Understanding and Influencing Consumer Complaint Behavior: Improving Organizational Complaint Management

Moshe Davidow, Texas A&M University
Peter A. Dacin, Texas A&M University
ABSTRACT - This article discusses an often overlooked issue in complaint behavior, the interactive exchange between the organization and the consumer. This exchange is at the root of all consumer complaint behavior and determines the ultimate satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the consumer. We review the complaint behavior literature and focus on potential reasons consumers choose not to complain. We then present an updated typology for consumer complaint behavior outcomes and their implications for the organization. Finally, we examine some organizational strategies necessary to encourage non-voicers to complain to the organization allowing effective and efficient complaint management.
[ to cite ]:
Moshe Davidow and Peter A. Dacin (1997) ,"Understanding and Influencing Consumer Complaint Behavior: Improving Organizational Complaint Management", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 450-456.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997     Pages 450-456


Moshe Davidow, Texas A&M University

Peter A. Dacin, Texas A&M University


This article discusses an often overlooked issue in complaint behavior, the interactive exchange between the organization and the consumer. This exchange is at the root of all consumer complaint behavior and determines the ultimate satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the consumer. We review the complaint behavior literature and focus on potential reasons consumers choose not to complain. We then present an updated typology for consumer complaint behavior outcomes and their implications for the organization. Finally, we examine some organizational strategies necessary to encourage non-voicers to complain to the organization allowing effective and efficient complaint management.


A well documented finding in the consumer complaint literature is that a majority of dissatisfied consumers do not voice their complaint to an organization (Best and Andreasen 1977, TARP 1986, Tschol 1994). When consumers do not voice their complaint, an organization loses the opportunity to recognize and redress the problem leaving both the consumer and organization dissatisfied. Consequently, while seemingly paradoxical, it would seem in the best interest of organizations to encourage consumers to complain, and then to react appropriately to the complaint behavior.

With the exception of Fornell and Wernerfelt (1987, 1988), very few researchers argue that it is important to encourage consumers to complain or even investigate appropriate organizational responses to various complaint behavior. In fact, the literature tends to focus on either describing and developing general models of consumer complaint behavior (e.g., Day 1984, Gilly 1987, Singh and Wilkes 1991) or modeling organizational complaint responses (TARP 1986) with few, if any, attempts to integrate these two streams of research.

While Fornell and Wernerfelt make important contributions to understanding some of the appropriate organizational reactions to consumer complaint behavior, their work also opens up avenues for important research. The purpose of this manuscript is to initiate a stream of inquiry that addresses some of these issues. Specifically, we review the complaint literature to identify reasons for why consumers may choose not to voice their complaint, build on an existing framework to illustrate what consumers do when not voicing their complaint, discuss some of the consequences of these behaviors, and present several strategies that an organization can use to shape consumer complaint behavior to their benefit.

The proposed stream of inquiry has important implications for several areas of marketing. First, it contributes to a theoretical understanding of consumer complaint behavior and organizational responses and the integration of these two streams of research. As a number of researchers suggest, it is impossible to detach consumers’ responses to dissatisfaction from organizations’ responses to complaints (e.g., Garrett, Meyers and Camey 1991, Gilly 1987), yet these two streams remain relatively disparate.

Second, this manuscript extends marketers thinking with respect to consumer complaint behavior. By investigating why consumers do not voice their complaint to an organization (even though they acknowledge having a complaint or basis for dissatisfaction) and demonstrating the consequences of this for the organization, we believe that we are reinforcing and extending Fornell and Wernerfelt’s (1987, 1988) belief of the importance of encouraging consumers to voice their complaints to an organization.


Existing studies on the topic investigate several variables important for understanding why consumers complain (for reviews, see Andreasen 1989, Robinson 1978, Singh and Howell 1985). Tese variables include perceived costs (Richins 1980); attributions (Folkes 1984); prior knowledge (Day 1984); probability of complaint success (Day 1984, Richins 1983); significance of the consumption event (Day 1984); attitudes towards complaining (Richins 1982); assertiveness (Richins 1983); product importance (Richins 1985); and demographic and environmental influences (Singh and Wilkes 1991). However, while these researchers attempt to understand why consumers complain, few if any researchers have investigated why some consumers are more inclined not to voice their complaint to an organization.

