Extending the Concept of Consumer Satisfaction

Ralph L. Day, Indiana University
ABSTRACT - The dramatic growth of consumerism with its massive expressions of dissatisfaction with goods and services has underscored the need for more and better research on the consumer's post-purchase evaluation process. Effective and efficient research designs require the thorough and careful conceptualization of the process under study. This paper suggests ways to extend the conceptualization of the process leading to satisfaction or dissatisfaction and briefly discusses post-evaluation behavior.
[ to cite ]:
Ralph L. Day (1977) ,"Extending the Concept of Consumer Satisfaction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 149-154.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 149-154


Ralph L. Day, Indiana University


The dramatic growth of consumerism with its massive expressions of dissatisfaction with goods and services has underscored the need for more and better research on the consumer's post-purchase evaluation process. Effective and efficient research designs require the thorough and careful conceptualization of the process under study. This paper suggests ways to extend the conceptualization of the process leading to satisfaction or dissatisfaction and briefly discusses post-evaluation behavior.


A manifestation of the growth of consumerism in recent years has been the rapid increase in the volume of complaints made by consumers to business firms, consumer organizations, the Better Business Bureaus, and various private and governmental agencies. The complaints registered by individual consumers appear to have had an important impact on the operations of business firms and have played a major role in shaping the activities of local, state and federal consumer protection agencies. In view of this, it is surprising that so little is known about the process through which consumers evaluate the products and services they purchase and use and arrive at feelings of satisfaction, indifference, or dissatisfaction; or about the subsequent process which determines the effects, if any, of these reactions on subsequent behavior. The amount of published research on consumer satisfactions and dissatisfactions is growing but is still small in quantity and limited in scope. Field research has tended to focus on measuring the extent of dissatisfaction and complaining behavior with little or no theoretical rationale [Day and Landon, 1976a] and experimental studies have tended to use narrow conceptualizations or satisfaction and dissatisfaction. [Most of the experimental studies in the consumer behavior literature (e.g., Cardozo, 1965, Olshavsky and Miller, 1972; and Anderson, 1973) have viewed satisfaction as a continuum related to the confirmation or disconfirmation of expectations of product performance. More recently, Swan and Combs (1976) have utilized a somewhat different conceptualization, treating satisfaction and dissatisfaction as two different factors, following the work of Herzberg and others in measuring worker satisfaction and dissatisfaction.]

It is clear that more and better research on consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction and on post-dissatisfaction behavior is needed. Future research can be more fruitful if it is based on a broader and richer conceptualization of the process through which consumers react to the various aspects of the purchase, use, and postpurchase evaluation of a product or service. This paper considers several ways to extend the concept of consumer satisfaction which can aid in the development and testing of rigorous, highly structured theories in a future stream of research. The basic framework will be the familiar confirmation/disconfirmation of expectations paradigm but expectations, purchase and use behavior, and postpurchase evaluation will be treated as stages in a continuous process.


The Structure of Expectations

In considering the task of measuring satisfaction under real world conditions in the confirmation/disconfirmation of expectations framework, many factors other than specific product attributes seem to be involved in the formation of expectations. To accommodate a broader perspective, expectations can be broken down into three categories: (1) expectations about the performance of the product or service (the anticipated benefits to be derived directly from the product or service itself); (2) expectations about the costs and efforts which will be expended in obtaining the direct benefits of the product or service (the anticipated total costs); and (3) expectations of social approval or other derived benefits or costs resulting from the purchase.

Attributes of the Product. In general, expectations about the nature and performance of the product will be based on previous experiences with a particular item or similar items. A part of this learning experience will usually be the recognition of the salient attributes of the item, some assessment of the importance of the attributes, and the development of expectations about them. The highly experienced user of the product or service will typically be aware of a number of alternative types or brands and will have specific expectations about the attributes and overall performance of those brands, depending on the extent and recency of his experience.

