Exploring Consumer Complaining Behavior: a Model and Some Empirical Results

Kjell Gronhaug, The Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration
ABSTRACT - This paper focuses on complaining behavior derived from consumers' dissatisfaction with products and services. A conceptual model of the individual complaining behavior is formulated, and two separate studies (survey of consumer complaining behavior, and use of consumer agencies respectively) are conducted in order to explore certain aspects of the model.
[ to cite ]:
Kjell Gronhaug (1977) ,"Exploring Consumer Complaining Behavior: a Model and Some Empirical Results", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 159-165.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 159-165


Kjell Gronhaug, The Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration


This paper focuses on complaining behavior derived from consumers' dissatisfaction with products and services. A conceptual model of the individual complaining behavior is formulated, and two separate studies (survey of consumer complaining behavior, and use of consumer agencies respectively) are conducted in order to explore certain aspects of the model.

Great variations in perceived dissatisfaction and propensity to complain were observed across products. It should be noted that only a fraction of the dissatisfied consumers actually complained. The complaints were particularly concentrated on products high in perceived risk.

When relating dissatisfaction, propensity to complain and outcome of complaints only modest variations were observed for characteristics such as age, education, income and occupation. However, complainers high in education and living close to a consumer agency make more use of consumer representatives to pursue their interests than others did.


Man does not life by bread alone. However, the economic situation of the individual is often assumed to be positively related to the ability to consume and the "quality of life" (cf. Bauer 1966; Strumpel 1972).

The consumers' satisfaction with products and services offered in the market place may vary. Published research conducted the last few years (cf. Anderson 1973; Andrews, Whithey 1974; Czepiel et al. 1975; Lingoes, Pfaff 1972; Pickle, Rungeling 1973) clearly demonstrates that this subject in no way is unproblematic, but involves both serious measurement problems and conceptual difficulties (for a thorough discussion see +lander 1966). However, the importance of consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction is unquestionable, as reflected both in the expressed goals of the society (cf. Terleckyj 1972; Wilcox et al. 1972) and the firm (Kotler 1975).

Consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction may be related to various levels of the marketing system. Czepiel et al. (1975) makes a distinction between three such levels: system, enterprise, and product/service satisfaction. When restricting ourselves to the last of these levels, consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction may be thought of as the "--- cognitive state of being adequately or inadequately rewarded in a buying situation for the sacrifice he (i.e. the buyer) has undergone" (Howard, Sheth 1969, p. 145).

Complaints may be studied in the context of consumer dissatisfaction. When applying a process - perspective as adapted to the study of consumer behavior, both satisfaction/dissatisfaction (cf. Renoux 1973) and complaints may be studied in such a context, where it may be appropriate to distinguish between dissatisfaction and complaints resulting from the process (shopping, buying, decision making and the outcome of the process (i.e. post-purchase evaluation).


In the literature there are some indications that few dissatisfied consumers actually take the trouble to make overt complaints. The most startling figures has been reported in an A.C. Nielsen study, in which it appeared that only packaged good complained to the manufacturer. More people complained to the retailers, but almost 70% did not complain at all (Kendall, Russ 1975); Day, Landon (1976) have reported similar results, besides effects such as exclusion from the buyer's evoked set and negative work of mouth. Warland et al. (1975) found that subjects which had been upset with the way they had been treated in the market place and did nothing about it were generally consumers less well-to-do and less educated than those who had become upset and had done something about it. Liefeld (1975) found that the average consumer complaining to a government or consumer agency is a well educated, affluent, managerial-professional man or woman. Similar results have been reported by Handy (1972), and are also corroborated by Scandinavian findings (Johansson 1972; Statistisk Sentralbyra 1970). Furthermore, the relative portion of all complaints directed towards a government or consumer agency has to be characterized as very modest (cf. Day, Landon 1976).

In conclusion, some insight with regard to consumer complaining behavior exists, but important questions remain unanswered. For example:

S are the various channels of complaints used sequentially?

S what are the strategies of the complainers?

S what is the impact of structural factors [The impact of structural related factors on buyer behavior has been given astonishingly modest attention in research, which may partly be due to the overemphasis on prepurchase decision processes for brands (for a critical treatment of this research cf. Arndt 1976).] (such as alternatives available)?