Perhaps the best known model of the consumer’s decision to voice or not voice their complaint to an organization was developed by Day (1984). In this model, the consumer first considers the costs and benefits of complaining, performs an analysis, and then decides whether or not to complain. In addition to the cost/benefit and situational variables, Day also included personality variables as moderators. For example, he proposes that a consumer’s attitude towards complaining can moderate the relationship between the results of the cost/benefit analysis and the actual decision of whether to complain.

A second author, Andreasen (1988), suggests three reasons for why dissatisfied consumers do not complain: 1) a cost/benefit analysis shows small benefits or large costs, 2) consumers were discouraged from complaining by others, and 3) an intervening factor caused a delay or the prevention of action (e.g. leaving town, family crisis). Andreasen, however, does not cite personality variables as a reason for not complaining.

Finally, reported analyses of survey responses to questions about complaint behaviors also reveal two main reasons why consumers do not voice their complaint to the organization. First, consumers felt it was not worth the time and effort, and second, consumers didn’t think they could get anyone to do anything about it (Day and Ash 1979, TARP 1986) . In these studies, there was also no mention of personality variables.

Are personality variables important in the process? We believe they are. As part of a preliminary research project into complaint behavior, we surveyed 154 marketing students in a large University. In the survey we asked respondents to think about a recent situation in which they were very dissatisfied and either complained or did not complain to the organization. Each respondent randomly received only one scenario and completed a questionnaire consisting of open ended questions asking about the major reason why they did or did not complain. We received 267 responses, covering a wide spectrum of reasons. Following Churchill (1979), we then categorized the responses based on the type of reason that respondents gave for their complaint behavior. Unlike content analysis, where the coding categories are predetermined (Kassarjian 1977), our purpose was to determine potential categories.

The results of the study suggest four major categories of reasons for complaint behaviors. Of the 267 reasons, personality related variables comprised 48.3 % of the total responses (129). Items included: standing up for their rights, personality, to feel important, to get something for free, higher expectations, nothing better to do-lazy, intimidation and fear of confrontation. The second largest category of reasons consisted of the traditional cost/benefit variables, incorporating 23.2 % of the total responses (62). Items included cost/importance, degree of dissatisfaction, effort and past experience. Next, a situational variables category contained 16.5 % of the total responses (44). Items included social pressure, situation conducive, mood and time. The first two items are external constraints, while the last two items are internal constraints. Finally, a social benefit category contained 12.0 % of the total responses (32). This variable was found to be different from the cost/benefit variable. Cost/benefit variables are internally focused; what do I get out of it, while the social benefit variables are externally focused; can I make a difference that will affect the way this organization does business? Ca I change something that benefits everyone?

While we do not claim any scientific basis for our findings, it is interesting to note how many respondents felt that their complaint behavior was motivated by a complaint-related personality variable. Although some researchers suggest that general personality variables may not be a basis for complaint behavior (see for example Zaichkowsky and Liefield 1977) there appear to be consumers who do exhibit complaint-related personality variables in the form of a propensity to complain. Consequently, cost/benefit considerations may not be the only drivers in a consumer’s decision of whether to complain. However, cost/benefit considerations may still moderate these consumers’ higher propensity to complain.

In summary, while the literature primarily focuses on the role of cost/benefit analyses as driving factors of consumers’ decisions to complain, with moderating roles for personality and situational variables, we believe that researchers would gain from positing a more important role for complaint-related personality variables such as propensity to complain. Our literature review and study also indicate that managers must also consider the role of situational and social benefit variables. As we discuss later, these variables become an integral part of our suggestions for how managers can encourage consumers to complain. Prior to our discussion of these suggestions, however, we continue our literature review by discussing the alternative behaviors to the voicing of complaints to an organization.

Non Voice Complaint Behavior

In this manuscript, we suggest that it is important to encourage consumers to voice their complaints to an organization. To understand the basis of this suggestion, it is necessary to understand the alternative behaviors to voicing a complaint to the organization and the consequences to the organization of these alternative behaviors. The most commonly accepted taxonomy of consumer complaint behavior is that of Singh (1988). His taxonomy consists of three categories for classifying consumer complaint behaviorCVoice, Private and Third-party responses.

