Consumer Attitudes Toward Complaining and the Prediction of Multiple Complaint Responses

Diane Halstead, University of Kentucky
Cornelia Droge, Michigan State University
ABSTRACT - This paper investigates the role of consumer attitudes toward complaining as predictors of complaining behavior. In addition to satisfaction, several attitude factors significantly influenced five consumer complaint responses: word-of-mouth behavior, word-of-mouth favorability, repurchase intentions, complaining intentions, and seller-directed complaint actions. Consumer attitudes about channel members' responsiveness to complaints demonstrated the greatest ability to predict multiple complaint behaviors.
[ to cite ]:
Diane Halstead and Cornelia Droge (1991) ,"Consumer Attitudes Toward Complaining and the Prediction of Multiple Complaint Responses", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 210-216.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 210-216


Diane Halstead, University of Kentucky

Cornelia Droge, Michigan State University


This paper investigates the role of consumer attitudes toward complaining as predictors of complaining behavior. In addition to satisfaction, several attitude factors significantly influenced five consumer complaint responses: word-of-mouth behavior, word-of-mouth favorability, repurchase intentions, complaining intentions, and seller-directed complaint actions. Consumer attitudes about channel members' responsiveness to complaints demonstrated the greatest ability to predict multiple complaint behaviors.


It is a commonly held view in consumer behavior theory that attitudes precede intentions and behavior, particularly in high involvement situations. Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) have argued that an individual's attitude toward a concept or object may influence their overall pattern of responses even though it may not predict a particular action. This research investigates whether consumer attitudes toward complaining predict patterns of consumer complaining responses.

Several consumer complaining behavior (CCB) studies have examined formal complaint actions or intentions as a function of consumer attitudes toward complaining (Bearden and Crockett 1981; Richins 1982; Singh 1989). However, conceptualizing CCB as only complaints directed to a seller or third party (i.e., formal complaints) is generally viewed as overly restrictive (Best and Andreasen 1977; Day et al. 1981; Richins 1983; Singh 1988). Singh (1988) in particular argues that CCB should be defined as "a set of multiple (behavioral and nonbehavioral) responses, some or all of which are triggered by perceived dissatisfaction with a purchase episode" (p. 94). Doing nothing about an unsatisfactory consumption experience is a legitimate CCB response, as is a decision not to repurchase, or telling friends (Day 1984; Day et al. 1981; Richins 1983).

With the exception of Folkes (1984), few studies have investigated multiple complaint responses, particularly in conjunction with consumer attitudes toward complaining. In addition, many studies have focused on consumer dissatisfaction as a primary determinant of complaining behavior (e.g., Singh 1988). While theoretical and empirical support exists for an inverse satisfaction complaining relationship (Bearden and Teel 1983; Day and Landon 1977; Oliver 1987), only about 15 percent of the variation in formal complaining is explained by satisfaction level (Oliver 1987). Thus, additional variables beyond satisfaction are needed to fully explain CCB.

Consumer attitudes toward complaining are likely to contribute to the prediction of several complaining behaviors. This paper, therefore, addresses the following research questions. First, what is the role of consumer attitudes toward complaining in the prediction of complaint behavior? Once consumer (dis)satisfaction is accounted for, can these attitudes provide additional explanatory power? Finally, will the effects of satisfaction and attitudes toward complaining be the same across a variety of CCB responses? Five CCB responses are considered: 1) extent of word-of-mouth (WOM) behavior, 2) favorability of WOM transmissions, 3) intentions to repurchase, 4) future complaint intentions, and 5) seller-directed complaint actions.

The paper is organized as follows. First, background on consumer complaining attitudes and behaviors is provided. Next, a conceptual model is proposed which presents CCB as a function of both satisfaction and attitudes toward complaining. Finally, multiple regression and discriminant analysis results are discussed and implications provided.


