Customer Satisfaction, Loyalty, and the Trust Environment

Michael D. Johnson, University of Michigan
Seigyoung Auh, University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - Our conceptualization of the relationship between customer satisfaction and loyalty has generally relied upon Hirschman’s (1970) exit-voice framework from economics. Yet there are a variety of organizational, political, social, and technological aspects of a customer’s purchase and consumption environment that likely influence the satisfaction-loyalty relationship. These factors comprise a customer’s trust environment. The primary goal of this paper is to extend our conceptualization of the satisfaction-loyalty relationship to encompass this trust environment. A secondary goal is to develop research propositions that describe how the trust environment affects the satisfaction-loyalty relationship.
[ to cite ]:
Michael D. Johnson and Seigyoung Auh (1998) ,"Customer Satisfaction, Loyalty, and the Trust Environment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 15-20.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 15-20

CUSTOMER SATISFACTION, LOYALTY, AND THE TRUST ENVIRONMENT

Michael D. Johnson, University of Michigan

Seigyoung Auh, University of Michigan

[The authors thank Jacqueline A. Lewis for her excellent review of the trust literature.]

ABSTRACT -

Our conceptualization of the relationship between customer satisfaction and loyalty has generally relied upon Hirschman’s (1970) exit-voice framework from economics. Yet there are a variety of organizational, political, social, and technological aspects of a customer’s purchase and consumption environment that likely influence the satisfaction-loyalty relationship. These factors comprise a customer’s trust environment. The primary goal of this paper is to extend our conceptualization of the satisfaction-loyalty relationship to encompass this trust environment. A secondary goal is to develop research propositions that describe how the trust environment affects the satisfaction-loyalty relationship.

INTRODUCTION

Customer satisfaction is a primary driver of customer loyalty and subsequent retention, especially in a competitive industry. The positive effect of satisfaction on loyalty follows from Hirschman’s (1970) exit-voice theory. The theory describes situations in which a client or customer becomes dissatisfied with the products or services that an organization provides. The organization discovers its failure to provide satisfaction via two feedback mechanisms, exit and voice. The customer either exits, or stops buying from the firm, or voices its complaint of dissatisfaction to the fim in an effort to receive restitution. The theory predicts that the two immediate consequences of increased customer satisfaction are decreased customer complaints and decreased customer exit (increased loyalty). Exiting customers either leave the market or purchase from a competitor. The predicted effect of satisfaction on loyalty is strongly supported across a variety of product and service industries (Fornell 1992; Fornell et al. 1996).

However, our conceptualization of the satisfaction-loyalty relationship has failed to build upon Hirschman’s economic, cost-benefit framework. Research and perspectives from outside of marketing and consumer research highlight a variety of organizational, political, social, and technological aspects of a customer’s environment which help shape the satisfaction-loyalty relationship. We refer to these collectively as the trust environment. Trust, in a customer or consumer behavior context, is defined here as the attainment of a level of satisfaction and resulting loyalty at which customers are comfortable forgoing problem solving behavior. Rather, they repurchase a particular product or set of products in a routinized or habitual fashion. This definition is similar to those in other domains including economics, where trust is a calculation of the likelihood of future cooperation (Williamson 1993), and organizational behavior, where trust is the expectation that another’s actions will be beneficial rather than detrimental as well as the generalized ability to take for granted a vast array of features of the social order (Creed and Miles 1996).

Recent research suggests that there is a point on the satisfaction continuum at which the positive effect of satisfaction on loyalty increases significantly as trust is attained and customers move from problem solving to habitual purchase behavior (Auh and Johnson 1997; Jones and Sasser 1995). We propose that a customer’s trust environment affects just where on the satisfaction continuum, and how quickly, this trust relationship is formed. The primary goals of the presentation and paper are two-fold. The first is to extend our conceptualization of the satisfaction-loyalty relationship to include a more geneal trust environment. A conceptual framework is proposed in which the satisfaction-loyalty relationship is placed within a broader context that includes: (1) a firm-level environment (including employee-employer trust relationships); (2) a market-level environment (including market concentration and switching costs); and (3) a more general political, economic, social, and technological environment (including industrial organization, consumer confidence, and social/cultural differences). Our secondary goal is to develop a set of informal propositions as to how the trust environment affects the satisfaction-loyalty relationship.

