Predictive and Normative Expectations in Consumer Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior

John O. Summers, Indiana University
Donald H. Granbois, Indiana University
ABSTRACT - Relationships among measures of problem incidence, complaining incidence, predictive and normative expectations for both problem incidence and retailer remedy behavior, and satisfaction with retailer remedies are presented for five common consumer problems. Problem salience, sensitivity of the measures to differences across problems, and logical consistency in relationships among the measures all encourage further analysis.
[ to cite ]:
John O. Summers and Donald H. Granbois (1977) ,"Predictive and Normative Expectations in Consumer Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 155-158.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 155-158


John O. Summers, Indiana University

Donald H. Granbois, Indiana University


Relationships among measures of problem incidence, complaining incidence, predictive and normative expectations for both problem incidence and retailer remedy behavior, and satisfaction with retailer remedies are presented for five common consumer problems. Problem salience, sensitivity of the measures to differences across problems, and logical consistency in relationships among the measures all encourage further analysis.


The notion that consumer dissatisfaction ts a function of the comparative levels of consumers' expectations and their actual experiences with goods and services is a potentially powerful source of explanation for several kinds of variability in actual dissatisfaction. Important variations in dissatisfaction across products have been documented (e.g., Handy, 1976; Day and Landon, 1975), as have variations in levels of dissatisfaction reported by different consumer categories (e.g., Warland, Hermann and Willits, 1975; Pickle and Bruce, 1972). In both cases, explanations may lie both in actual differences in product performance and in variations in expectation levels. A less well-documented but widely believed phenomenon, that consumer dissatisfaction levels are increasing over time, could conceivably be explained in terms of a widening gap between expectations and perceived performance levels of products and services.

The relationship between expectations and experience also seems relevant for another aspect of consumer dissatisfaction receiving research attention recently--the incidence and nature of consumer complaining behavior. Although the character of the process underlying this behavior is still incompletely understood, a number of studies have documented wide differences in the incidence of such behavior over product classes and consumer categories, and the intensity of the complaining response itself seems highly variable (Day and Landon, 1975; Thomas and Shuptrine, 1975; Diener, 1975; Warland, Hermann and Willits, 1975; Mason and Himes, 1973; Pickle and Bruce, 1972). It seems likely that differing degrees of discrepancy between expectation and actual experience underlie these variations, and explanations may be aided by better understanding of how expectations form, change, and vary over consumers.

Despite the apparent promise of the expectations-experience comparison in improving the understanding of actual levels of consumer dissatisfaction and subsequent complaining behavior, research efforts so far have been confined to laboratory investigation (Swan and Combs, 1976; Olson and Dover, 1976; Anderson, 1973; Olshavsky and Miller, 1972; Cardozo, 1965) and have not investigated complaining behavior. The data presented here reflect a prelim/nary analysis of selected results of a mail survey [The study utilized the Consumer Panel maintained by-the Center for Marketing Studies, College of Business Administration, University of South Carolina. The authors are grateful to Professor John Willenborg for his assistance in administering the survey and very much appreciate the opportunity to use the USC panel.] in which questions on the incidence of consumer problems and complaining behavior were combined with measures of two concepts of consumer expectations associated with these problems: consumer predictions of the expected frequency of occurrence of the problems and their normative evaluations of how frequently such problems should occur. The ultimate goals of the study are to develop scales of predictive expectations, normative expectations, and the intensity of complaining behavior, and to examine interrelation- ships among these scales and their variability over consumer categories. Issues dealing with the face validity of these measures are addressed here as a prelude to later analysis. Three objectives guided the present analysis:

(1) To determine if the incidence of the problems investigated and the resulting complaining behavior is great enough to indicate substantial problem salience among respondents as a justification for further analysis;

(2) To assess the sensitivity of the questions to be used as inputs in the scaling efforts by examining the variability of responses across the problem areas investigated;

(3) To see if plausible interpretations can be found for the aggregate patterns of relationships among the variables.


Problems encountered in food and clothing purchasing were selected for investigation since it was felt that the high frequency of purchase of these items and customers' familiarity with retailers in these categories would provide respondents with a sound basis for assessing both the predictive and normative incidence of problems. Five problem areas are reported here: (1) discovering unexpected low quality in prepackaged meat, fruit or vegetables; (2) finding grocery stores out of advertised specials; (3) finding bread, eggs or dairy products to be stale, broken or spoiled; (4) purchasing shoes that fall apart or wear out in a very short time; and (5) purchasing a defective clothing item. Problem incidence was based on a simple recall question. Both predictive and normative expectation questions used verbal response categories assessing frequency of occurrence (one time out of 100, one time out of 50, etc.). Although additional items will be included in the complaining behavior scale to be developed in the future, results are presented here only for reported complaints to store employees or management. Predictive and normative expectations concerning the remedies provided by retailers were assessed with dichotomous questions concerning stores' perceived willingness to provide remedies and whether such remedies are a "consumer right" or merely provided as a courtesy. Finally, a dichotomous satisfaction question was asked about the store's remedy the "last time" each problem was experienced and a complaint was made.


Overall high saliency of the five problem areas is indicated in Table 1 where problem incidence is shown to range from 45.1 percent reporting purchase of defective clothing in the past year to 70.7 percent recalling the discovery of low quality in a prepackaged meat or produce purchase. The rank order of problem areas suggested by the incidence data for the three grocery-related problems parallels the rank of predictive expectations shown in Table 2. Problems with prepackaged meat and produce are shown to be most frequently predicted by respondents (only 14.5 percent expect them as seldom as one time out of 100; 49.4 percent expect them once out of ten times or more often); the least likely problem is low quality in bread, eggs, and dairy products. The consistency of ranks indicated by the incidence and predictive expectations responses adds to the credibility of the expectations judgment, and the sharply different levels indicated in these (and subsequent) tables indicates a useful degree of sensitivity in the measures (no apparent stereotyping response).