Inmost research, aggregated measures such as "durables" and "non-durables" have prevented the study of product-related impact on complaining behavior. Furthermore, most studies have been conducted in one culture (chiefly American), and thus cross-cultural evaluation of the findings has not been possible.


Figure 1 outlines the theoretical framework (for complaining behavior related to products and services) to be explored in this paper.

Here dissatisfaction/satisfaction is assumed related to various stages in the buying process. Perceived dissatisfaction may result in overt complaining behavior directed to the marketer (producer, retailer), to the consumer representative, and also towards other consumers (i.e. negative word of mouth). The consumer may apply various strategies and procedures in stating the complaints. Complaints directed towards the marketer or consumer representative may result in direct effects, such as replacement of a given product or price reduction, [This of course will be culturally bound and will include various legal restrictions.] but also may result in a negative outcome for the consumer. Feedback-loops are included, implying the possibility of a negative outcome in one channel, resulting in a new attempt in another channel, and allowing for modifications both between and within all the elements in the model. Four classes of exogenous variables (product, individual, social and structural related variables) - partly inspired from the literature on buying behavior (for overview cf. Engle et al. 1973) - may furthermore exert influence on the buying process, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, complaining behavior and the outcome of the complaint.




Two separate studies (survey of consumer complaining behavior, and a survey with users of the consumer agency were conducted in order to pursue some of the questions raised above.

Both studies were geographically restricted to the same area (in and around a medium-sized Norwegian town on the West coast). This design was partly chosen due to economic restrictions, but also was based on the modest fraction of all complaints usually directed towards consumer representatives, and that these are in no way representative of the consumers (Stokes 1974). By making use of a representative sample of consumers it is possible to obtain "--- a far more accurate picture---" (Day, Landon 1976, p. 264). The approach chosen does allow for comparisons between complaints in general and the actual use of consumer agencies.

Consumer Complaining Behavior

A sample was selected at random among households living in the area chosen. Data was gathered on use behavior and shopping habits, dissatisfactions, propensity to complain, channel, strategy, and outcome of complaints as related to a variety of durables (textiles, cars) and non-durables (milk, meat, coffee, vegetables).In addition, various information about the households (numbers and ages of the members, occupation and education of husband and wife, income, and place of living) were gathered by means of personal interviews. The interviews averaged 30-35 minutes. Two call-backs were made, and 178 interviews were completed of a total sample of 200 households. The housewife was chosen as the respondent, due to her traditional position and assumed insight with regard to activity in the household (for overview cf. Davis, 1976). [For specific information about Norwegian conditions, cf. Gr°nseth (1975).] The relevant variables, their measurement, and assumptions about scales are reported for both studies in Appendix A.

Besides ordinary frequency distributions and cross-tabulations, some parametric statistics such as pro-duct-moment correlations and discriminant analyses have been computed. In doing so the nominal scaled variables were transformed into "dummy" variables and treated as a "special case" in interval scale (cf. Blalock 1970, p. 499).

Users of the Consumer Agency as a Source of Complaint

In Norway the consumer agency (Forbrukerradet) has been very active, particularly the last five years or so. Besides the main office (in 0slo), local consumer agencies are situated in most counties (all together 19 offices). In 1975 the agency received 36,000 complaints. However, only a modest fraction (13%) of the complaints were written. Ail complaints are registered, but if a complaint is to he followed up by the agency, it has to be written. [The consumers may get valuable information and help through the contact with the consumer agency, not only for the purpose of complaining but also for help in the prepurchase stage of the buying process (for detailed information cf. Forbruker- og administrasjonsdepartmentet 1976, p. 44-45, 56-60).]



A local consumer agency is situated in the area selected. In 1975 the treatment of 152 written complaints were completed. Names, addresses and information about content of the complaints were obtained from the local agency. A questionnaire was mailed to the complainers, asking for information about strategy and sources of the complaints, besides information about various socio-demographics (number and ages of the members of the household, income and education). After one written call-back and in several cases motivating telephone calls, useable data were obtained from 92 complainers (i.e. 61.2%).


Dissatisfaction and Complaints

Table 1 summarizes the main findings with regard to dissatisfaction and complaining behavior:

(1) The percentage of the respondents perceiving dissatisfaction varies considerably across products (from less than 20% for milk to 60% for vegetables).