SATISFACTION AND LOYALTY: A COMPLEX RELATIONSHIP

Before describing the trust environment and its impact on the satisfaction-loyalty relationship, we must understand the nature of the relationship itself. Traditionally, it has been assumed that the effect of satisfaction on loyalty is linear. This presumption has been challenged of late (Auh and Johnson 1997; Bloemer and Lemmink 1992; Bloemer and Kasper 1995; Jones and Sasser 1995; Reichheld 1996). Reichheld (1996), for example, notes that it is not uncommon for relatively satisfied customers to defect.

We restrict our discussion for the time being to relatively competitive industries where, according to Jones and Sasser (1995), two types customers predominate: loyalists and mercenaries. Loyalists are very satisfied customers who willingly repurchase, whereas mercenaries are moderately satisfied customers who do not have a long term commitment and are constantly seeking to find a better deal from another firm. The result should be a particular type of relationship between satisfaction and loyalty. Loyalty should increase marginally over moderate to high levels on the satisfacion continuum (where mercenaries are predominant) and then increase dramatically at the higher end of the satisfaction continuum (where loyalists are created).

Auh and Johnson (1997) provide a theoretical explanation for this proposed increase in the effect of satisfaction on loyalty. They argue that categorical changes in customer problem solving, and associated changes in a customer’s evoked set of acceptable brands, drives the effect. This argument is based on Howard’s (1977, 1983) distinction between extensive problem solving (EPS) and limited problem solving (LPS) on the one hand, and routinized response behavior (RRB) on the other. In problem solving behavior, customers consider a variety of available alternatives. They use decision strategies and rules to weight the costs and benefits of the alternatives to identify those that best meet their needs. Bettman and Zins (1977) refer to these as constructive processes.

As their experience and expertise grow, customers identify a smaller set of preferred alternatives (an evoked or consideration set). The customer’s emphasis shifts from "external" information search to "internal" search (Bettman and Zins 1977; Howard 1977). The result is a discontinuity, or categorical shift, in the amount of external information processed and number of alternatives considered as customers move from problem solving to more routinized behavior. This prediction is consistent with a growing body of marketing and consumer research studies (see, for example, Dickson and Sawyer 1990; Hoyer 1984; Hoyer and Brown 1990; Lehmann, Moore and Elrod 1982; Leong 1993; Olshavsky and Granbois 1979).

FIGURE 1

THE SATISFACTION-LOYALTY RELATIONSHIP

Auh and Johnson argue further that the transition from problem solver to routinized or habitual buyer represents movement up the satisfaction continuum. As experience and expertise grow, customers are better able to identify those products and services that best meet their needs which, in turn, results in an increase in satisfaction. Put differently, moderate to low satisfaction indicates that the customer is not particularly happy with their purchase and consumption decision and should explore more alternatives. As customer satisfaction increases, the costs of continued search eventually outweigh the benefits. At this point customers shift from problem solving to more routinized behavior where they rely upon a smaller consideration set of stored brand concepts that drive their purchase behavior. As a result, the effect of satisfaction on loyalty should increase at some point on the satisfaction continuum.

Eventually the positive effect of satisfaction on loyalty should level off. For example, Howard (1977) reports that evoked or consideration sets within routinized response behavior, albeit small, are generally greater than one. This is consistent with Belk’s (1975) argument that customers encounter specific use occasions or situations that require the use of different alternatives (see also Barsalou 1983). As a measure of customers’ predisposition to purchase the same brand again, customer loyalty is also subject to ceiling effects. Customers can think of at least some reason why they would not repurchase from the same firm again, even a firm with which they are completely satisfied.

The result is a more complex overall relationship that is best described as either a negative cubic relationship or, as depicted in Figure 1, a piecewise regression relationship (from Auh and Johnson 1997). Initially, the positive effect of satisfaction on loyalty should increase at a moderate to high level on the satisfaction continuum as customers move from problem solving to more routine purchase behavior. Second, once their evoked or consideration set is reduced, the effect should level off. Auh and Johnson find support for this relationship using automotive industry data from the recently established American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). Specifically, they find evidence of a significant negative cubic relationship, as well as significantly different slopes using piecewise regression analysis (as illustrated in Figure 1). Friedman (1996) finds more general support for a negaive cubic relationship across the more competitive industries in the ACSI.