The new or inexperienced user will have relatively weak expectations of the attributes and performance of a product or service. He will tend to rely on advertising, sales presentations, and the advice of others more than the experienced consumer and his expectations are likely to be more incomplete and less stable than those of the experienced user. The inexperienced consumer may have more unsatisfactory experiences when his unfamiliarity with types or brands of a product leads to inappropriate choices.

In addition to the experience factor, various personality and situational factors may affect both the consumer's expectations of product performance and how he reacts to their confirmation or disconfirmation in the consumption experience. The consumer's expectations with respect to product features and performance are usually, but not always, a key factor in determining whether or not a consumption experience is judged to be satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

Expected Costs. The expected monetary costs can have an important effect on the post purchase evaluation as well as on choice behavior. The relationship between the expected price and the actual price paid for an item can have a rather complex effect on the consumer's evaluative reaction. Price is sometimes interpreted as an index of quality so that a high price tends to create high expectations for performance and a low price tends to lead to low expectations of performance. When finding a price that differs sharply from expectations, the highly experienced consumer might interpret a higher than expected price as an overchange and-a lower price as a bargain. On the other hand, the less experienced consumer may take price as a measure of quality and adjust expectations of the performance of the product or service in response to the actual price. Price may also serve as an index of the importance of a purchase to a consumer so that evaluative reactions to relatively expensive items can be expected to be more critical than when the item is inexpensive and thus does not constitute a substantial part of the consumer's budget. The expected cost of an item may also influence prepurchase information Seeking and shopping behavior and thus effect the nature and extent of expectations.

Consumers may incur costs other than the expenditure for the item itself when they purchase and consume products and services. The most obvious of these is the time and expense involved in making a shopping trip and the t/me and effort spent in shopping. Some consumers may spend a considerable amount of time and effort in gathering and evaluating information before making a purchase. Such activities tend to increase the perceived importance of the purchase and would seem likely to amplify the consumer's feelings about either a positive or negative experience after a purchase has been made. [Cardozo, 1965]. Another kind of cost which may affect the consumer's expectations for a product is the "opportunity cost" of giving up the purchase of other things which could have been purchased instead.

Indirect Benefits and Costs. For many products there may be benefits or costs of purchase and consumption that are quite independent of the attributes of the product or service itself. These are the psychological benefits or costs to the actual purchaser which are derived from the effect of the purchase on other people. These derived benefits or subjective costs are especially important for status products such as high fashion clothing or gourmet foods and wines. The extent to which one's expectations about the reactions of others to a purchase are actually confirmed or disconfirmed may have a more important bearing on his satisfaction or dissatisfaction than his own evaluation of the product's performance. The desire for the approval of others is not limited to purchasers of status products. A wide range of products that are jointly consumed with others or which are publicly consumed may have sufficient social significance that the purchaser will form expectations about the reactions of others whose approval is important to him.

The division of the aspects of purchase and use into the product itself, the costs involved in acquiring the product, and the social effects of the product may seem somewhat arbitrary. One could argue that costs and indirect benefits can all be considered attributes of the product in a broad sense but there are some good reasons for treating these aspects separately. For example, the degree of control the marketer may exercise over them varies. The physical or functional attributes of the product are established by the manufacturer and consumer expectations about them can be manipulated to some extent by him. The costs to the consumer are less directly under the manufacturer's control and may depend to a considerable extent upon local market conditions and the individual's shopping behavior. The social factors are even more individual and personal and less controllable by the manufacturer or middleman. Treating these aspects separately leads to a richer conceptualization of the consumer's evaluation process and reduces the danger of misinterpreting research results.

Purchase and Use

In the simplest possible purchase and use situation, the product is purchased and consumed independently of other items, consumption begins immediately and is completed in a short time, and there are no circumstantial or environmental factors which have an important influence on the consumer's evaluation of the product. In such a case the evaluation focuses on the functional attributes of the product; comparison of perceived performance with the consumer's expectations can proceed in a straightforward way; and the process of evaluation can be completed rather quickly. This is basically the scenario which has been reflected in most of the experimental studies of consumer satisfaction in the consumer behavior literature but is hardly typical of all consumption experiences.

