Complaints and Compliments About Service Encounters: a Comparison of American and Bulgarian Consumers

Lalita A. Manrai, University of Delaware
Ajay K. Manrai, University of Delaware
ABSTRACT - This paper develops a conceptual model and twelve propositions comparing the complaining and complimenting behavior of American and Bulgarian consumers. The conceptual model describes the nature of relationship between government, consumer and service provider under three scenarios, i.e., in the free-market economy of USA, in the communist party-state controlled economy of Bulgaria (under former communist rule in Bulgaria) and in the democratic party-state controlled economy of Bulgaria (under present situation in Bulgaria). The propositions integrate Weiner's (1980) three-dimensional taxonomy of attributions with this conceptual model and compare the American and Bulgarian consumers in terms of the type of attributions they make for extremely satisfying and extremely dissatisfying service encounters and their subsequent complimenting/complaining behavior.
[ to cite ]:
Lalita A. Manrai and Ajay K. Manrai (1993) ,"Complaints and Compliments About Service Encounters: a Comparison of American and Bulgarian Consumers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 97-101.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 97-101

COMPLAINTS AND COMPLIMENTS ABOUT SERVICE ENCOUNTERS: A COMPARISON OF AMERICAN AND BULGARIAN CONSUMERS

Lalita A. Manrai, University of Delaware

Ajay K. Manrai, University of Delaware

ABSTRACT -

This paper develops a conceptual model and twelve propositions comparing the complaining and complimenting behavior of American and Bulgarian consumers. The conceptual model describes the nature of relationship between government, consumer and service provider under three scenarios, i.e., in the free-market economy of USA, in the communist party-state controlled economy of Bulgaria (under former communist rule in Bulgaria) and in the democratic party-state controlled economy of Bulgaria (under present situation in Bulgaria). The propositions integrate Weiner's (1980) three-dimensional taxonomy of attributions with this conceptual model and compare the American and Bulgarian consumers in terms of the type of attributions they make for extremely satisfying and extremely dissatisfying service encounters and their subsequent complimenting/complaining behavior.

INTRODUCTION

As East European countries move from communism to capitalism, the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of East European consumers are changing as well. The importance of cross-cultural consumer research in international marketing has been amply acknowledged by researchers (Lee 1966; Levitt 1983). Yet the studies of cross-cultural consumer behavior have been rather limited in number and there is need for much more work in this area. Considering the dramatic changes and the rapid transition that is currently taking place in the former communist countries, this need is more pressing than ever before.

The impact of this transition should be particularly noticeable in service industries because, overall, perhaps services are the least-developed sector of the economy in East European countries. Under the former communist rule, the economy was centrally controlled and consumers had rather limited choices in terms of the service options and the extent to which they had any say in the marketing of services. It will be interesting to study how a move towards a free market economy and privatization has changed the consumer thinking. In particular, whether the consumers in these East European countries feel free to voice their complaints in case of dissatisfying service encounters and likewise whether the satisfying service encounters lead to compliments.

Attribution theory has been found to be particularly useful in explaining the complaining and complimenting behavior of consumers in developed countries like USA (Curren and Folkes 1987; Folkes 1984; Krishnan and Valle 1979; Richins 1983; Valle and Wallendorf 1979). The aim of our research is to study the applicability of these attribution-based findings in the context of a changing economy like Bulgaria. Towards this end, the research reported in this paper compares the complaining and complimenting behavior of American and Bulgarian consumers. Specifically four research issues would be addressed in our paper related to consumer responses to bad and good service experiences. These are:

1. Do American and Bulgarian consumers differ as regards the type of attributions they make for extremely dissatisfying service experiences?

2. Do American and Bulgarian consumers differ as regards the type of attributions they make for extremely satisfying service experiences?

3. Do American and Bulgarian consumers differ as regards the relationship between the type of attributions they make for extremely dissatisfying service experiences and their complaining and other post-consumption behavior?

4. Do American and Bulgarian consumers differ as regards the relationship between the type of attributions they make for extremely satisfying service experiences and their complimenting and other post-consumption behavior?

In the next section, we develop a conceptual model describing the nature of relationship between consumers and service providers and the role the government has in this relationship depending upon the type of economy. Then, we develop twelve propositions that address the four research issues discussed above. The behavior of the American consumer is predicted based on the relevant research in the areas of attribution, consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction and services marketing. The extent to which the Bulgarian consumers will exhibit a similar or different behavior (i.e., a cross-cultural comparison) will depend upon the similarity and differences in the cultural, social, economic and political influences in these two countries' environments. Practically no published information exists on the impact of these factors on a Bulgarian consumer's behavior. On the other hand, some very useful insights were obtained by conducting depth interviews with 4 Bulgarian nationals and 5 American participant-observers, i.e., American nationals, 4 of whom had lived in Bulgaria for 3 to 8 months and one had visited Bulgaria for 2 weeks. Participant observations has been long used by ethnologists (Guthe and Mead 1945) and has been equally accepted by consumer researchers (Grunert, Grunert and Beatty 1989). We draw substantially on these participant observations and depth interviews to develop our conceptual model and propositions relating to the behavior of Bulgarian consumers.