Recall that we define trust as the attainment of a level of satisfaction and resulting loyalty at which customers are comfortable forgoing problem solving behavior. We propose that a customer’s trust environment systematically influences two critical parameters of the relationship in Figure 1: (1) the inflection point at which customers start to drastically reduce their consideration sets, and (2) the slope past this inflection point which describes how quickly they reduce their consideration sets.

THE TRUST ENVIRONMENT

The trust environment framework in Figure 2 places the relationship between a customer and a firm within a larger context that includes the firm’s own environment, the market environment within which the customer and firm operate, and the larger political, economic, social, and technological environment within which the market operates. The trust environment also acknowledges the importance of the firm’s internal relationships.

FIGURE 2

THE TRUST ENVIRONMENT

Firm Environment

Consider first the influence of the firm or organizational environment. Although a multitude of possible vertical and horizontal relationships exist within organizations, we simplify things here to highlight the relationship between employee and employer. Organizational research identifies three major factors used to explain the existence or absence of employee-employer trust relationships: (1) calculus-based trust, (2) identification-based trust, and (3) predisposition toward trust (Creed and Miles 1996; Lewicki and Bunker 1996). Calculus-based trust is conceptually similar to our problem solving-based view of high customer satisfaction and loyalty; an individual’s history of interactions with another individual explains their satisfaction and subsequent loyalty. Yet employer-employee trust is also a function of the degree to which an employer and employee identify with each other as well as the degree to which each party is inherently predisposed to trust.

There are important implications of firm-level trust, and how it is conceptualized, for customers. We expect that customers are more willing to enter a trust (high loyalty) relationship with an organization that has itself achieved a trust relationship between employers and employees. There are at least three possible ways in which employee-employer trust influences customers. The most obvious is that mistrust within the firm results in lower product or service quality, satisfaction, and subsequent loyalty. Second, good (poor) employer-employee relations should have positive (negative) signal value to customers over and above the level of quality and satisfaction provided. Will, for example, a customer trust an automotive company to provide a high quality product and service experience if it continues to be unable to resolve problems with its unions and suppliers?

Third, the degree to which customers empathize with, for example, dissatisfied or poorly treated employees should negatively impact a customer’s satisfaction and/or their willingness to remain loyal. Although one may be satisfied with a pair of Nike shoes, empathizing with employees outside of the United States and their alleged poor treatment by the company may limit a customer’s predisposition to buy Nike again. More specifically, we expect the degree to which customers empathize with dissatisfied or mistreated employees to moderate the impact that a low-trust firm environment has on customer loyalty.

As noted, organization-based research identifies two other factors with implications for customer loyalty: identification-based and predisposition-based trust. We expect, for example, that customers are more willing to enter into a trust relationship at a given level of satisfaction with companies r brands they identify with (e.g., Harley Davidson, Pepsi, The Gap). Meanwhile, predisposition to trust likely varies with socioeconomic and demographic groups that vary systematically in customer satisfaction (Bryant and Cha 1996).

Market Environment

The influence that market-level factors have on satisfaction and subsequent loyalty is primarily a function of competition and switching barriers. Fornell (1992) argues that the primary market mechanism for retaining customers other than through customer satisfaction is through switching barriers. He includes as switching barriers a customer’s search costs, transaction costs, learning costs, loyal customer discounts, customer habit, emotional cost, and cognitive effort, coupled with financial, social, and psychological risks on the part of the buyer.

Switching barriers prevent customers from switching in the face of low satisfaction. The implication is that switching barriers change the nature of the satisfaction-loyalty relationship. In contrast to Figure 1 (where the impact of satisfaction on loyalty increases at a moderate to high level of satisfaction), high loyalty likely persists at low to moderate levels of satisfaction when switching costs are high. A significant level of dissatisfaction is required to dramatically decrease loyalty in this case. Jones and Sasser (1995) refer to such customers as hostages.