The traditional focus of complaint behavior studies has been on behavioral responses, i.e., those consumer actions that directly convey expressions of dissatisfaction (Landon 1980; Singh 1988). These actions include complaints directed to manufacturers and retailers, complaints to third parties or consumer agencies (e.g., Better Business Bureaus), and telling friends and family members (negative WOM). Numerous studies, however, have documented that a common response to consumer dissatisfaction is to "do nothing" or decide not to repurchase (Andreasen and Best 1977; Best and Andreasen 1977; Day and Bodur 1978; Day and Landon 1976; A.C. Nielsen 1981; TARP 1979; Warland, Herrmann, and Willits 1975). These nonbehavioral responses should be considered forms of consumer complaining, despite the passive nature of these responses (Singh 1988).

With only a few exceptions, however (e.g., Folkes 1984; Singh 1988), research on CCB has either failed to recognize the multidimensionality of the CCB construct, or has focused on only one CCB action. For example, Richins (1983) investigated negative WOM, Singh (1989) and Ursic (1985) examined consumers' decisions to seek third party or legal redress, and Gilly and Gelb (1982) addressed brand repurchase issues. Thus, studies investigating a variety of CCB responses, with explicit recognition that CCB encompasses numerous behavioral and nonbehavioral actions, are needed.

Predictors of Consumer Complaining Behavior

A considerable amount of CCB literature has focused on the theoretical antecedents of complaining. A commonly accepted view in CCB research is that a certain level of consumer dissatisfaction must exist for complaining to occur (Day 1984; Day and Landon 1977). Complaining by satisfied consumers is considered outside the realm of CCB (Singh 1988), although Jacoby and Jaccard (1981) cite instances when this may occur. Empirical support for an inverse satisfaction complaining relationship is found in Bearden and Teel (1983), Oliver (1987), and Westbrook (1987).

Even when dissatisfaction occurs, a consumer's propensity to complain may still be low under certain conditions. Day and Landon (1977) and others have proposed that characteristics of the product may affect complaint propensity (e.g., cost, durability, importance). In addition, marketing channel factors may influence whether a consumer complains. Firms with well-known reputations for providing fair redress often encourage consumers to complain. Consumer-related factors such as personality, motives, sociodemographic status, and attitudes are also likely to affect complaining behavior (Jacoby and Jaccard 1981). Consumers' attitudes toward business, government, consumer organizations, and complaining have been studied in order to predict complaining behavior, but the results have been mixed (Barnes and Kelloway 1980; Moyer 1985).

Several researchers have focused on consumer attitudes toward complaining in particular. Given Ajzen and Fishbein's (1977) contention that strong attitude-behavior relationships are obtained "only under high correspondence between at least the target and action elements of the attitudinal and behavioral entities" (p. 888), it seems likely that attitudes toward the action of complaining should be more strongly related to complaining behaviors than attitudes toward either business or government.

The importance of attitudes toward complaining in the determination of a variety of CCB responses has empirical support. For example, in his study of the antecedents of third party actions by dissatisfied patients, Singh (1989) found that the normative dimension of attitude (e.g., "I should complain") positively and significantly influenced consumers' intentions to seek redress. In fact, a person's attitude toward complaining was the most influential factor when compared to two other consumer-related variables: 1) the consumer's subjective probability of third party success in obtaining a desirable outcome, and 2) the consumer's evaluation of the cost-benefit tradeoffs of complaining. Several other studies support the role of attitudes toward complaining as direct positive antecedents of either complaining intentions (Bearden and Crockett 1981; Richins 1982) or complaining behavior (Day 1984; Richins 1982). Whether attitudes toward complaining directly impact other CCB responses such as WOM behavior (the number of people told about a product experience), WOM favorability (the valence of WOM communications), or repurchase intentions is one of the research questions to be addressed here.

The Proposed Model

Given the demonstrated roles of satisfaction and attitudes toward complaining in the determination of CCB, the following conceptual model is proposed (Figure A).

The attitude dimensions proposed were selected based on the following. Day and Landon's (1977) and Jacoby and Jaccard's (1981) conceptualizations of additional factors (i.e., beyond satisfaction) leading to complaint behavior included consumer-specific, market-specific, and product-specific variables. The personal norms and negative affect dimensions are consumer-related variables. The channel responsiveness dimension relates to market-related variables, and the product-specific dimension of attitude is the third category.

