Excuses: Use ’M If You Got ’Em

Donna J. Hill, Bradley University
Robert B. Baer, Bradley University
Amy J. Morgan, Bradley University
ABSTRACT - Using a complaint management framework, consumer reactions to five types of excuses were examined. Using a between subjects design, six different scenarios were presented to subjects (five types of excuses and one control group). Subjects were students asked for their reactions to an academic advising mistake in which an excuse was offered. Two of the excuse types were valence excuses (diminishing the perceived negative consequence of the act) and three were linkage excuses (diminishing the individual’s perceived causal role in producing the event). The results showed that offering linkage excuses (compared to offering no excuse) help minimize the perception of blame assigned to the advisor while valence excuses (compared to offering no excuse) help minimize perceptions of harm the student suffered. One excuse condition (explanation) was not supported in that perceptions of blame were not alleviated. The implications for complaint management were discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Donna J. Hill, Robert B. Baer, and Amy J. Morgan (2000) ,"Excuses: Use ’M If You Got ’Em", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 87-91.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 87-91

EXCUSES: USE ’M IF YOU GOT ’EM

Donna J. Hill, Bradley University

Robert B. Baer, Bradley University

Amy J. Morgan, Bradley University

ABSTRACT -

Using a complaint management framework, consumer reactions to five types of excuses were examined. Using a between subjects design, six different scenarios were presented to subjects (five types of excuses and one control group). Subjects were students asked for their reactions to an academic advising mistake in which an excuse was offered. Two of the excuse types were valence excuses (diminishing the perceived negative consequence of the act) and three were linkage excuses (diminishing the individual’s perceived causal role in producing the event). The results showed that offering linkage excuses (compared to offering no excuse) help minimize the perception of blame assigned to the advisor while valence excuses (compared to offering no excuse) help minimize perceptions of harm the student suffered. One excuse condition (explanation) was not supported in that perceptions of blame were not alleviated. The implications for complaint management were discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Excuses are a common way in which business organizations respond to customer complaints. Businesses invoke excuses to explain or justify their actions. The excuse can shift customer causal attributions from internal, central aspects of the organization to less central aspects or external causes, thereby controlling the impression customers form. Resnick and Harmon (1983) reported that 52% of the managers that they studied thought that an explanation was necessary when a customer complained. Similarly, Baer and Hill (1994), in an attempt to document the actual prevalence of organizational excuse making, reported that over 51% of the businesses in their study responded to a customer complaint by invoking at least one excuse. Oftentimes, the same company invoked multiple excuses to explain the same event!

Although organizational excuses are a common feature of consumer life, marketers have paid surprising little attention to this topic. The last two decades have witnessed only four articles in the marketing literature that mentioned excuse making. The Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction, and Complaining Behavior, founded in 1988 and devoted to publishing research investigating customer-complaining behavior, has published only one excuse paper. Moreover, there is not a single model of customer complaining and the organizational response process that mentions excuse making. Researchers seem to deny that excuse making exists or, if they do acknowledge it, deny its importance. Yet, we doubt that there is a customer anywhere who has registered a complaint and has not at sometime received an excuse in return. We further contend that the manner in which an organization (or employee) handles the expressed concerns of a customer could have a significant impact on customer perceptions of that business and that marketers ought to study the entire spectrum of organizational responses (including excuse making) to customer complaints (Hill, Baer and Kosenko, 1992).

The purpose of this paper is to extend previous research in organizational excuse making. We report the findings from an experiment that tests a series of hypotheses grounded in excuse theory . An attempt is made to examine the effects of different types of excuses on perceptions of blame and harm.