The Simple Product. In even the simplest of actual circumstances, the consumer's evaluation of his consumption experiences is a poorly understood process. The "confirmation/disconfirmation of expectations" paradigm suggests some sort of direct comparison process in which the consumer evaluates the extent to which his a priori expectations of performance are met or exceeded by the actual performance of the item in the consumption experience. This evaluation process is generally multidimensional in nature because even the simplest of products and services usually has more than one attribute or feature which can influence the level of satisfaction of the user. This suggests that the evaluative process involves some method either of choosing one particular aspect on which to base the evaluation or combining the attribute by attribute evaluations into an overall evaluation of the product or service. Just how this process takes place is undoubtedly a function of many factors which may vary over individuals and according to the nature of the attribute structure and complexity of the product or service. Some of the possible ways in which the evaluation process might take place are as follows:

1. A single attribute is used as the basis of evaluation. Confirmation or disconfirmation of expectations on this attribute leads to satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the product or service. If the consumer's evaluation of the major attribute is inconclusive, the next most important attribute might be considered in turn until some basis of evaluation is reached.

2. Several attributes of the product or service are evaluated against expectations. Satisfaction occurs if expectations are confirmed for all salient attributes, and dissatisfaction results if expectations are disconfirmed on any attribute.

3. Several salient attributes of the product or service are evaluated against expectations. Overall satisfaction occurs even when expectations are disconfirmed on some of the attributes, provided that expectations are met or exceeded on a sufficient number of attributes to compensate for the unsatisfactory attributes.

These particular ways of evaluating the consumption experience reflect the structure of lexicographic, disjunctive, and compensatory choice models, respectively. The compensatory model seems to be the intuitive choice among those doing research on consumer satisfaction but much remains to be learned about the consumer's evaluation process.

The consideration of alternative ways in which consumers evaluate and react to consumption experiences are not meant to suggest that the consumer is a constantly vigilant and precise evaluator of every product and service he uses or that consumers consciously go about evaluating consumption experiences with respect to prior expectations. It seems more plausible to assume that the consumer usually enters the consumption experience without consciously evaluating anything at all and completes most consumption experiences without even thinking about being satisfied or dissatisfied. In general, something out of the ordinary must occur either prior to the purchase, during the purchase process, or during consumption to alert the consumer or call attention to some aspect of the purchase situation. Research procedures which assume that an evaluation always takes place may produce one as an artifact of the research.

This suggests that a very important aspect of the study of consumer satisfaction may be the identification of triggering cues which initiate an awareness or sensitivity to the purchase/consumption process and lead to conscious feelings about being satisfied and dissatisfied. Some circumstances which might trigger the evaluative process are:

1. The item and/or the purchase occasion has some special significance for the individual.

2. The social context in which the purchase is made and/or the item is consumed calls attention to the product and/or the purchaser.

3. The consumer has had previous experiences with the product or service which suggest caution.

4. The consumer has been advised to be careful in making the purchase by friends, consumer organizations, or consumer protection agencies.

5. The consumer is inexperienced and poorly informed about the purchase and use of the product and is more conscious of all aspects of the situation than would normally be the case.

In addition to the above items which may cause the consumer to be alert from the beginning of the purchase process, the following circumstances may arise during the purchase or consumption process:

6. The consumer encounters some unexpected circumstances which suggests caution, receives information or advice from a salesperson which is in conflict with prior beliefs, or otherwise encounters a "surprise" in the purchase situation.

7. The consumer discovers after purchase that the product does not have all of the expected features, fails to perform as expected, or is defective or flawed in some way.

8. The consumer discovers after purchase that the product has desirable qualities or features which were not expected or otherwise performs at a higher level than expected.