The basis for this taxonomy appears to be the recipient of a consumer’s complaint response. The three different responses (Voice, Private, Third-Party) are represented by Singh (1988) on two dimensions: (1) Social Network-whether consumers direct their complaints to individuals or organizations that are internal or external to their social circle (i.e., informal relationships), and (2) Involvement-whether the recipients of the complaints are directly involved in the dissatisfying exchange (e.g., retailer, manufacturer).

Based on the two dimensions, Voice represents complaints directed at individuals or organizations external to the consumer’s social circle and directly involved in the dissatisfying exchange. Private represents complaints directed at individuals or organizations that are internal to the consumer’s social circle and not directly involved in the dissatisfying exchange (e.g., self, friends, relatives). Third-party represents complaints directed at individuals or organizations that are external to the consumer’s social circle and not directly involved in the dissatisfying exchange (Better Business Bureau, legal agencies).

Oddly, in this taxonomy, consumers who do not voice their complaint are classified in the Voice category on the basis that "no action" reflects feelings toward the seller who is directly involved in the dissatisfying exchange yet not in the consumer’s social circle (Singh 1988). This would be comparable to Hirschman’s (1970) "loyalty" construct. In addition, according to Singh (1988), there are no entries in the internal-involved cell.

While, at one level, we believe that the dimensions Singh uses to form his taxonomy are academically useful, we feel that his classification of specific responses may lead to several managerial problems when researchers attempt to assess the potential consequences for an organization of the various complaint behaviors. This is especially true for the private category, where Singh (1988) lumps together both the consumer, and the social network of the consumer. It seems apparent that different types of private responses will have different impacts on the organization. For example, if the consumer limits the response to themselves, deciding to boycott the product or service, then the potential impact on the organization is a loss of one consumer. Alternatively, should the consumer involve others in the response (e.g., word of mouth) then the potential impact on the organization is a loss of several consumers.

As a result of these concerns, we believe that it is necessary to modify Singh’s taxonomy to accommodate the differences between private responses in which the consumer decides to act alone and those in which the consumer decides to involve others. We believe that a simple way to accommodate these distinctions is to remove the consumer ("self") from the internal-not involved category (private action, according to Singh), and place it in the internal-involved category (the "empty cell" according to Singh) where it appears most appropriateCthe consumer (self) is directly involved in the experience of dissatisfaction. The internal-not involved cell now contains only the consumer’s informal social net which is impacted by the consumer’s word of mouth. The internal-involved cell, rather than containing no entry, now contains the consumer’s own actions, including the relative inaction inherent in consumer loyalty, that is, a consumer deciding to give a reprieve to an organization based on its previous track record. Please note, however, that loyalty does not mean total dismissal of the consumer’s dissatisfaction. Instead, it should be looked upon as a form of probation. If the organization lapses again, the consumer may seek retribution for both instances, if possible. The revised taxonomy appears in Table 1.

From a managerial perspective, our minor revisions have important implications. They highlight the complaint behavior possibilities that a consumer faces, from the perspective of the organization, thus allowing managers the option of potentially controlling those behaviors. This option was not viable before our revisions since managers could not differentiate between private action by a consumer and private action by the social network.





In light of this revised taxonomy, we can now investigate the consequences to the organization of the various behaviors of a dissatisfied consumer. Based on our revised taxonomy, Table 2 summarizes the various consequences an organization may expect from each of the types of complaint behaviors.

In Table 2, it appears that the worst possible consumer complaint behaviors for the organization are those that do not involve external sources. Failure to complain to external sources prevents the consumer from obtaining redress, thus increasing the likelihood for continued or increased dissatisfaction. More importantly, the organization risks losing these dissatisfied consumers without understanding the reason for the dissatisfaction, or having the opportunity to correct the problem (Strahle et al. 1992, TARP 1986).