Excuse Theory and Complaint Handling

Research has examined factors affecting people's satisfaction and dissatisfaction with consumer products, the willingness of customers to express their dissatisfaction in the form of a complaint, and marketing's response to these complaints (Andreasen and Best 1977; Bearden and Teal 1981; Day 1977; Cievro 1980; Clark, Kominski, and Rink 1992; Oliver and Swan 1989). The ability to handle successfully consumer complaints is an important strategic consideration for all marketers. So important in fact that Hill et al. (1992) argue for systematic training programs that enhance employee's ability to handle complaints that is "detailed, disseminated, and controlled by the firm" (p. 674). Such a training program requires the firm understand both the content and the delivery of the complaint and the employee response. Most studies on complaint handling have limited their attention to the role of apologies, financial restitution, and speed of recovery.

Marketing's neglect of excuse making is especially ironic in that excuses may not only be a pervasive but also an essential company response. Complaints are routinely leveled at business organizations for all sorts of alleged misbehavior. In contrast to those who may merely regard the excuse as a pretended reason or pretext for a shortcoming, i.e., an essentially false and untruthful account, the excuse may actually serve a vital purpose. Excuses need not be falsehoods designed by companies to deceive complaining customers. The excuse can actually be an accurate account of why something has not lived up to the customer's expectations. These accounts provide customers with information that can be useful in guiding future interactions with the company and for predicting the likelihood of the incident's reoccurrence. It is not necessarily a fiction that circumstances beyond our control can prevent us from meeting our obligations or that human beings are imperfect and can make occasional mistakes that should not be a permanent reflection on them. All organizations need customers to think favorably of them. Attacks on a company's reputation are serious matters and the organization is entitled to attempt to restore their image after alleged or suspected mistakes or wrongdoings. Excuse making is an act of restoring one's image, serves an important function, and deserves serious study (Benoit, 1995).

Several works in the field of psychology have contributed to an understanding of the excuse making process. Our current study is based on a comprehensive theory of excuse making (Higgins and Synder 1991; Snyder and Higgins 1988; Snyder, Higgins, and Stucky 1983). Excuses are elicited whenever someone perceives that they are linked to an act or outcome that is undesirable. According to this theory, excuses are offered as a means of distancing oneself from negative acts or outcomes. Thus, the excuse making process consists of two distinct components: "(a) diminishing the perceived negativity of esteem threatening outcomes and (b) shifting the causal attribution for negative outcomes from sources more central to the person's sense of self to sources that are relatively less central" (Higgins and Snyder 1991, p. 85).

These components draw from two distinct appraisals made by an individual confronted with negative information. The degree of the individual's connection to the negative outcome is referred to as the linkage-to-act appraisal (Higgins and Snyder 1991). Here the individual considers the degree to which he or she may be responsible for the outcome or act, ranging from no linkage to total linkage. The second appraisal considers the individual's perception of the degree to which the act or outcome is perceived as negative (valence of the act). Higgins and Snyder (1991) refer to this as the valence-of-act appraisal. If excuse making is caused by the perception that one is linked to a negative event, then for the excuse to be effective, it must either diminish the perceived negativity of the event or minimize the extent to which one is to be held responsible for that event.

Baer and Hill (1994) define five distinct categories of excuses. Three of the categories, denial, deflection and explanation excuses address the linkage-to-act appraisal and thus serves to reduce perceived linkage to the act. Denial excuses eliminate the link altogether. The individual using a denial excuse refutes having any part in the negative event. Deflection excuses go one step further in eliminating the individual's link to the negative event. Here the individual not only denies his or her involvement but places blame for the event elsewhere. The third excuse category, explanation, distances the individual from the negative event in a more subtle way. Rather than flatly denying one's involvement or placing responsibility on another person, the excuse maker identifies extenuating circumstances as playing a role in the negative event. This explanation excuse does not deny involvement on the excuse maker's part but rather, indicates that the negative act or outcome is not a typical representation of this person's capabilities or performance.