CONCEPTUAL MODEL AND PROPOSITIONS

Type of Attributions: Comparison of American and Bulgarian Consumers

Attribution Taxonomy:

Most attribution researchers accept the three-dimensional taxonomy proposed by Weiner (1980). The three dimensions of attributions included in this taxonomy are locus of causality, controllability and stability. Locus of causality deals with internal versus external location of the cause (Weiner 1985, 1986). Thus causes such as ability, effort, patience and mood are considered as internal whereas causes such as task difficulty and luck are considered as external. The second dimension of attributions has to do with whether the outcome could have been controlled or not. Thus causes such as patience and effort are considered as controllable and causes such as ability, mood, task difficulty and luck are considered as uncontrollable. Finally, the third dimension of attributions describes whether the outcome is very likely to happen again, i.e., stable or whether the outcome is very unlikely to happen again, i.e., unstable. Thus causes such as ability, task difficulty and patience are considered to be relatively stable and causes such as luck, effort and mood are considered to be relatively unstable.

Bulgaria in Transition:

In a free market economy like that of United States, the relationship between a customer and service provider is by and large independent of the state or government, i.e., the state or the government does not exercise any direct control on the consumer in terms of which service provider to choose, it does not control the service-mix of the provider, etc. On the other hand under the former communist controlled state rule, the behavior of both consumer and (especially) the service provider was very much controlled by the communist government. Almost all service businesses, e.g., airlines and ground transportation, hotels/restaurants, utilities, banking, retailing including supermarkets and department stores were completely controlled by the communist government. The communist government even controlled the people's freedom to travel within the country. "People had to register before they took a trip" indicated one of the participant-observers. "We had to carry our passports all the time with us - even for travel within the country" said a Bulgarian national. Thus the consumers in Bulgaria felt very much controlled during the communist regime and didn't think that "they had any role to play really as consumers in the way it is in America" expressed another Bulgarian national.

What has happened now with the fall of communism in Bulgaria? A very consistent theme emerged in each and every depth interview conducted with participant-observers and Bulgarian nationals. People feel that "psychologically" they are better off now compared to the communist regime but "economically" they are much worse. What does this mean and why has this happened?

The fall of the communist government means that communist party is no more under control. It does not mean that the economy is not state controlled. What has happened is simply a change of control from hands of communists to the currently ruling democratic government. The economy is very much controlled by the government. Only difference is that the government is no more communist. The economy of Bulgaria is still a far cry from privatization and there are many obstacles to privatization. Some of the major problems that the Bulgarian economy is facing currently and how it has affected consumer behavior is discussed below.

Under the communist government, there was not much by way of goods and services but whatever was there was available to people. Most people were employed and had housing. Now the disparities between classes has increased with the result that many are jobless and homeless. There is a small percentage of population that has become wealthy but most of the common public is economically in a much worse situation. While some of this newly acquired wealth is due to skills, most is on account of the "connections", observed one of the interviewees. Another participant-observer said "Privatization is taking place through Communist Mafia, i.e., communists have moved into the economic system and the situation is much worse." The same participant observer told about auction of a gasoline station for over 50 million levas (equivalent of over $2.5 million) and said it was obvious who will have this kind of money. "Connections are everything," he concluded. Thus economically most of the population is much worse.

The good thing that the fall of communism has done is that "people at least feel free to talk about their problems" said a participant-observer. "People complain constantly" said another participant-observer. While most of the service businesses continue to be state controlled, there is some limited privatization that has taken place and this is mostly in small retailing businesses, i.e. small kiosks, repair shops, some small restaurants, etc. "There is a world of a difference in the service that you get in a private restaurant versus in a state controlled restaurant. Although private restaurants are much more expensive and beyond the reach of a common man," felt one of our interviewees. Nevertheless the consumers are at least able to see and feel the difference that true privatization can do and they openly talk about it.

This transition process that Bulgaria is currently going through is represented in a conceptual model (Figure-1). Diagram 1A depicts conditions in a free-market economy like USA where the relationship of consumers and service providers is very much independent of the state. Diagram 1-C depicts conditions in a communist party-state controlled economy of Bulgaria where the communist/state controlled behaviors of both the consumers and the service providers. As Bulgaria moves towards privatization, the link between the government and the consumers has somewhat loosened or become free but the state continues to control the service providers. This transition stage is depicted in diagram 1-B.