Competition should also have a direct effect on customer satisfaction. One obvious effect is that increased competition, and the resulting substitutability of alternative brands, reduces a customer’s switching barriers. Competition also influences loyalty through the level of satisfaction provided to customers. Alderson (1958) describes marketing as a matching of a heterogeneous demand with a heterogeneous supply. In more competitive markets, a more heterogeneous array of differentiated alternatives is available to meet particular market segment needs which, in turn, increases perceived quality and satisfaction (Johnson 1998).

Fornell and Johnson (1993) provide empirical support for this prediction across twenty-two product and service industries in the Swedish Customer Satisfaction Barometer (SCSB). More competitive and differentiated markets are shown to have higher levels of aggregate perceived performance and subsequent customer satisfaction. The study also shows that market-level differentiation across firms explains a large portion of variance in customer satisfaction. Johnson and Herrmann (1996) report similar differences across industries and countries (Sweden, Germany, and the United States).

Political, Economic, Social, and Technological Environment

The political environment, albeit far reaching, is best restricted here to those institutions created to monitor and influence the buyer-seller relationship. In the United States, the most significant political institution of this nature is the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC was established in 1914 to oversee buyer-seller transactions. The creation of the FTC was, at least in part, the result of a growing information asymmetry between buyers and sellers (Johnson 1998). This asymmetry is the result of a growing variety, geographic dispersion, technological sophistication, and resulting complexity of available products which has increased customers’ need for information. Since its inception, the FTC has implemented a variety of explicit information remedies and policies to make the knowledge of buyers and sellers more equal. These include the mandatory disclosure of health-related information, the use of standard units of measure when communicating to consumers, and the encouragement of explicit product comparisons in advertising.

Institutions such as the FTC, through their information remedies and policy recommendations, thus facilitate customers’ ability to enter routinized response behavior. This has at least two possible effects on customer satisfaction and subequent loyalty. One is that political (and legal) institutions that provide customers with usable information increase a customer’s ability to identify products that deliver the satisfaction and loyalty necessary to enter a trust relationship with a seller. This presumes no particular changes to the relationship in Figure 1. A second possibility, not mutually exclusive from the first, is that the actions of political institutions such as the FTC create a climate in which customers feel more comfortable entering a trust relationship at a given level of satisfaction. Because perceived risk is likely reduced in the presense of a "watchdog" agency, the transition from problem solving to routinized behavior likely occurs at a lower level of satisfaction.

Macro-economic factors, including the prevailing economic conditions and the customer expectations they create, also have the potential to influence the satisfaction-loyalty relationship. Katona’s research (summarized in Katona 1980) on the Index of Consumer Sentiment is particularly relevant here. The Index monitors consumer confidence in the economy and resulting buying plans for major household durables. Katona has shown that when the Index drops, it both predicts and contributes to economic downturns. A lack of confidence in the economy may directly affect a customers cost-benefit calculations and their subsequent willingness to enter a trust relationship. An expectation of poor economic conditions should prevent customers from entering a trust relationship. At least for some segments of customers, tighter household budgets should dictate continued problem solving in the face of high satisfaction. These customers should trade off time and cognitive effort for money. An expectation of good economic conditions, in contrast, make it easier for these customers to enter a trust relationship, lowering the point at which satisfaction results in high levels of loyalty.

In addition to political and general economic factors, there is a renewed focus on the social environment and its ability to foster or hinder trust relationships. As Fukuyama argues, "one of the most important lessons we can learn from an examination of economic life is that a nation’s well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society" (Fukuyama 1995, p. 7). An individual’s ability to enter a trust relationship is a necessary condition for economic-based market mechanisms to operate and a culture or society to prosper. This ability is itself inherent in particular cultures or societies. Coleman (1988) refers to this as social capital, or an ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organizations. He argues that an ability to associate (such as customer and firm or employee and employer) depends on the degree to which a community shares norms and values and is able to subordinate individual interests to those of the larger community or group. Out of these shared values emerges a level of trust.

Fukuyama (1995) proposes that there are significant differences in predisposition to trust across cultures. Following Fukuyama’s argument and examples, Japanese, German or U.S. buyers and sellers, who live in "higher trust" societies," should be more willing to enter into a trust relationship than buyers and sellers from France, China, or Russia, who live in "lower trust" societies. The prediction is that a high level of customer loyalty may be achievable at a lower level of customer satisfaction in high versus low trust societies.