Personal norms refers to the individual's feeling that complaining is/is not an appropriate activity. Richins (1982) noted that some consumers don't like to be seen as nuisances or troublemakers, and this could inhibit them. Both Richins and Singh (1989) found empirical support for the role of normative complaining attitudes.

Negative affect refers to the unpleasant feelings experienced by some consumers during the complaining process (e.g., embarrassment, annoyance, intimidation). Bearden, Crockett, and Teel (1979) used psychosocial risk and Richins (1982) found affective responses spread across two significant factors. In addition, Wesbrook (1987) provides empirical support for the role of negative affect in seller-directed complaint behavior.

Channel responsiveness refers to the consumer's attitude that sellers are willing/unwilling to provide a remedy for complaints. Granbois, Summers, and Frazier (1977) found that the perception of a store's willingness to provide redress was the most significant correlate of complaining behavior.

The product-specific dimension relates to consumers' attitudes about the product category and whether or not complaints about this particular product are typical and/or appropriate. Day and Landon (1977) have argued that consumers often fail to complain when dissatisfied because of the nature or cost of the product category (e.g., defective ballpoint pens versus defective automobile brakes).


The sampling frame consisted of new owners of a nationally advertised carpet brand. The household members most responsible for the selection of the carpet were interviewed by telephone by an independent marketing research firm. Stratified random sampling was conducted within three distinct customer segments. Segment I (n=208) consisted of customers who reported no problems with their new carpet (Noncomplainers). Segment II (n=90) consisted of those customers who complained about a problem with their carpet and had the problem resolved (Complainers). Segment m (n=103) was comprised of customers who complained and eventually had their new carpets replaced under warranty due to quality defects (Replacements). These three segments were identified by the research sponsor as customer groups needing research attention.



After a series of focus groups among carpet consumers, 16 attitude statements tapping several dimensions were developed. Two double-barrelled items were later deleted to increase factor interpretability. The remaining 14 items, scaled on a five-point Likert scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree", were: (1) Carpet manufacturers don't care about problems people have with their carpeting once it's installed; (2) Most people are stuck with their carpet if it gets stained; (3) Carpet warranties protect manufacturers more than consumers; (4) People who complain about products or services are wasting their time; (5) I'm uncomfortable when returning a product; (6) I dislike making any kind of complaint; (7) I would probably not complain about a product if I thought I'd made a poor choice to begin with; (8) I think people who complain about poor service are nuisances; (9) I don't think complaining is an appropriate activity under any circumstances; (10) Most people will complain about their carpet right after purchase rather than later; (11) My carpet retailer will provide help if I complain; (12) I would feel justified to complain about carpet problems even without a warranty; (13) Fewer people complain about carpet purchases than about other household items; and (14) I believe I should complain and have my problem resolved.

The attitude statements were factor analyzed using principal components and were subjected to a varimax rotation. An orthogonal rotation was used in order to maintain independent attitude factors since they would later be used in multiple regression and discriminant analyses. Four factors were initially specified as the model proposes. Due to an uninterpretable four factor solution and an eigenvalue greater than one in the five factor solution, five rather than four factors were retained in the final pattern.

The attitude factors were then used as independent variables (with satisfaction) in four multiple regression analyses with the following dependent variables: 1) extent of WOM behavior (the number of people told about the consumption, experience), 2) WOM favorability (measured on a five-point scale from "very negative" to "very positive"), 3) repurchase intention (measured on a four-point scale ranging from "definitely would not buy (this brand) again" to "definitely would buy again", and 4) future complaint intentions (the sum of consumers' responses to six yes - no statements which queried them about their intentions to complain at various points in time if a problem developed). Consumer satisfaction levels were determined using a four-point "very dissatisfied" to "very satisfied" scale which measured consumers' satisfaction with their (original) carpet.