(2) Only a fraction of the dissatisfied consumers took action and complained. This fraction, however, varies across products.

(3) All the complaints reported in the sample were directed towards the dealer, which is due partly to the products chosen in the study and the structural elements of the distribution system. In other words, the dealer seems here to be perceived as responsible for the product (cf. findings re- ported by Kendall, Russ 1975; Day, Landon 1976).

(4) The portion of positive outcomes has to be characterized as high. However, considerable variations are observed across products.

(5) Changes in source due to dissatisfaction with dealer/supplier were observed, however, to a modest degree.

(6) It should also be noted that all complaints registered here can be classified as post-purchase complaints (cf. Figure 1).

(7) All the complaints reported can be related to the instrumental performance of the product purchased (cf. Swan, Combs 1976).






Below are reported dissatisfaction, propensity to complain and outcome by products and selected exogenous variables (cf. Figure 1).

As seen from Table 2, most of the correlation coefficients are reported very Low, explaining only modest parts of variations in dissatisfaction, propensity to complain, and outcome of complaints respectively.

When reading down the columns, interesting differences for the correlation coefficients may be observed between products. Restricting ourselves to look at dissatisfaction and age, the range is from r - .13 (coffee) to r = -.19 (vegetables), which may reflect variations in experience and perceived product importance (cf. Howard, Sheth 1969).

Education, income, white collar, and work outside home show highest positive correlations with textiles. These criteria are all related to social status (cf. Bauer 1966) and the results (positive correlations) may be interpreted as variations in experience and perceived importance placed on various products by different social classes (for overview cf. Engel et al. 1973, p. 148-158).

Looking at the propensity to complain, positive correlations are observed for the criterion "live in town" across all products, which may reflect such structural factors as more alternative sources and perhaps looser social ties (cf. also the results for outcome of complaint). Furthermore, the lowest correlations are observed among those who work outside the home, which may indicate alternative uses of time and higher opportunity cost for the complaining action.

When looking at positive outcomes for complaints, posi-correlations are found for education across all the products studied, which may indicate that this criterion (education) is related to specific capacities and strategies of problem solving (cf. Gr°nhaug 1974).


Are some individuals more apt to perceive dissatisfaction and complain than others? In other words, is it possible to trace specific-overlaps across products for perceived dissatisfaction and complaints? Based on the four food items, the observed and expected frequencies were computed for dissatisfaction and propensity to complain. However, the deviances between the observed and expected frequencies were not significant (dissatisfaction: p > .20; complaints: p > .25).

Discriminant analysis was also performed in order to try to profile the dissatisfied and complaining consumers. [A stepwise procedure was preferred due to interaction between some of the independent variables.] By using the criteria listed at the top of Table 2 as independent variables, [The independent variables in a discriminant analysis are assumed to be at least internal scaled variables. Here some of the variables are nominal scaled variables turned into "dummy" variables. It can be questioned whether the necessary requirements for performing a discriminant analysis are met in this way. However, a similar approach has been reported by several researchers (cf. Green, Tull 1975).] some improvements compared to correct classification by chance (cf. Morrison 1969) were found both for dissatisfied (43% yrs. 31%, p < .01) and complaining consumers (57% vs. 52%, p < .05). The improvements in correct classifications are rather modest, which partly follows from the low correlations reported in Table 2. Education, income and age were found to be the most discriminating factors with regard to dissatisfaction, while "work outside home" and "live in town" were the best discriminators with regard to the complainers.


As reported in Table 1, 100% of the complaints were directed to the dealer. No person in the sample had made use of the consumer agency for the products studied. Furthermore, all the complaints reported were personal/oral. This tendency to make the complaints oral is also reflected in the contact with the consumer agency.

By taking a closer look at the 92 complaints studied here, it was found that 78 complainers (85%) had tried to solve the problem by approaching the marketer before they contacted the local consumer agency. 46 (or 50%) of the complainers, had further stated the complaints orally before the complaints were made written in order to be followed up by thy consumer agency.