Consumer exit or boycott causes the organization the loss of revenue from a consumer, without providing the organization with an opportunity to redeem itself. In addition, exit does not supply the organization with any marketing information on which to plan for the future. Although it materializes as a decline in the sales statistics, there is no guarantee that the organization will detect or even perceive it correctly. In the wort case scenario, the drop in sales may be offset by a rise elsewhere, and the organization does not perceive the problem.

While consumer exit is bad for the organization, the effects of negative word of mouth are potentially much worse since it can influence many more people (TARP 1986). As with exit, the organization may not realize that it has a problem, and may not understand the reason for a drop in their sales statistics. Again, the organization obtains no long term market information.

On the other hand, complaint behaviors that involve external sources have more positive consequences for the organization. For example, in a third party complaint, the nature of the dissatisfaction eventually comes to the attention of the organization. As a result, the organization realizes that a problem exists, the nature of the problem, and then has the opportunity to correct it. This brings with it the potential for eliminating future dissatisfaction from this source. Unfortunately, however, many third party complaints follow unsuccessful consumer attempts to contact or obtain a remedy from the organization. Consequently, while gaining valuable information, the organization may still lose the consumer as well as incur the added expense of handling a third party complaint.

Given the consequences of these complaint behaviors, we support the contention of the few others (Fornell and Wernerfelt 1987, TARP 1986) who suggest that the best approach for an organization is to encourage complaints to the organization. In addition to the consumer’s benefit, the organization also gains from a voiced complaint. At the very least, when a consumer uses an external source to complain about a product or service, the organization becomes aware of the dissatisfaction. Consequently, this is an opportunity for the organization to both solve the consumer’s problem and receive valuable information about problems that might impact future consumer satisfaction. By voicing a complaint, the consumer is signaling the need for the organization to address a dissatisfaction. Research has also shown that consumers who complain are more organization loyal than consumers who never voice a complaint to the organization, regardless of whether the complaint was handled satisfactorily (TARP 1986).

However, we believe that just encouraging complaints is not enoughCthe organization must handle the complaints in an appropriate manner. A key construct in most complaint management situations is the communication between the consumer and the organization (Garrett, Meyers and Camey 1991). The perceived potential for resolution also influences complaint behavior. Consequently, it is important that the organization understand why consumers choose specific complaint behaviors, particularly those that do not involve the direct voicing of a complaint to the organization. A research agenda based on our revision of the Singh typology, would provide the organization with this information. Based on this information, the organization can then begin to carefully manage consumer complaint behavior and their own complaint responses, resulting in higher consumer satisfaction. In the next section, we use the conclusions of our literature review to demonstrate how understanding the nature of the various types of complaint behaviors can be used by managers to encourage more consumers to voice their complaints directly to the organization.


Typical complaint management programs focus on the minority of dissatsfied consumers who complain directly to the organization. While these programs have some benefit, they are missing a substantial audienceCdissatisfied consumers who do not voice their complaint. Almost one-third of American households experience product dissatisfaction every year (TARP 1986), with 1 out of every four purchases resulting in some type of problem (Best and Andreasen 1977), yet between 60% (Andreasen 1988) and 70% (TARP 1986) of all dissatisfied consumers take no action. An A. C. Nelson study found that in general only 2% of dissatisfied consumers actually voice their complaint to the organization (this number was 10% in the service sector, see Tschol 1994). For any organization serious about handling complaint recovery, the immediate implication is that they are missing at least two-thirds of their target market. This may explain why the expected increase in consumer complaints due to the increased usage of toll free lines for consumer service departments never materialized. These lines simply targeted complainers, those who would have complained anyway, thus missing most of their dissatisfied consumers.

Suggestions for addressing this problem may lie in defensive marketing (Fornell and Wernerfelt 1987). The implementation of defensive marketing to complaint management entails three main facets. First, an organization identifies dissatisfied consumers, then it tries to understand the complaint behavior from an organizational perspective, and finally it handles their complaint in such a way as to persuade the consumers to remain loyal.