The fifth dependent variable was complaint action, i.e., Noncomplainer, Complainer, Replacement. The same independent variables were therefore subjected to a stepwise multiple discriminant analysis in order to: 1) determine which variables were significant in the classification of the three sample segments, and 2) classify each consumer into one of the three groups. For the discriminant analysis only, the total sample was split randomly into an analysis (n=201) and a holdout sample (n=200). This prevents the upward bias that would occur in the prediction accuracy of the discriminant function if the individuals used in developing the classification matrix were the same as those used to compute the function (Hair, Anderson, and Tatham 1987).




The factor analysis solution is presented in Table 1. The five factors bear resemblance, but not complete similarity, to the expected attitude dimensions. Factor One clearly reflects consumers' negative perceptions of channel members' (especially manufacturers') responsiveness to consumer complaints. Factor Two corresponds to the negative affect consumers associate with the complaining experience (discomfort, dislike). Both Factor One and Factor Two clearly reflect the expected facets discussed previously. Factor Three appears to relate to personal norms, but normative items also loaded on Factors Four and Five (see Item 12 loading on Factor Four and Item 14 loading on Factor Five). Thus, the normative aspects of consumer complaining attitudes were spread across three factors. As a result, Factors Four and Five are less easily interpreted, both reflecting a combination of normative and product-specific items. Factor Five appears to reflect a negative attitude toward carpet complaining specifically, while Factor Four reflects a response to problems within the product category.

The results of the regression analyses are shown in Table 2. As the table indicates, satisfaction significantly predicted all complaint responses except complaint intentions. In addition to satisfaction effects, however, four of the five attitude factors significantly predicted at least one of the four complaint responses shown in Table 2. Two factors, Factor Two and Factor Four, significantly predicted two complaining behaviors, and Factor One was significant in the prediction of WOM extent, WOM favorability, and repurchase intentions. Thus, even when satisfaction level is accounted for, consumer attitudes toward complaining contribute to the prediction of multiple CCB responses.

Of the four CCB responses shown in Table 2, complaint intentions and extent of WOM behavior were the least likely to be explained by the six independent variables. This holds both in terms of the number of significant coefficients (two out of six possible in each case) and in terms of variance explained (R2 = .06 and .07, respectively, for complaint intentions and WOM extent).

The stepwise discriminant analysis and classification results are both given in Table 3. Only satisfaction and Factor One (channel responsiveness) were retained in the final discriminant analysis. Both were able to significantly predict group membership (i.e., Noncomplainers, Complainers, and Replacements). Results of the three-group discriminant analysis classifying consumers into complaint action groups are shown in part (B) of Table 3. The rows of the classification table relate to actual group membership, whereas the columns give predicted group membership. Thus, "hits" (i.e., correct classifications) appear on the main diagonal and "misses" (i.e., incorrect classifications) appear off the diagonal.

Noncomplainers and Replacement customers were very well classified with hit ratios of 86 percent and 73 percent, respectively. The overall hit ratio for the sample was only 72 percent, however, due to the low classification rate of Segment II - the Complainers. Only 40 percent of these consumers were correctly placed into Segment II. The misclassifications of Complainers were split fairly evenly between the other two groups (29 and 31 percent), further complicating this finding. A 72 percent hit ratio is still a significant improvement over that which could be expected by chance (51.7 percent) or by arbitrarily classifying all consumers into the largest group. Thus, the discriminant function using satisfaction and attitudes toward complaining to predict actual complaint behavior is valid for Factor One only. Factors Two through Five did not contribute significantly to the discriminant classification.






Several conclusions can be drawn from the results of this study. First, sufficient evidence exists to suggest that the conceptual model warrants further research. Consumers' attitudes toward complaining significantly influence whether or not they will engage in seller-directed complaint behavior. They also affect WOM behavior, repurchase intentions, and likelihood of future complaining. Attitudes play a significant role in the prediction of CCB responses even when the effects of satisfaction are accounted for, underscoring the need for inclusion of attitudinal variables in comprehensive models of CCB. Although Day (1984) conceptualized attitude toward complaining as a mediating variable in the complaining/ noncomplaining decision process, the results show that satisfaction and attitude are both direct predictors of CCB.