Impact of Transition in Bulgaria on Type of Attributions Bulgarian Consumers Make and Their Comparison with American Consumers:

What impact will these changes have on consumer behavior in response to extremely favorable and unfavorable service outcomes, in particular on the three types of attributions discussed earlier? We will next examine the research issues #1 and #2 and develop propositions relating to them.

Considering the state of the economy in Bulgaria where most businesses continue to be state controlled, quality of service in general continues to be poor. "Service is unknown," said a participant observer. Thus most dissatisfying or extremely negative experiences are likely to be a common thing. We define the stability of attributions as the likelihood of that service experience happening again and propose that:

P1A: Stability of attributions for most dissatisfying or extremely negative service experiences will be higher for Bulgarian consumers than for American consumers.

As regards the controllability of attributions for these bad experiences, American consumers are more likely to feel that they could control the experience whereas Bulgarian consumers will feel that the state has the control. We define the controllability of attributions as the extent to which the consumers feel that they have the control on that service experience and propose that:

P1B: Controllability of attributions for most dissatisfying or extremely negative service experience will be higher for American consumers than for Bulgarian consumers.

The stability and the controllability dimensions are more likely to be influenced by the control that state has over the service providers/businesses and thus are more driven by economic considerations. On the other hand, psychological considerations are more likely to influence the consumers' freedom to talk about the internal versus external causes. As discussed earlier, the direct control of the government or the state on the consumer is now much less compared to the communist regime. Thus in terms of their freedom to talk about their bad service experiences, the Bulgarian consumers are likely to be quite similar to American consumers. We define the externality of attributions as the extent to which the consumers feel that the service experience was due to the service provider and propose that:

P1C: Externality of attributions for most dissatisfying or extremely negative service experiences will be same for American and Bulgarian consumers.

FIGURE 1

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GOVERNMENT, CONSUMER AND SERVICE PROVIDER

As regards the most satisfying or extremely positive service experiences, these are likely to be more frequent or common for American consumers than for Bulgarian consumers. When probed about an extremely satisfying experience, one participant-observer commented "they are rare and if at all will happen in small private businesses." Thus we propose that:

P2A: Stability of attributions for most satisfying or extremely positive experiences will be higher for American consumers than for Bulgarian consumers.

In terms of the controllability of attributions for these good experiences, once again, the American consumers are more likely to feel that they could control the experience whereas Bulgarian consumers will feel that the state has the control. Thus:

P2B: Controllability of attributions for most satisfying or extremely positive experience will be higher for American consumers than for Bulgarian consumers.

The psychological factors which influence the externality of attributions of Bulgarian consumers for bad experiences are also likely to influence the externality of their attributions for good experiences. Thus for good experiences also, Bulgarian consumers are likely to make similar external attributions as American consumers. Thus:

P2C: Externality of attributions for most satisfying or extremely positive service experiences will be same for American and Bulgarian consumers.

Type of Attributions and Complaining/Complimenting: Comparison of American and Bulgarian Consumers

Type of Attributions and Complaining/Complimenting Behavior of American Consumers:

A substantial body of research suggests that locus of causality, i.e., internal versus external attributions affect consumers' complaining behavior and negative word of mouth in case of product failure (Krishnan and Valle 1979; Richins 1983; Valle and Wallendorf 1979). These researchers found that external attributions in case of product failure led to more complaining and negative word of mouth. By contrast, it could also be conjectured that in case of good experiences, external attributions would lead to more complimenting than internal attributions. In summary, the externality of attributions (extent to which the consumer feels that the service experience was due to service provider) is expected to be positively related with both complaining and complimenting behaviors.

The second dimension of attribution is controllability. Hamilton (1980) found that people receive more blame for controllable actions than for noncontrollable actions. Likewise it can be conjectured that more credit is likely to be given, i.e., more complimenting will take place when consumers feel that the outcome was controllable by the service provider. In summary, controllability of attributions (extent to which the consumer had the control over the service experience) is expected to be negatively related with both complaining and complimenting behaviors.

As regards the third dimension of attributions, i.e., stability, the work of Folkes and her colleagues (Curren and Folkes 1987; Folkes 1984) suggests that consumers were more likely to warn their friends against buying a product when they felt that product failure was due to stable causes and was likely to happen again. On the other hand if a positive outcome is expected to be stable, i.e., is likely to be repeated in the future, consumers are likely to make more compliments. In summary, stability of attributions (the likelihood of the outcome happening again) is expected to be positively related with both complaining and complimenting behaviors.