The above circumstances or any other aspect of the purchase or use of a simple product or service which breaks the routine and calls attention to the situation can trigger an evaluative response from a consumer and lead to conscious feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Researchers should take care to avoid unintentionally introducing or suppressing triggering cues.

More Complex Products. With relatively simple products which are purchased routinely and consumed soon after purchase, it seems reasonable to consider the process of evaluation as the unilateral action of an individual who compares his personal expectations with respect to a small number of attributes to perceived performance. A great variety of consumer products fall into this category. However, there are many purchase and use situations which are more complex in various ways, making the consumer's evaluative task more difficult. Following are some of the aspects which can contribute complexity to the consumer's evaluation of products and services:

1. The product is used over a considerable period of time, so that the evaluation process is more or less continuous and the consumer's feelings about the product may vary over time.

2. The product is very complex and may involve many different features, some of which may be highly satisfactory while others are unsatisfactory.

3. The product is a "nonproduct" consisting of professional judgments or advice.

4. Repair and maintenance services which usually involve at least three sources of satisfactions or dissatisfactions; the skills of the maintenance personnel, the quality of the parts and materials used; and, the quality of the original item which is being serviced.

5. Complimentary products which are purchased separately and used together in such a way that independent evaluation is difficult.

6. Products such as cars or boats which are used in common with others in such a way that an individual's evaluation is colored by his interaction with other users.

Although the above categories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, they illustrate some of the more complex problems of evaluation posed for the consumer. They tend to pose even more severe problems for the researcher who wishes to measure consumer satisfactions and dissatisfaction with products and services. Unlike relatively simple products which are purchased and used in routine ways, a purchase occasion for one of these complex products may of itself trigger the consumer's evaluative process without any additional "triggering cue."

Situational Factors. Although efforts to study consumer satisfactions and dissatisfactions have logically focused on the performance of products and services, publicly expressed concerns of consumers frequently relate to circumstances of purchase and use rather than to attributes and features of the products and services per se [Diamond, Scott, and Faber, 1976]. Some of the circumstantial factors which consumers evaluate and react to are as follows:

1. Prepurchase circumstances such as advertising, displays in stores, and sales presentations.

2. Circumstances surrounding the actual purchase such as out-of-stock situations for a desired item or procedural matters such as refusal to extend credit or cash a check.

3. Problems with delivery such as failure to deliver, late delivery, delivering the wrong item, delivering a damaged item, or unexpected charges for delivery.

4. Problems with warranties such as deceptive or incomplete warranties or refusal to honor a warranty.

5. Problems of credit and collection such as excessive interest charges or harassment by bill collectors.

Although the primary focus of the consumer evaluation process should remain on the performance of products and services, it is clear that marketing practices have an important effect on the way consumers evaluate products and services and the performance of the marketing system. Research designs should include, or control for, the effects of-situational factors in the consumer's evaluation process.

Individual Factors

The way in which consumers respond to the various aspects of the prepurchase/purchase/use process and have feelings of satisfaction, indifference, or dissatisfaction can be expected to vary considerably from individual to individual. Different motivations for purchase, different experiences in the past, and variations in the circumstances of use can effect both the consumers' evaluations and post purchase behavior. An almost endless array of demographic, economic, attitude, and personality variables could be proposed as explanatory variables for studying the consumer's evaluative reactions to consumption experiences. Any effort to single out an appropriate set of variables for dealing with the individual differences of consumers would not be appropriate here. However, experience has suggested that it would be helpful to classify consumers on three more or less independent factors or summary dimensions as outlined below [Day and Landon, 1976a].