Hill and Baer (1994) also identified two categories of excuses that seek to minimize the perceived negativity of the act or outcome. The first valence excuse, minimization, does not dispute a negative event but suggests it was not so terrible in reality. The excuse maker suggests that the complainer's evaluation of the event is more negative than it actually was. The excuse maker could go one step further by using a justification excuse. In these types of excuses, the event is acknowledged but the outcome is portrayed as being positive, contrary to the complainer's opinion.

HYPOTHESES

In the present study we examined the effects of different excuse types on perceiver evaluations of a) the extent to which the excuse maker was blameworthy, b) the amount of harm experienced by the wronged party. We propose that linkage and valence excuses should affects consumers differently. Because valence excuses challenge the perceived harmfulness of the act, they should primarily influence the perceived harm experienced by. Likewise, since linkage excuses primarily seek to lessen the perceived extent to which one is linked to an event, these excuses should reduce perceived blameworthiness. Based on excuse theory, the following hypotheses were established:

Valence Excuses and Perceived Harm

H1a: Minimization excuses should cause the event to be perceived as less harmful than offering no excuse.

H1b: Justification excuses should cause the event to be perceived as less harmful than offering no excuse.

Valence Excuses and Perceived Blame

H2a: Minimization excuses should not affect the extent to which the excuse-maker is perceived as blameworthy.

H2b: Justification excuses should not affect the extent to which the excuse-maker is considered blameworthy.

Linkage Excuses and Perceived Blame

H3a: A deflection excuse should render the excuse-maker less blameworthy than no excuse.

H3b: A denial excuse should render the excuse-maker less blameworthy than no excuse.

H3c: An explanation excuse should render the excuse-maker less blameworthy than no excuse.

Linkage Excuses and Perceived Harm

H4A: A deflection excuse should not affect the extent to which the excuse-maker was perceived to be harmed.

H4B: A denial excuse should not affect the extent to which the excuse-maker was perceived to be harmed.

H4C: An explanation excuse should not affect the extent to which the excuse-maker was perceived to be harmed.

METHOD

Overview

Participants read a scenario whereby a student, complaining about poor advice given by an academic advisor, receives a written account by the department chairperson. The experimental conditions provided five different excuse types and a no-excuse control group. Participants were assigned to one excuse condition and were assessed for their perceptions of the amount of harm experienced by the complainer and the amount of blame attributed to the advisor.

Participants

The participants were 133 undergraduate business students who volunteered to participate in the study. Participants were run in-groups of about twenty-five and were randomly assigned to one of the six cells in the experimental design. Cell sizes ranged from 14 to 25. Students were informed that the study was about student perceptions of academic advising and to consider their personal experiences and beliefs about advising at their university (all students had previous experience with advising with the mean number of advising encounters being 4.96). Undergraduate advising was selected as the context for hypothesis testing in the current study because it is a service environment common to virtually all college campuses. It shares characteristics prevalent in other services (e.g., consulting, tax or legal advice) whereby the customer is highly involved in the outcome of the service, the service is important, and in which mistakes can have serious consequences for the consumer.

Procedure

Materials were presented in booklet form. The cover page described the study as an investigation about student perceptions of academic advising. Independent variables were manipulated by asking participants to take the role of observers while reading written scenarios portraying a student's complaint about an academic advising error. The study was divided into three parts. In the first part, participants were asked a series of questions about their personal advising experiences and their opinions about advising at their institution. In the second part, students read a student complaint letter addressed to the department chair alleging that their advisor had incorrectly informed them to take the wrong course and that, as a result, their graduation would be delayed from May to December. In the third part of the study, participants read a letter written by the department chairperson to the complaining student addressing the student's concerns. The letter acknowledged the student's complaint, conveyed the university's sincere interest in the quality of academic advising, and indicated that the chairperson had spoken with the academic advisor about the problem. The letter concluded with the manipulation of the study's independent variables. A series of questions designed to measure perceptions of harm and blame was presented at the end of the booklet.

Experimental Conditions

Five different excuse conditions and a no-excuse control group were created.