Figure 2 indicates that complaints in most cases are directed towards the seller/dealer (cf. the results reported in Table 1). In other words, the seller/dealer is perceived to guarantee the products bought by the consumer. In case of negative outcome, an oral/personal complaint may be addressed to the consumer agency. This contact may result in specific advice, such as to withdraw the complaint, [In a study reported by Lunde (1967, p. 100) more than 50% of the written complaints treated in 1962, were turned down by the Norwegian consumer agency.] or to state the complaint formally in order to be pursued by the consumer agency.

Two interesting traits emerged by examining the complaints:

(1) 32% of the complaints came from households where either husband and/or wife had higher education, compared to average for the area 15% [Based on the sample description of a national survey (Statistisk Sentralbyra 1975).] (p < .01). It should also be noted that similar results have been reported in a nation-wide survey (Statistisk Sentralbyra in 1970).

(2) A spatial monopoly effect was clearly demonstrated. The local consumer agency is meant to serve a given area. However, the office was used significantly more by people living close to its location (271 of the complaints compared to 14% of the population in the area (p < .01)).


The impact of the product both on perceived dissatisfaction and a propensity to complain was clearly demonstrated. Similar results have been reported in another cultural setting (cf. Day, Landon 1976), and have been corroborated by results reported by the national consumer agency (Forbrukerradet 1976). When taking a closer look at these results, a low fraction of the complaints (as compared to the fraction of living costs) was found for food, while relatively high fractions were found for furniture, household appliances, houses/ apartments, and vehicles. In other words, complaints seem to be clustered around complex products, high in unitary outlays, and probably high in perceived risk.

As reported in earlier research (cf. Warland 1975; Kendall, Russ 1975, Pickle, Bruce 1972; Day, Landon 1976), only a fraction of the dissatisfied consumers did take action and complained. When linking the results reported in Table 1 to a terminology proposed by Hirsch-man (1970), a change of source may be interpreted as "exit" (i.e. to stop buying), while complaining may be seen as "voice" (i.e. quarrel in order to increase the seller's performance). However, as also reported in Table 1, a large portion of the dissatisfied consumers neither made "voice" nor "exit," but remained "loyal," probably due to lack of relevant alternatives, lack of courage or lack of relevant information and knowledge (cf. Warland et al. 1975). A variety of effects on business may be traced by using these concepts:

(1) "Exit" may result in reduced sales and profits, not only to loss of the dissatisfied consumer, but also due to social interaction -- loss of potential buyers. If this signal is sufficiently strong, however, an improvement in performance may be ex-petted.

(2) "Voice" may result in improved performance, but may also create negative attitudes towards the seller (in particular if the outcome of the complaint is negative), and may motivate search for other alternatives.

(3) If the dissatisfied consumer remains "loyal," no direct signal may result in improved performance of the seller. However, due to social interaction this dissatisfaction may be transmitted [Day, Landon (1976) reported very high percentages (45% to 50%) for such negative word of mouth among the dissatisfied consumers who did take specific actions.] to potential consumers, and thus, if relevant alternatives exist, such indirect effects may result in loss of potential consumers.

Only modest variations in perceived dissatisfaction and propensity to complain for various characteristics such as age, level of education, and income were demonstrated in the study. Similar results with regard to complaints have also been reported in a nation-wide survey study (Statistisk Sentralbyra 1970), in contrast to the Warland-study (1975). The differences in findings may be attributed to such factors as social equality and the mapping of the basic phenomenon ("upset" vs. "dissatisfied").

The relatively high portion of position outcomes reported in Table 1 may also indicate that most consumers only are taking action when they are quite sure of a positive outcome. In other words, they are seldom willing to examine the border lines of their rights, and are thus losing.

Only a modest fraction of the complaints were directed to the consumer agency. Besides corroborating the results reported by Day, Landon (1976) and Kendall, Russ (1975), almost a stepwise complaining procedure involving contact with the marketer and oral and written contact with the consumer agency was demonstrated. Furthermore, persons with educational and spatial advantages were found most apt to use the formalized consumer agency channel. This may be due to several reasons, such as variations in products purchased, level of aspiration and self confidence; but may also be due to variations in knowledge about such channels (Thorelli 1971), and ability to approach and use this bureaucracy (cf. the requirement of written complaints). There may -- in this channel which may reproduce inequality in contrast to the expressed objective of equality among consumers (cf. Dep. for familie og forbrukersaker 1971).




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