Finally, the degree of technological development and change has the potential to influence the satisfaction-loyalty relationship. An important implication of technological change was described earlier as part of the political environment. As technology advances and new and potentially complicated products are introduced, a customer’s need to problem solve increases. Again, this may decrease the level of satisfaction that a customer is capable of achieving and/or increase the level of satisfaction required to enter a trust relationship. An alternative argument is related to the existence of discontinuities or technology cycles (Tushman, Anderson, and O’Reilly 1996). When a whole new and superior technology is introduced into the market place, it may breed customer loyalty at a lower level of satisfaction. The reason is that it may be more acceptable for a product to have a variety of "things gone wrong", and lower satisfaction, as long as it has a dominant design or "fitness for use."

SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION

There are a multitude of factors that likely influence a customer’s willingness to enter a trust relationship. We organize these factors into a trust environment within which customers purchase and consume products and services. The trust environment includes three levels: (1) the interaction between customer and firm, (2) the market environment within which the customer and firm interact, and (3) the political, economic, social, and technological environment within which the market operates. The firm or organizational environment within which employers and employees interact also influences the customer-firm interaction within the framework.

This trust environment should systematically affect a customer’s propensity to enter a trust relationship with a brand or firm, where customer trust is defined as a high level of loyalty given satisfaction. We propose that the primary effects of the trust environment on the satisfaction-loyalty are two fold: (1) within a higher trust environment, the inflection point at which customers start drastically reducing their consideration set of alternative brands (as they move from problem solving to routinized behavior) should occur at a lower level of satisfaction; and (2) within a higher trust environment, customers should move more rapidly from problem solving to routinized behavior. The latter prediction should be reflected by an increased impact of satisfaction on loyalty past the inflection point. Thus the trust environment should affect both the timing of the first inflection point and the slope that is created as a result of the first inflection point.

In the course of our discussion, several propositions emerged. Regarding the firm-level trust environment, a high trust relationship between employers and employees should increase the average level of quality and subsequent satisfaction. It should also lower the proposed inflection point and increase the slope after the inflection point through its signal value. Finally, the degree to which customers empathize with employees or suppliers likely moderates the impact of firm-level trust on customers. Research on firm or organizational trust identifies two other important trust factors. Both identification-based trust as well as predisposition-based trust should exhibit the proposed effects on the customer satisfaction-loyalty relationship.

The market-level trust environment is largely a function of the degree of competition and switching barriers that exist in a market. Primarily, these factors should influence the level of customer satisfaction in a market (through the accessibility of differentiated products and services). These factors should also result in a fundamental change in the nature of the satisfaction-loyalty relationship. When competition is weak and/or switching barriers are strong, significant dissatisfaction is required to decrease a loyalty that is forced as "hostages" are created.

Finally, political, economic, and social aspects of the trust environment should affect customer trust. Political institutions such as the FTC that provide information remedies make it easier for customers to move up the satisfaction continuum and enter routinized response behavior. They also create an atmosphere of trust that should change the satisfaction-loyalty relationship as proposed (lower the inflection point, and increase the impact or slope past the inflection point). Similar effects shuld occur depending on general economic conditions and the society or culture within which buyers and sellers interact. In good economic times, customers should be less willing to trade off time and problem solving effort for money and thus enter a trust relationship at a given level of satisfaction. Similarly, within a high trust culture or society, customers should be more willing to enter a trust relationship at a given level of satisfaction.

The propositions developed here are just a first step. Naturally, there will be a variety of factors that moderate and mediate our general predictions. The question remains as to where to start empirically testing these propositions. We suggest two particular avenues for immediate inquiry. Given the propagation of national customer satisfaction indices of late (Fornell et al. 1996), it is increasingly possible to study social and cultural differences in the satisfaction-loyalty relationship on a large scale. There are also ample opportunities to study the impact of firm-level trust on customers as evidenced in the US by recent organizational trust defects at General Motors (with the United Auto Workers) and UPS (with the Teamsters).

By placing customer satisfaction research within the broader context of the trust environment, this paper opens new and fertile ground for those interested in understanding the antecedents and consequences of customer satisfaction. Foremost, the trust environment should affect just when, and how quickly, firms are able to transform mercenaries into loyalists.

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