Valence Excuses

(1) Minimization Excuse-the complaining student is told that the negative consequences of the advising error are not as severe as the student had imagined. The student will be able take the necessary course during the May Interim class session and, consequently, graduation will only be delayed by three weeks.

(2) Justification Excuse-the complaining student is also told that the necessary course can be taken during May Interim class session, delaying graduation by only three weeks. Moreover, the student is told that the delay is actually in their best interest because the student's chances of being successful in the final course will be greatly improved if they first successfully complete the prerequisite.

Linkage Excuses

(1) Denial Excuse- the complaining student is told that the advisor did not recommend that the student take the wrong course. In fact, the advisor maintained that there is no record that an advising appointment even took place.

(2) Deflection Excuse-the complaining student is told that it was not the advisor who had made the mistake. Rather a clerk in the Dean's Office who is in charge of student records made an error during a routine advising audit.

(3) Explanation Excuse-the complaining student is told although the advisor did make a mistake, it was a very rare mistake made by an outstanding teacher who has been recognized for exceptional advising

Control Group

The chairperson's letter in the control treatment was identical to those in the five excuse conditions with the exception that no excuse was provided. Rather, the complaining student is told, as they are in the five excuse conditions, to make an appointment with the department chairperson. The chairperson's letter, however, gives no hint or indication of what happened or how the matter will be resolved.

Dependent Measures

A number of items designed to tap into blame and harm was generated through a review of the literature and a series of in-depth interviews with students. The final questions were worded as follows:

1. Perceptions of blame (four 7-point scales; the higher the number the more blame)

-To what extent should the advisor be blamed?

-To what extent is it the advisor's fault?

-To what extent was the advisor responsible?

-To what extent did the advisor make a mistake?

2. Perceptions of harm (five 7-point scales; the higher the number the more harm)

-To what extent will the student suffer?

-How severe are the consequences?

-How negative to the student are the consequences?

-To what extent was the student inconvenienced by this problem?

-To what extent will the student be financially harmed by this problem?

Reliability of the Dependent Variables

The nine items were factor analyzed using varimax rotation. Both the eigen-values-greater-than-one criterion and the scree plot clearly indicated the presence of two factors, as expected. Each item loaded on a single factor and the items were grouped into factors in the expected manner. Primary loadings for each variable were in the range of .72 to .90 and averaged .80; cross-loadings ranged from .2 to .002. Correlation among the factors were generally quite small (<. 4). Overall, the factor analysis results strongly confirmed the structure of the two scales. Summated scales were formed for each of these measures. The Cronbach alphas are as follows: perceptions of blame Alpha .886 and perceptions of harm Alpha .841.

RESULTS

Tables 1 and 2 show the univariate test results and cell means for each of the conditions tested in the present study. To test the hypotheses, a series of a priori contrasts were conducted between the excuse type and the control group. The first hypothesis states that the valence excuses of minimization and justification would lead to less perceived harm than offering no excuse. Table 1 indicates that the student perceived that the harm was less when receiving a minimization excuse (M=5.61) than when offered no excuse (M=6.30) (t=-2.08, p<.05). The same finding exists for the justification excuse (M=5.68) (t=-2.06, p<.05). Hypothesis 1 was thus supported. According to hypothesis 2, valence excuses should not affect the extent to which the excuse-maker is perceived as blameworthy. Table 1 shows that this hypothesis was also supported. There were no significant differences between the perceptions of blame when a minimization excuse was offered (M=5.40) and when no excuse was offered (M=5.25) nor between the justification excuse (M=4.93) and when no excuse was offered (M=5.25): t=.342 and -.642 respectively.