Three proposed, but as yet untested, summary variables for explaining individual differences in evaluative reactions to consumption experiences are: (1) the depth of experience as a consumer; (2) the degree of personal involvement in consumption experiences; and (3) the propensity to be critical. The consumer with considerable experience in purchasing and using any product or service will have had an opportunity to learn the key dimensions of performance of an item and develop a basis for forming specific prior expectations of performance and for evaluating actual performance. The inexperienced consumer, on the other hand, will he is a less structured and more confusing situation and presumably will perform more poorly both as a buyer and as an evaluator. Regardless of their level of experience, many consumers are more aware of their consumption experiences and attach more importance to them. At one extreme is the "unconscious consumer" who tends to respond mechanically to the need for products and puts little thought or effort into buying and using the things he needs. At the other extreme are the "hyper-consumers" who are very involved in the consumption/ evaluation process and tend to he highly aware of the features and attributes of most of the products and services they consume. Regardless of their experiences as a consumer or their degree of involvement in the consumption process, people tend to vary widely in their inclination to evaluate their experiences and make critical judgments about them. These three dimensions provide the basis for a typology of consumers ranging from the inexperienced/uninvolved/uncritical consumer to the highly experienced/highly involved/highly critical consumer. This typology can he useful in evaluating individual differences in reported satisfactions and dissatisfactions.

A Process View

An effort has been made to expand at a general level on the notion that the consumer's feeling of being satisfied or dissatisfied after a consumption experience reflects the degree to which prior expectations are confirmed or disconfirmed by the perceived performance of the product. Three distinct types of expectations were considered: (1) expectations of the actual performance of the product or service; (2) expectations of monetary and other costs involved in the acquisition and use of the product; and (3) expectations about the social effects of the purchase and use of the product. Three separate aspects of the evaluation process were also considered: (1) the factors which determine if any conscious evaluation will actually take place; (2) the way in which the perceived attributes performance (attributes) of the product are compared with prior expectations; and, (3) factors in addition to the attributes of the product itself which complicate the evaluative process. Then some patterns in the individual characteristics of the consumer which effect the evaluative process were considered: (1) expertise as a consumer; (2) sensitivity to consumer experiences; and (3) willingness to express concerns. All of these notions about the pre-purchase/purchase/consumption/evaluation process are organized in a flow diagram in Figure 1, beginning with the formation of prepurchase expectations and ending with a possible behavioral response. The consumer's behavior after the assessment of a consumption experience will be considered briefly below. While all of the complexities of the process are not captured in the diagram, it provides an overview which can be helpful in designing research on the consumer's evaluative process.


In conceptualizing the process through which the consumer arrives at feelings of satisfaction, indifference, or dissatisfaction it seems appropriate to consider also the possible behavioral outcomes. The options available to the consumer will be discussed briefly, utilizing the following structure of behavioral responses (Day and Landon, 1976b): (1) do nothing at all, i.e., make no behavioral response; (2) take some "private action" by modifying one's own behavior or seeking to influence the behavior of family and friends; and (3) take some "public action" such as contacting business firms, consumer organizations, or governmental agencies.

When Satisfaction Occurs

When the consumer has completed the evaluation of a consumption experience and feels satisfied, she may choose to do nothing at all and simply forget the experience. If the product is a frequently purchased nondurable product of low value and/or the degree of satisfaction was not especially high, the null response seems the most likely one. On the other hand, if the experience was at all dramatic or there is some aspect of the consumption situation which makes the experience an important one, some behavioral response is likely. The response may s/reply be an increase in the consumer's brand loyalty or a resolution to buy the product more often. Depending on the impact of the experience and other factors such as the gregariousness of the individual, the consumer may discuss the experience with family and friends and perhaps urge others to try the item. Under unusual circumstances, the consumer might be so impressed with the experience that she takes some "public action" such as congratulating the seller or writing to the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, or other institutions or agencies to report the favorable experience. While the incidence of such actions is much lower than for complaints, many companies which operate "consumer hot lines" find that they get a substantial number of calls from people who wish to complement them on their products or services. The consumer's options after a satisfactory experience are shown in Figure 2.

