Diwide the total number of words by the total number of sentences. Multiply this average sentence length by 1.015.

2. Count all syllables. Diwide the total number of syllables by the total number of words. Multiply this average word length by 100; multiply again by .846.

3. Add numbers 1 and 2. Subtract this sum from 206.835. The result is the reading ease score for the passage (Flesch, 1951).

Regarding validity, the Flesch Count yields scores that correlate .70 with the McCall-Crabbs criterion. The intercoder reliability is in the .90s (Klare, 1963).

The Fog Index

Opposed vehemently to "foggy language," Robert Gunning developed the Fog Index. This formula measures the grade level required for understand written material. The steps in calculating the Index for passages of 100 words are as follows:

1. Diwide the total number of words in the passage by the total number of sentences.

2. Count the number of complex words (those of three or more syllables).

3. Add numbers 1 and 2. Multiply this figure by .4. The result is an approximation of the number of years of schooling necessary for ready comprehension (Gunning, 1968).

As a final step in the data analysis, simple product moment correlations were run across selected variables. Since most were nominal level (such as the various types of company response), these measures were treated all as dummy variables (e.g ., 0-no letter, 1-letter).


Of the 72 letters sailed to companies, 42 generated a reply, for an overall response rate of 58 percent. There was considerable variation in the rate of response across product categories. Pizza and snack manufacturers were the most likely to reply (with an 83 percent response rate). At the other extreme, clothing firms replied to only 25 percent of consumer communications. Perhaps apparel manufacturers felt that such comments could be handled better at the retail level. Responding to about half of the consumer letters were the remaining three categories: cosmetics (58 percent); cereal (50 percent); and shampoo (50 percent).

Even more variance in response rate was found within product categories. The greatest range occurred among shampoo manufacturers, where the response rate varied from 0 percent for one firm to 75 percent for the other two firms. Among clothing companies, the range in response was 0 percent to 50 percent. Pizza firms were the moat consistent responders. All manufacturers in this category replied to at least three of the four letters.

The 42 corporate responses were analyzed to determine the form of communication, type of action promised or taken, and nature of any enclosures. Results of the content analysis are summarized in Table 1. Because companies could reply in more than one way to a consumer letter, the percentages do not add to 100.


The majority of responses (93 percent) were in the form of a "personal" letter. The remaining 7 percent used a pre-printed postcard. While all of the letters included a personal salutation, they were for the most part fairly standardized .


The most frequent type of action, occurring in 86 percent of the cases, was to express appreciation for contents of both praise and complaint. In response to letters of dissatisfaction, companies also were likely to 1) offer possible explanations, and/or 2) defend company policy regarding production and handling of the product.

Occurring less frequently were actions such as forwarding comments to the appropriate party and promising to investigate. Interestingly, very few companies used the letter to offer advice about product use.




The most popular type of enclosure was coupons, included in over 50 percent of the business responses. Consumers were somewhat likely to receive brochures as part of the corporate reply. These could be simple public relation pieces or helpful suggestions for alternative product uses. Reimbursements and free gifts were rarely used, perhaps because of the cost and inconvenience of mailing.

Praise Versus Complaint

There was no significant difference in the rate of response to positive versus negative letters. Twenty-one letters of praise (50 percent) and twenty-one letters of complaint (50 percent) generated a corporate reply. The absence of variation could be due to the fact that each consumer communication included a request for some response. It could also reflect a growing tendency on the part of companies to take seriously all communications--both favorable and unfavorable.

While the rate of reply showed no variation, there were several differences in reply content. Letters responding to consumer dissatisfaction were significantly more likely to include a coupon for replacement of the same product as opposed to some other product (r-.38, p-.01). A possible explanation is that manufacturers wanted to restore the consumer's faith in the disfavored product. Letters of complaint were also more likely to result in a free good (coupon, gift, money, brochure) as part of the corporate response than were letters of praise (r-.35, p-.01).

Children Versus Adults

Twelve-year-olds were just as likely or unlikely to receive a reply as their older counterparts. Twenty-one letters from children (50 percent) and twenty-one letters from adults (50 percent) yielded some sort of corporate reply. Again, though, there were differences in the nature of the reply. Companies were more likely to require children to return the merchandise (r=.27, p-.05). They were also more likely to send a free good (coupon, gift, etc.) to adults, but only a letter to children (r-.25, p-.05).

Complexity of Corporate Responses

Given the age differential of the consumer sample, the authors felt it important to study the complexity and readability of business responses. One would expect that letters written to 12-year-old children would be much easier to read than those addressed to adults. The two indices used to calculate readability were the Flesch Count and the Fog Index.

Table 2 is a summary of responses received by children and adults along the Flesch scale. As the table indicates, there was virtually no difference in the complexity level of letters sent to adults versus those sent to children. Both groups received responses which fall predominantly in the fairly difficult to difficult range. While this should pose few problems for the adult recipients, it virtually assures that children will not understand much of what is intended to be communicated to them. Apparently, consumer relations personnel do not discriminate between letters originated by children versus adults, even when the distinction is clearly indicated, as it was in this study.