Inspection of Table 2 indicates partial support for hypothesis 3. Both the deflection excuse (M=3.98) and the denial excuse (M=4.75) resulted in less perceived blame than the control group (M=5.25): t=-2.08 and -2.04 respectively. However, the explanation excuse (M=5.15) did not result in less blame than receiving no excuse at all (M=5.25). Finally, the hypotheses concerning the linkage excuses were supported. None of the means of the three types of linkage excuses offered (M=6.37 for deflection, M=6.07 for denial, and M=5.85 for explanation) differed significantly from offering no excuse (M=6.30 for control group) in reducing the perceptions of harm.

TABLE 1

VALENCE EXCUSES AND PERCEIVED HARM AND BLAME

UNIVARIATE ANALYSIS AND CELL MEANS FOR STUDY RESULTS

TABLE 2

LINKAGE EXCUSES AND PERCEIVED BLAME AND HARM

UNIVARIATE ANALYSIS AND CELL MEANS FOR STUDY RESULTS

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS

Excuses are a common occurrence in today's marketplace. Results presented here indicate that different excuses impact the customer in different ways. Some excuses help minimize the perception of blame (linkage excuses) while other excuses can minimize perceptions of harm (valence excuses). Our study found that minimization and justification excuses effectively reduce perceptions of harm.

On the other hand, deflection and denial excuses effectively reduce perceptions of blame. Results from the explanation excuse conditions did not support our hypotheses. We had expected that explanation excuses would reduce perceptions of blame. The department chair in that condition had claimed that this was a rare mistake made by an exceptional advisor. This explanation should have reduced perceptions of harm by minimizing the extent to which the advising error was seen as a permanent reflection on the advisor's ability. Our results show that those given the explanation excuse blamed the advisor to the same extent as those in the control group. However, we had also asked participants in each condition to evaluate the extent to which they thought the advisor would make the same mistake in the future. As one would anticipate, subjects in the explanation condition perceived that the advisor was less likely (M=3.4) to make the same mistake in the future as compared to the control group (M=4.38): t=-1.724, d.f. 39, p<. 05). Thus, although the advisor was held strictly accountable for their current error, participants did accept the explanation that this advisor would be unlikely to make the same mistake in the future.

This study extends previous research in organizational excuse making by examining reactions to various types of excuses. Our findings are consistent with the results reported by Hill and Baer (1994). The present study differed from that study in three important ways. First, an experimental design was employed. Hill and Baer (1994) collected actual excuses that were given to customers by companies and measured perceptions of harm and blame. In this study we manipulated the type of excuse while holding all other variables constant. Second, in the previous study, linkage excuses were compared to valence excuses to determine their relative impact. In this study, we included a no-excuse control group allowing us to better determine whether or not each excuse is harmful or helpful in terms of alleviating harm or blame. Finally, the present study used multi-item measures of harm and blame. These measures were better able to capture the full domain of the constructs.

While the study reported here made substantial contributions advancing earlier studies on excuse theory, it did not provide definitive conclusions on every issue. Other avenues exist for additional research on the topic to continue our understanding of excuse theory as a managerial tool. Future studies should examine the effects of excuses on evaluative judgements, an issue of great import to management that was not clearly represented by the current study. A future study would also benefit from another approach to design of manipulations as some potential for confounding clearly exists in the present study.

Marketing practitioners and academicians alike recognize the importance of obtaining consumers' post-purchase evaluations. Both positive and negative evaluations are valuable pieces of strategic information. Positive evaluations lead to positive outcomes for the firm such as consumer loyalty and commitment (Fornell and Wernerfeldt 1987; Singh and Wilkes 1996). Negative evaluations, when expressed in the form of complaints, are also valuable as they present opportunities for the firm to respond to a dissatisfying outcome ( Heskett, Sasser and Hart 1990; Hill and Baer 1994; Lovelock 1994). Registered complaints frequently draw excuses. The excuse can serve the dual purpose of restoring faith in the service provider while informing consumers or educating them about the service process. This, in turn, helps the consumer make judgments that will preserve future exchanges and relationships. In sum, if a valid excuse exists for your organization's service failure, share it with your customers.

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