Second, although four of the five attitude dimensions which emerged were significant in the prediction of at least one CCB response, Factor Three (personal norms) was not significant. This result appears counter-intuitive and contradicts the empirical findings of Richins (1982) and Singh (1989). This may indicate that the normative aspect of consumers' attitudes toward complaining is product and/or situation specific. For example, Singh's study was on third-party complaints which differ substantially from the seller-directed complaints studied here. While Richins' study sampled both third party and other complainers, consumers could respond about complaints in any product category. Since several of the normative items in this study spread across the product-specific factors (although a separate normative dimension did emerge), consumers' perceptions about the appropriateness of complaining may depend on the specific situation encountered, especially the nature of the product. Carpeting may not be viewed as a product for which complaining is either appropriate or natural. Everyone complains about auto repairs, but once carpeting is installed, the consumer may think no recourse is available. It is relatively simple to return unwanted clothing items, but returning unwanted carpeting involves considerable upheaval (if the seller even agreed to it). The normative aspect of complaining clearly needs additional investigation.

Finally, the attitude factor that most consistently predicted CCB response was the consumer's perception of the responsiveness/caring of channel members (manufacturers especially) regarding problems and redress. This attitude dimension significantly predicted four of five CCB responses. The implications of this for customer service and complaint-handling managers are threefold. First, being more responsive to consumers' complaints should increase the number of complaints articulated to an organization. Thus, rather than having a group of silent but disgruntled customers who may eventually exit rather than voice a complaint, a firm may increase the probability of satisfying customers because it gets a second chance when a consumer complains. Second, creating perceptions of responsiveness will directly affect other post-purchase behaviors such as WOM and repurchase intention even if actual complaints remain unchanged (responsive attitudes significantly predicted WOM extent, valence of WOM, and repurchase intention in addition to complaint behavior). Third, creating-a perception of willingness to respond to complaints may also lead consumers to believe that the original product/service offering is of higher quality than the competition since few firms would "back up" a poor product.

Further research on the nature and role of attitudes toward complaining is needed. It may be that additional dimensions exist which were not discovered here. Additional research on the normative dimension of attitude toward complaining (in particular its possible relation to product category) is also warranted.


A.C. Nielsen Co. (1981), The Consumer's View of Product and Package Performance, Northbrook, IL: A.C. Nielsen Co.

Ajzen, Icek and Martin Fishbein (1977), "Attitude-Behavior Relations: A Theoretical Analysis and Review of Empirical Research," Psychological Bulletin, 84:5, 888-918.

Andreasen, Alan R. and Arthur Best (1977), "Consumers Complain - Does Business Respond," Harvard Business Review, 55 (July-August), 93-101.

Barnes, James G. and Karen R. Kelloway (1980), "Consumerists: Complaining Behavior and Attitudes Toward Social and Consumer Issues," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 7, Jerry C. Olson (ed.), Ann Arbor, MI: ACR, 329-34.

Bearden, William O. and Jesse E. Teel (1983), "Selected Determinants of Consumer Satisfaction and Complaint Reports," Journal of Marketing Research, 20 (February), 21-8.

Bearden, William O. and Melissa Crockett (1981), "Self-Monitoring, Norms, and Attitudes as Influences on Consumer Complaining," Journal of Business Research. 9 (June). 255-66.

Bearden, William O., Melissa Crockett, and Jesse E. Teel (1979), "Alternative Framework for Predicting Consumer Complaining," in Proceedings of the American Marketing Association Educators' Conference, Neil Beckwith (ed.), Chicago, IL: AMA, 23943.

Best, Arthur and Alan R. Andreason (1977), "Consumer Responses to Unsatisfactory Purchases: A Survey of Perceived Defects, Voicing Complaints, and Obtaining Redress", Law and Society Review," 11(Spring), 70142.