Table 3 summarizes the analysis using the Fog Index. Again, corporate communications to adults and children did not vary in the educational level required to understand the content. To put these numbers into perspective, consider that in 1984, the median number of years of schooling for all adults aged 25 and over was 12.6. Only a few of the corporate responses to adults required schooling above this level, the highest being 18.2 years. In fact, most of the responses to adults required far fewer years of education than the average 12.6 years.

Communication to children, however, was not nearly as well-matched. The number of years of schooling completed by 12-year-olds is between 6.0 and 7.0. Not a single response directed to children, however, was written at this level of comprehension. The closest required 8.0 years of formal education. Indeed, a large portion of the communication sent to children would have required any-where from 12.9 to 15.3 years of schooling for comprehension, the equivalent of college-level education.

Children's Miscomprehension of Corporate Communication

It is intriguing that companies pay so little attention to consumer age in developing an appropriate response to expressions of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The letters to 12-yearColds often contained elaborate sentence structure that required a college education in order to understand. It is generally acknowledged that one of the most desired outcomes of the process of communication is comprehension. Consumer behavior models consider comprehension to be a prerequisite to attitude formation or change. If the corporate letters are designed to maintain or restore goodwill, then comprehension is a necessary precondition.

To find out just what 12-year-olds were likely to get out of the corporate communications, we conducted a series of in-depth interviews with boys and girls in this age group. Each child was given the appropriate background and was then asked to read one of the corporate letters. After completing this step, the child was given three index cards, each of which contained one sentence from the letter. The child was asked to read each card, then state in his own words what the sentence meant to him. Space limitations prevent a detailed presentation of the findings. However, a few examples of corporate statements and children's miscomprehension are presented on the next page.

"In spite of precautions taken by us and by grocers, at some point a product could be exposed to adverse temperatures and might not maintain its high quality or perform satisfactorily."

"To keep it at room temperature."

"Comments about our products are very helpful to quality assurance and other appropriate personnel and are carefully monitored."

"The products were checked so there's not any poison in it."

"We are constantly working to improve existing products and packages while maintaining our high quality standards."

"They're gonna put new pictures on the packages."

"While we try to create new products which will add convenience and variety to your meals, we also seek to maintain those products which have continued to meet with so much favor and satisfaction over the years."

"I didn't get it."

"Your comments have been forwarded to our production specialists for their immediate investigation and whatever corrective action is required to prevent a recurrence."

"What does recurrence mean?"


Several limitations of the present study should be noted, each of which offers a suggestion for future research. First, the study was constrained by the use of a small sample. Examining only six product categories and three companies within each resulted in an initial sample of 72. Coupled with the 58 percent response rate, the final sample allowed only a glimpse of corporate response to consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction. Future research should employ not only a larger number and diversity of product categories, but also a wider range of companies.

A second limitation concerns the use of fictitious letters. The strengths of this ethodology include the fact that it enabled measurement of actual company response; the feasibility; and the control over letter content. The major weakness is an ethical one. Hopefully, this problem was minimized through the use of both letters of praise and complaint.

Certainly, other methods could be employed to study corporate response, such as examining company files, role playing, survey research. However, each of these methods poses its own set of limitations. The proprietary nature of complaint data makes it difficult to gain access to company files. Asking executives to role play or complete self-report measures is likely to result in social desirability bias. Clearly, the ideal is to use real consumers with similar concerns about similar products and

a similar desire to express those concerns to the company.

There limitations notwithstanding, the present study yielded several interesting findings. One, the overall response rate was lower than that found in previous studies. To our knowledge, only two other published reports measured actual company response to consumer letters. Their respective response rates are given below:

                                          Praise Letters        Complaint Letters

Kendall and Russ (1975)         NA                           82%

Pearson (1976)                        61%                          74%

If only 58 percent of our companies responded, then what happened to the other 42 percent? And why the inconsistency in response patterns both within and between product categories? In some cases, a company responded to all four communications; in other cases, to just one or two; and in still other cases, didn't reply at all. Kendall and Russ reported a similar finding in 1975. Ten years later, it appears that some industry practices still have not stabilized.

Two, companies were just as likely to respond to letters of praise as they were to letters of complaint. This is certainly to their credit, and may be an indication that companies place equal value on both types of consumer feedback.

This apparent lack of discrimination led to the study's most important finding--namely, that companies did not discriminate between letters from children and those from adults. They communicated to 12-yearColds in virtually the same way they communicated to adults. This resulted in letters which used technical wording and complex sentence structure well beyond the comprehension level of the intended recipients. The level of miscomprehension was verified by our in-depth interviews.

Miscomprehension of business communication by children could lead to several undesirable side effects. These include continued dissatisfaction with the product, misuse of the product, and eventually disillusionment with the corporate communication process.

In conclusion, it appears that Blum and his associates (1974) were correct in pointing to the need for proper communication to maintain positive corporate attitudes and assuage negative ones. "Opening more effective channels of communication," they said, "may be a more effective goal than merely reducing complaints."


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