Pessimism/Optimism Towards Future of Privatization in Bulgaria:

In the United States, a free market economy, both the positive and negative experiences are equally likely to happen in different types of service businesses, i.e., a consumer can have both an extremely positive and an extremely negative experience in banking, department store, auto repair, hair styling, etc. However, this may not be the case in Bulgaria. The nature of the service experience, i.e, bad or good seems to depend upon whether that business is state run or has been privatized. Practically all the interviewees felt that they had good experiences with small, privatized businesses such as small retailing (kiosks), small restaurants, etc., whereas they had bad experiences in general with the relatively bigger, state controlled businesses such as hotels, department stores, etc. One of the participant-observers narrated an extremely positive experience in a small private gift shop where the owner replaced a broken (in transit) piece of dishware free of cost. On the other hand, the same participant-observer narrated how he was waiting along with 30 other people in line while 4 of the cashiers in a large, state-run department store simply stood in a corner and kept chit-chatting. "There are still no incentives in these state-controlled businesses and motivation is a big problem" observed one of our other interviewees.

How do the consumers react to all this? Several of the Bulgarian nationals when interviewed about their feelings related to poor service indicated that they feel awful but had hardly any choices. "Seller is the king as opposed to customer is the king," felt one of our participant-observers. The same participant-observer narrated how consumers are told "go away" and "don't bother me" by the service providers and consumers have to simply live with it.

One of the participant-observers was amused to discover a business motive which he said "contradicts all standard management practices." This motive is to "make losses." When this participant called a hotel for a room, he was told that there was no vacancy, whereas in reality 300 or more rooms were vacant. The hotel manager and staff were deliberately trying to make losses so that they could purchase the stock from the government at low prices. This kind of approach obviously deteriorates service quality in the state-run service businesses.

The Bulgarian consumers seems to be quite frustrated with the quality of service in these state controlled businesses and according to one of the participant-observers, it is creating a "deep-seated fatalism" about service quality in these state-run businesses.

On the other hand, things seem quite different in the private sector. Although there is very little privatization, the outlook on service quality there seems much better. Moreover, consumers seems to be optimistic about privatization and feel that it is the only way their role as consumers would be recognized.

In summary then, most bad service experiences seem to be coming from state-run, large businesses and consumers are quite pessimistic about what they can do as consumers. On the other hand, the limited number of good service experiences seem to be coming from private, small businesses and here consumers feel quite optimistic about their role as consumers.

Impact of Pessimism/Optimism on Relationship Between Type of Attributions and Complaining/Complimenting Behavior of Bulgarian Consumers and Their Comparison with American Consumers:

Bulgarian consumers' pessimism/optimism about their role as consumers is likely to affect the relationship between the type of attributions they make and their complaining/complimenting behavior. When consumers feel pessimistic (as in the case of a bad experience) about their role as consumers, they are likely to feel that there is no point in complaining because that is not going to make any difference to these state-run businesses. Thus their feelings of whose fault it was (internal versus external attributions), whether the bad experience was controllable by them or not (controllable versus uncontrollable attributions) and whether the bad experience will happen again (stable versus unstable attributions) are not likely to be related to their complaining behavior. On the other hand for American consumers, as discussed earlier, the externality and the stability of attributions would be positively related to complaining, whereas the controllability of attributions would be negatively related. Thus the propositions:

P3A: Externality of attributions for most dissatisfying or extremely negative service experiences would be positively related with complaining behavior for American consumers. For Bulgarian consumers, these would not be related.

P3B: Stability of attributions for most dissatisfying or extremely negative service experiences would be positively related with complaining behavior for American consumers. For Bulgarian consumers, these would not be related.

P3C: Controllability of attributions for most dissatisfying or extremely negative service experiences would be negatively related with complaining behavior for American consumers. For Bulgarian consumers, these would not be related.

However, for most satisfying or extremely positive experiences, the Bulgarian consumers are likely to have a more optimistic disposition. They are likely to feel that expressing compliments is likely to make a difference to these private-run businesses. Thus the complimenting behavior of Bulgarian consumers will be similar to that of American consumers, i.e., the externality and the stability of attributions would be positively related with complimenting behavior, whereas the controllability of attributions would be negatively related. Thus the propositions:

P4A: Externality of attributions for most satisfying or extremely positive service experiences would be positively related with complimenting behavior for both American and Bulgarian consumers.

P4B: Stability of attributions for most satisfying or extremely positive service experiences would be positively related with complimenting behavior for both American and Bulgarian consumers.

P4C: Controllability of attributions for most satisfying or extremely positive service experiences would be negatively related with complimenting behavior for both American and Bulgarian consumers.

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