In order to employ defensive marketing, organizations must first be able to reach consumers who do not directly voice their complaint to the organization and convince them to complain. In light of our previous discussions, the organization must in many cases overcome a consumer’s negative propensity to complain. Consequently, for an organization’s complaint management program to be successful with non-voicers, it must focus on the four categories of reasons for not complaining discussed previously: complaint-related personality variables, cost/benefit variables, situational variables, and social benefit variables. However, it is not enough just to understand how these variables influence complaint behavior. Organizations must also develop strategies for influencing these variables and complaint behavior. Following, we discuss some of these strategies.

Complaint-related Personality Variables: Some of the negative attitudes that prevent people from complaining are personality related (i.e., propensity to complain, low expectations, fear of confrontation, and intimidation, etc.). These can be addressed through increasing consumer knowledge by way of consumer education programs (TARP 1983). One way in which the organization can educate the consumer is by raising consumer expectations levels, letting them know that the inferior service that they have experienced will not be tolerated at this organization. Hart (1988) talked of the power of unconditional guarantees, and the conditions that must be met before implementing them. An excellent example of this is Texize who successfully gained market share by guaranteeing to replace any garment from which they could not remove a stain (Kendall and Russ 1975).

Another way an organization can educate the consumer is by focusing on the complaint process, in order to remove the fear of confrontation (Coyle 1994), and the intimidation factor. One way to accomplish this is by focusing on the user friendliness of the process. Burger King’s ad campaign of "a suggestion box in every home" is a good example of this technique. Sometimes, it may just be a case of letting consumers know how to get in touch with the organization (Strahle et al. 1992). Through these actions, the organization has the chance to dramatically impact the consumer tendency to complain directly to the organization, instead of elsewhere, especially if the consumer is aware that the complaint will be handled (Richins 1983). Programs designed to show the consumer that the organization will work with them to solve problems should appeal to those consumers who are intereted in feeling important and/or in standing up for their rights.

Cost/Benefit Variables: TARP (1986) found that over 55% of the non-voicers thought it was not worth the time or effort to complain. Given this, we believe that organizations can undertake several strategies to lower the cost or increase the benefit of complaining, without "giving away the store."

First, it is important to increase consumer awareness of the complaint handling process. When consumers are ignorant of complaint management departments, policies, or when they are unable to contact the organization, they often perceive a higher cost for complaining. For example, the Coca Cola organization found that a generic booklet distributed to consumers about how to effectively get in touch with organizations increased consumer confidence, positive word of mouth, and the purchase intentions of the consumers toward Coca Cola (TARP 1983). Programs such as these signal a significant commitment by the organization to the consumer and consequently, lower the cost or increase the benefits consumers typically associate with complaining.

Second, organizations can also influence consumers’ causal attributions to their advantage. Too often, consumers do not complain because they feel the problem is their fault. Yet, organizations may successfully encourage complaints by adopting strategies that shift the blame away from consumers. For example, Pearl Vision was very successful in letting consumers know that their eyeglasses would be replaced free, if they broke, even if the problem was the consumer’s fault (Goodman and Stampfl 1983). The organization was explicitly saying that they would handle any problem. The end result was instrumental in differentiating Pearl Vision from its competitors, as well as lowering the perceived cost of complaining to the consumer.

Finally, managing each "moment of truth" (Carlzon 1987) by making the personal interaction as pleasant as possible is another important way of reducing perceptions of cost. Making the complaint process as easy and as visible as possible, focuses the consumer on the external outlet of complaining, making it more situation conducive to complain.

Social Benefit Variables: An organization may be able to impact consumer complaint intentions by letting the consumer know that it will attempt to act on all complaints (Fornell and Wernerfelt 1987). While it is important to solicit complaints and suggestions, the process should not stop there. Once those comments and complaints have been received, and handled on a single consumer basis, the information should then be compiled for an organization wide analysis. This should allow the organization to spot consumer trends early enough in the cycle to adapt to them quickly (Davidow 1995). It also gives the organization the ability to spot defective machinery, problems on the product line, and problems downstream with the distributors. Following this, organizations need to showcase changes in procedures or products as a result of consumer communications by advertising the changes made in the products due to consumer feedback, thus convincing people that they can make a difference (Lewis 1983).