When Dissatisfaction Occurs

When the outcome of the evaluation process is dissatisfaction, the consumer's options parallel those described for the case of satisfaction. While the proportion of dissatisfied consumers who make no change in their behavior is undoubtedly less than for satisfied consumers, it appears to be quite substantial. In a national telephone survey of "the principle grocery shopper" in 1,000 households, 540 respondents reported finding one or more defective items among products normally purchased at grocery stores. They reported that in 45% of the cases where defects were encountered the experience had no effect on their behavior (A. C. Nielsen Company, 1975). The same study found that a substantial number of the consumers who did take action took private action by modifying their shopping behavior. The grocery purchasers reported that they stopped buying that kind of product in 19% of the cases and switched to another brand in 25% of the cases, (A. C. Nielsen Company, 1975). A different study in which consumers were asked to identify the nondurable product which they had found most unsatisfactory, 547. of the respondents said they would never purchase the item again and 45% said they had warned their friends and urged them to boycott the item (Day and Landon, 1976b). There are various kinds of public actions dissatisfied consumers may take, ranging from asking for a refund to taking the matter to court. Empirical data on the behavior of dissatisfied consumers is still fragmentary but it suggests that a relatively small percentage of dissatisfied consumers ever take any form of public action. The options available to the dissatisfied consumer are shown in Figure 3.







When the Consumer is Indifferent

While the previous literature has tended to dichotomize consumers into those who are satisfied and those who are dissatisfied, it seems more satisfactory from a conceptual point of view to recognize that many consumers have no conscious feelings of either being satisfied or dissatisfied when they complete a consumption experience. As suggested earlier, there are "unconscious consumers" who remain uninvolved in the consumption process unless some "triggering cue" calls their attention to it. These consumers simply do not evaluate many of their experiences and can hardly have their consumption behavior modified by the experience. Among those who do evaluate their consumption experiences it seems likely that there are many who complete the evaluation in a state of indifference, feeling neither satisfied nor dissatisfied by the experience. If either type of indifferent consumer is common for a particular class of product, a research method which forces a satisfied/dissatisfied dichotomy would not be desirable.


The task of developing a useful conceptual framework for the study of consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction is obviously challenging. This paper has suggested that it will be helpful at this stage to model the prepurchase/purchase/use/evaluation sequence as a process which may extend over a period of time and involve actors other than the individual consumer. A process model provides a framework for relating prepurchase expectations, situational variables, and social variables to the consumption and evaluation process over time and under changing environmental and situational conditions. This perspective suggests the need to reorganize that the process differs for different kinds of products, different circumstances of use for given products, and for consumers with different backgrounds and needs. Because of the lack of past research on consumer satisfaction, it appears that the greatest need at present is for more and better data which will provide the basis for describing the prepurchase/consumption/evaluation process in detail. This provide the basis for developing testable hypotheses for future research. Once better conceptual structures and measurement methods are developed, studies that are more comprehensive and more sophisticated can provide better information for consumers, business firms, and consumer protection agencies.


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Rolph E. Anderson, "Consumer Dissatisfaction: The Effect of Disconfirmed Expectancy on Perceived Product Performance," Journal of Marketing Research, 10(February 1973), 38-44.

Richard N. Cardozo, "An Experimental Study of Customer Effort, Expectation, and Satisfaction," Journal of Marketing Research, 2(August 1965), 2&4-249.

Ralph L. Day, "Alternative Definitions and Designs for Measuring Consumer Satisfaction," paper presented at the NSF/MSI 'Workshop on Conceptualization and Measurement of Consumer Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction," April 11-13, 1976.

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Ralph L. Day and E. Laird Landon, Jr., "Toward a Theory on Consumer Complaining Behavior," paper presented at Symposium on Consumer and Industrial Buying Behavior, University of South Carolina, Columbus, March 26, 1976.

Steven L. Diamond, Scott Ward and Ronald Faber, "Consumer Problems and Consumerism: Analysis of Calls to a Consumer Hot Line," Journal of Marketing, 40(January 1976), 58-62.

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John E. Swan and Linda J. Combs, "Product Performance and Consumer Satisfaction: A New Concept, Journal of Marketing, 40(April 1976), 25-33.