Compared with their predictive expectations judgments, respondents differentiated much less among the grocery problems in their judgments of normative expectations, the frequency of occurrence of the problems they felt should exist. Here too, however, the meat and produce problem appears to be associated with somewhat lower expectations, as indicated by the relatively lower frequency of the "1 time out of 100" response. (Normative expectations were not determined for purchases of shoes and clothing.) Although more than half of the respondents selected the lowest frequency response in each of the three grocery problems, substantial numbers selected the highest frequency response, which suggests important differences in normative expectations across respondents.

A possible measure of the perceived severity associated with the five problem areas is the magnitude of the gaps between predictive and normative expectations. Parenthetical figures in Table 4 indicate these gaps for each response category for each of the three grocery problems. The logic of the "severity" interpretation is that it indexes consumer outrage at the discrepancy between "what is" and "what should be." Here, clearly, the meat and produce problem appears most troublesome (a gap of -48.8 in the "1 time out of 100" response category) and the bread-egg-dairy problem seems least severe (-18.0). Et is interesting to note the rank order of severity, as measured by the predictive-normative expectations gap, is identical to that indicated by the incidence data and the predictive expectations judgment.

Although the overall incidence of complaining behavior associated with the five problem areas is shown in Table 3 to be very high (again suggesting the problems' high salience), it is clear that neither problem incidence, predictive expectations nor the severity gap directly predicts complaining incidence. Rather, a substantially lower complaining incidence is indicated for the meat and produce problem than for the other two grocery problems in terms of the proportion of respondents who complained "the last time the problem occurred." In terms of overall frequency of complaining about these problems, the proportion of respondents reporting "always or almost always" complaining varies inversely with problem incidence, predictive expectations about problem incidence, and the magnitude of the gap between predictive and normative expectations. Apparently higher incidence of problems leads to realistically high predictions of the frequency of problem occurrence without affecting beliefs about what the level "should be." However, complaining behavior, while perhaps not lower in incidence absolutely as compared with other, lower-incidence problems, is relatively lower in terms of a complaint incidence/problem incidence ratio. Problem severity does not seem to be a correct interpretation of the predictive-normative expectations gap.

Additional insights into the belief structures associated with complaining are provided in Table 4, where predictive and normative expectations associated with retailer responses to all five problem areas are shown. Here, predictive expectations for retailer response to the meat and produce problem fall midway between those expressed for the other problem areas (69.3 percent compared with 54.7 percent for advertised specials and 88.0 percent for bread-eggs-dairy), but the predictive-normative expectations gap is highest for meat and produce, since normative expectations for that problem are relatively high. As in the gap analysis for problem incidence, the predictive-normative expectations gap for retailer performance shows a consistently inverse relationship with the incidence of complaining behavior.

Table 4 indicates sharply lower beliefs about what "should be" for the advertised specials problem compared with the other problem areas. However, normative predictions are also sharply lower, indicating either a pattern of adjustment of normative beliefs to reality or a sharing of normative beliefs with retail managers and employees who determine the level of remedies available. It is important to note that when satisfaction with a store's remedies is added to the analysis (the final variable reported in Table 4), a totally consistent pattern emerges in that the rank orders of the three grocery problems are identical for all three measures in Table 4. This seems to indicate that respondents have adjusted both predictive and normative beliefs about retailer remedies so as to be consistent with the level of satisfaction (receipt of remedies) actually experienced.

There is perhaps reason to believe that grocery retailers do supply remedies more commonly when products are defective than when advertised specials run out. A 1974 study (Stokes, 1974) revealed that all 29 chain store organizations surveyed reported a company policy requiring money back or replacement when consumers complain of product deficiencies.








The five consumer problem areas investigated proved to be highly salient to respondents with between 45 and 70 percent reporting experience with the problems. The consumers studied were good predictors of expected rates of problem incidence, yet reflected fairly high normative standards of what "should be." Nevertheless, respondents were able to distinguish between the problem areas in assessing both predictive and normative incidence levels.

The reported levels of complaining behavior were generally high, with the measure of overall frequency indicating somewhat lower rates of complaining than the question about "the last time the problem occurred" (possibly because problems complained about are more salient and thus more likely to be remembered). Here too respondents were able to distinguish among the different problems in assessing their rates of complaining. The differences between normative and predictive expectations, calculated both for respondents' assessments of problem incidence and their judgments of the likelihood of retailers providing remedies, appeared to be related to the level of complaining behavior reported, but in a somewhat unexpected way. In both cases, a larger gap was associated with lower complaining rates. However, absolute levels of predictive and normative expectations about retailer remedies varied directly with the level of satisfaction reported with retailer remedies reported by those who had complained. Satisfaction with retailer remedies varied over the five problem areas, but the tendency to report fairly high levels of satisfaction (between 70 and 97 percent reported satisfaction) indicated a somewhat higher level of satisfaction than has been suggested by recent literature.


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R/chard N. Cardozo, "An Experimental Study of Customer Effort, Expectations and Satisfaction," Journal of Marketing Research, 2 (August, 1965), 244-249.

Ralph L. Day and E. Laird Landon, Jr., "Collecting Comprehensive Consumer Complaint Data by Survey Research," in Beverlee B. Anderson (ed.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. III, 1976, 263-268.

Betty J. Diener, "Information and Redress: Consumer Needs and Company Response," Marketing Science Institute Working Paper, June, 1975.

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