Situational Variables: Organizations can influence the social pressure brought to bear on consumers by demonstrating organizational social responsibility. The earlier Pearl Vision example and the response of Johnson and Johnson to the Tylenol tampering incident both emphasize the importance of organizational backing of a product. If an organization has a positively perceived image, there should be more of a tendency to encourage complaints. Handling complaints well can add to that image. Malafi (1991) found that social influence, whether through obtaining information from others on how to deal with a situation or by socio-emotional support, has a major influence on complaint behavior. In another study (Malafi et al. 1993), she found that those advised to complain typically do, while those advised not to complain typically do not. An organization must therefore maintain a positive image to influence this social pressure.

In order to follow through on this strategy, an organization must communicate effectively to consumers, and hire complaint handling personnel who are competent communicators and who can interact effectively with complaining consumers (Garrett, Meyers and Camey 1991). Because marketing’s success is built on communication with the consumer, if something goes wrong, an organization should be interested in finding out where and how the communication failed to produce a satisfied consumer.

Currently, many organizations are following some of these suggestions. For example, most organizations today have toll free lines to facilitate consumer’s communication. Yet, as mentioned previously, this has failed to increase consumer complaints and, in turn satisfaction levels. Until now, organizations have looked at some of these strategies as a grab bag of tools, using them haphazardly. We believe that this is a major misuse of resources. By trying to be everything to everyone, an organization may not be anything to anybody. The key is in understanding why your consumers are not complaining, and then choosing the proper approach in response.

Accessing general consumer surveys done among the public, and integrating this information with information collected by the organization, can let organizations know how many dissatisfied consumers they may potentially have, what percentage of these consumers actually complained, and why the non complainers did not complain. This is critical information for organizations, allowing them to pinpoint crucial areas for improvement, and estimate the market impact of these problems.

The approach we are suggesting is a proactive one which involves looking for problems, and constantly striving to improve. It is the difference between asking a restaurant patron if the meal was satisfactory (the almost automatic response is yes), and asking what can we do to better serve you. Periodic consumer surveys, and proper defections management (Davidow 1995) should allow an organization to uncover a myriad of problems or opportunities within the organization/consumer relationship that would not ordinarily emerge. In turn, these actions should allow the organization to address problems while they are still brewing, thus increasing consumers’ satisfaction levels, and preventing future complaints.


This manuscript attempted to demonstrate the benefits of examining complaint behavior from a variety of perspectives. By initially focusing on the reasons consumers don’t complain, we make a case for investigating certain variables in depth. Based on this, we were able to suggest how complaint managers could have a direct and proactive effect on complaint behavior.

This paper makes several contributions to the current complaint literature. First, by synthesizing the consumer and organizational views of complaint behavior, we believe that it presents a more meaningful complaint behavior taxonomy. Second, by focusing on the reasons why consumers don’t voice their complaints to the organization, this paper proposes a set of interacting variables to improve the predictability of consumer complaint behavior. Finally, from a managerial perspective this paper posits suggestions to increase the likelihood that cosumers directly voice their complaint to the organization.

We believe that an important direction for future research is to continue the focus on the complaint-related personality variables in consumer complaint behavior. For example, we need answers to questions such as: how does a consumer’s attitude influence their propensity to complain; what are the interactions among the various variables, for instance does the desire to feel important influence the drive to get something for free; and how much influence does a consumer’s social net have in the context of a disappointing experience? Accordingly, it is also important to identify the key variables driving these variables, and understand the ways in which they too can be influenced.

Finally, another fruitful area of investigation should concentrate on the effectiveness of organizational responses on the variables driving consumer complaint behavior. Is the same organizational response equally effective on all the drivers, or are certain responses more effective on some drivers than others. We hope that the issues raised in this manuscript prove to be springboards for future research in the field of consumer complaint management.

It is obvious that organizations cannot respond to a complaint until the consumer complains. Still, organizational actions to encourage consumers to complain have not always been effective, because they have not focused on the proper variables influencing complaint behavior and non-voice complaining. Focusing on the relevant variables to encourage complaints should allow the organization to proactively target specific areas for change which helps the organization prepare a more effective and efficient consumer complaint handling program. However, a program can only be effective if it reaches its intended target audience, the quality of the program alone will not determine it’s success and ultimate value to the organization.


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