Research in Consumer Complaining and Word-Of-Mouth Activities Discussant's Comments

Tina Lowrey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
[ to cite ]:
Tina Lowrey (1989) ,"Research in Consumer Complaining and Word-Of-Mouth Activities Discussant's Comments", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 30-32.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 30-32



Tina Lowrey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The three papers regarding complaining and word-of-mouth activities each address different yet equally important issues in This area of research. The first, by Brown and Beltramini, discusses an attempt to conduct research in a more naturalistic setting than has been true in past studies. The Goodwin and Spiggle paper takes a look at how one's attributions of others' complaining, coupled with self-definitions, may affect actual behavior. Finally, the Wilson and Peterson paper investigates how predispositions toward products may affect receptivity to word-of-mouth information.

Brown and Beltramini's paper, "Consumer Complaining and Word-of-Mouth Activities: Does Problem Salience Matter?", offers field evidence which shows how high involvement may affect responses regarding complaining and sword-of-mouth (WOM) behavior. Previous research relied heavily on retrospective self-reporting which, the authors argue, may provide inaccurate responses. Additionally, such self-reports are normally based on unique, individual experiences .

Brown and Beltramini have filled a gap in this research area by conducting their study during a real episode of gas service disruption. Due to the fact that there were differing levels of service disruption, it was possible to study the impact of problem severity on complaining behavior. In fact, three main variables and one moderator were thought to influence complaining and/or WOM activities. The three variables studied were:

-problem severity,

-attribution of controllability of the cause of the problem,

-perceived management responsiveness.

The moderator was perceived inconvenience.

The researchers found that as problem severity increased so did complaining and both existence and extent of WOM. Also impacting existence of WOM was inconvenience (as opposed to performing a moderator role as predicted). Inconvenience also directly influenced extent of WOM, as did attribution of controllability. However, inconvenience did moderate between problem severity and complaining, as originally thought.

Finally, perceived management responsiveness influenced complaining, but in the opposite direction from what was hypothesized. This surprising finding implies that the less responsive management may be, the more one is apt to complain. Previous research has found contradicting results. The explanation offered is that temporally salient problems may lead to affective responses while retrospection would allow for cognitive analysis.

Limitations of this study are listed, including lack of strict control (inherent in naturalistic settings), inability to randomize problem severity, and the difficulty of systematic manipulation of the independent variables. However, despite these problems, this research offers valuable insights which could not have been obtained from traditional retrospective self-reporting.

"Consumer Complaining: Attributions and Identities", by Goodwin and Spiggle, actually consists of two studies. The first was aimed at attributions of others' complaining behavior, while the second was concerned with consumers' self-definitions. In the first study, two major questions were asked. One, does attitude toward an individual exhibiting a specific behavior differ depending on how the behavior is labeled? Two, does the individual's gender influence how the behavior is perceived?

Four conditions were set up to answer these questions. Respondents were asked to describe a man (woman) who complained (informed) in a given situation. No gender difference was found (contrary to predictions), but positive vs. negative behavior labeling was quite significant. These results imply that consumers do attribute negative personality traits to those perceived as complainers, but not to those perceived as informers.

In the second study, questionnaires were distributed which were designed to determine respondents' general orientation to complaining, including how they would describe their own personality in this regard. Three distinct groups emerged:

-those who reject the complainer role,

-those who embrace the complainer role,

-those who emphasize situational determinants.

Limitations for these two studies include artificial conditions in the first and inaccuracies from self-reporting in the second. However, this area of research is quite promising. Furthermore, a number of additional questions could be studied, yielding more beneficial information. Goodwin and Spiggle mention that those who embrace a complaining identity should be studied further. They suggest that such individuals could be rebellious, apathetic, or convinced that complaining is well-justified behavior. Another explanation for this attitude could be that one wishes to avoid being perceived as weak or afraid to speak up. Finally, it would be quite interesting to see similar studies conducted for word-of-mouth behavior to see if the same results would occur.

The third paper, "Some Limits on the Potency of Word-of-Mouth Information", by Wilson and Peterson, is concerned with individuals' receptivity to information based on predisposition toward a product. Previous research had found that WOM information could have heavy influence on product evaluations and purchase intentions. However, the authors felt that prior expectations a potential buyer may have toward a given product may limit the potency of such information.


The design for this study included evaluative judgments of two brands of a product both prior to and after the presentation of WOM information. The product evaluated (digital tape recorders) was specifically chosen because of its relative novelty to ensure that predisposition toward the two brands would be fairly unstable.

It was hypothesized that individuals with a positive evaluation of a product would be very receptive to positive WOM and unreceptive to negative WOM (vice-versa for those individuals with a negative evaluation), whereas neutral predisposition would lead to equal levels of receptivity for either positive or negative WOM.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, suffice it to say that the results were consistent with the predictions. Those who initially preferred Brand A over Brand B were highly influenced by both positive WOM information for Brand A and negative WOM information for Brand B. For those who originally favored Brand B the exact opposite relationship held true. And for those who had indicated no preference, WOM information had no significant impact. Another finding was that, in general, negative WOM had more influence than positive WOM.

The researchers concluded that evaluative predispositions toward products effectively acted as ''filters'' through which word-of-mouth information flowed. Despite the many gaps which exist in this area of inquiry, this paper provides additional answers to how individuals process WOM information. Another interesting question would be to investigate how these findings may tie in to service offerings, as opposed to being limited to products.

The following diagram (Figure 1) shows how these three papers are related.

Brown and Beltramini deal with external influences such as problem severity, attribution of controllability, and management responsiveness. These influences impact an individual's behavior, determining whether complaining to management will be the most beneficial route to pursue (the other alternative being negative word-of-mouth activities).

In the Goodwin and Spiggle paper, two issues are addressed. First. complaining behavior is perceived negatively by others. Secondly, how you believe you will be perceived by others, coupled with your own self-definition, ultimately impacts upon actual behavior.

Finally, Wilson and Peterson explore how word-of-mouth information, both positive and negative, interacts with an individual's evaluative predisposition toward a product to affect purchase intent.

Although the diagram is an oversimplification of the processes involved, it is intended to clearly show how many variables are involved in this area of research and how they may interact. Furthermore, as this is taken from only three studies, it is obvious that there are many more questions which remain to be answered. Both complaining and word-of-mouth activities are complex, somewhat elusive behaviors to explain. These papers offer additional insights, but there is much more research to be undertaken in the ongoing effort to understand such behavior.