Day, Ralph L. (1984), "Modeling Choices Among Alternative Responses to Dissatisfaction," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 11, Thomas C. Kinnear (ed.), Ann Arbor, MI: ACR, 496-9.

Day, Ralph L. and E. Laird Landon, Jr. (1976), "Collecting Comprehensive Consumer Complaint Data by Survey Research," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 3, Beverlee B. Anderson (ed.), Ann Arbor, MI: ACR, 263-8.

Day, Ralph L. (1977), "Towards a Theory of Consumer Complaining Behavior," in Consumer and Industrial Buying Behavior, Arch Woodside, Jagdish Sheth, and Peter Bennett (eds.), Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 425-37.

Day, Ralph L. and Muzaffer Bodur (1978), "Consumer Response to Dissatisfaction with Services and Intangibles," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 5, H. Keith Hunt (ed.), Ann Arbor, MI: ACR, 263-72.

Day, Ralph L., K. Grabicke, T. Schaetzle, and F. Staubach (1981), 'The Hidden Agenda of Consumer Complaining," Journal of Retailing, 57 (Fall), 86-106.

Fishbein, Martin and Icek Ajzen (1975), Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Folkes, Valerie S. (1984), "An Attributional Approach to Postpurchase Conflict Between Buyers and Sellers," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 11, Thomas C. Kinnear (ed.), Ann Arbor, MI: ACR, 500-503.

Gilly, Mary C. and Betsy D. Gelb (1982), "PostPurchase Consumer Processes and the Complaining Consumer," Journal of Consumer Research, 9 (December), 323-8.

Granbois, Donald, John O. Summers, and Gary L. Frazier (1977), "Correlates of Consumer Expectation and Complaining Behavior," in Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior, Ralph L. Day (ed.), Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 18-25.

Hair, Joseph F., Jr., Rolph E. Anderson, and Ronald L. Tatham (1987), Multivariate Data Analysis with Readings, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Jacoby, Jacob and James J. Jaccard (1981), "The Sources, Meaning and Validity of Consumer Complaining Behavior: A Psychological Review," Journal of Retailing, 57 (Fall), 4-24.

Landon, E. Laird, Jr. (1980), "The Direction of Consumer Complaint Research," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 7, Jerry C. Olson (ed.), Ann Arbor, MI: ACR, 335-8.

Moyer, Mel S. (1985), "Characteristics of Consumer Complainants: Implications for Marketing and Public Policy," Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Vol. 3, 67-84.

Oliver, Richard L. (1987), "An Investigation of the Interrelationship Between Consumer Dis(satisfaction) and Complaint Reports," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 14, Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson (eds.), Ann Arbor, MI: ACR, 218-22.

Richins, Marsha L. (1982), "An Investigation of Consumers' Attitudes Toward Complaining," in Advances for Consumer Research, Vol. 9, Andrew A. Mitchell (ed.), Ann Arbor, MI: ACR, 502-506.

Richins, Marsha L. (1983), "Negative-Word-of-Mouth by Dissatisfied Consumers: A Pilot Study," Journal of Marketing, 47 (Winter), 68-78.

Singh, Jagdip (1988), "Consumer Complaint Intentions and Behavior: Definitional and Taxonomical Issues," Journal of Marketing, 52 (January), 93-107.

Singh, Jagdip (1989), "Determinants of Consumers' Decisions to Seek Third Party Redress: An Empirical Study of Dissatisfied Patients," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 23 (Winter), 329-63.

TARP, Inc. (1979), Consumer Complaint Handling in America: Final Report, Washington, D.C.: White House Office of Consumer Affairs.

Ursic, Michael L. (1985), "A Model of the Consumer Decision to Seek Legal Redress," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 19 (Summer), 20-36.

Warland, Rex H., Robert D. Herrmann, and Jane Willits (1975), "Dissatisfied Consumers: Who Gets Upset and Who Takes Action," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 9 (Winter), 148-63.

Westbrook, Robert A. (1987), "Product/Consumption-Based Affective Responses and Postpurchase Processes," Journal of Marketing Research, 24 (August), 258-70.