Consumer Response to Dissatisfaction With Services and Intangibles

Ralph L. Day, Indiana University
Muzaffer Bodur, George Mason University
ABSTRACT - Although most previous research on consumer dissatisfaction has emphasized complaints and redress-seeking, dissatisfied consumers may choose a number of other options including boycotting the brand, warning friends, or doing nothing at all. This paper describes a field study of consumer dissatisfaction and reports on patterns of dissatisfaction over 73 categories of services and intangible products. Summaries of reasons for dissatisfaction and post-dissatisfaction responses are also given.
[ to cite ]:
Ralph L. Day and Muzaffer Bodur (1978) ,"Consumer Response to Dissatisfaction With Services and Intangibles", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 263-272.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 263-272


Ralph L. Day, Indiana University

Muzaffer Bodur, George Mason University


Although most previous research on consumer dissatisfaction has emphasized complaints and redress-seeking, dissatisfied consumers may choose a number of other options including boycotting the brand, warning friends, or doing nothing at all. This paper describes a field study of consumer dissatisfaction and reports on patterns of dissatisfaction over 73 categories of services and intangible products. Summaries of reasons for dissatisfaction and post-dissatisfaction responses are also given.


Increases in voiced complaints and redress-seeking have been both causes and effects of the dramatic growth of consumerism over the past decade. During most of this period a major source of information for consumer advocates, consumer protection agencies, and business firms has been tabulations of volunteered complaints. The users of complaint data have gradually become aware that the writers of complaint letters are not representative of all consumers and the particular items covered in complaint letters are not representative of the full scope of consumer concerns (Stokes, 1974). During the past few years, there has been a rapid increase in efforts to provide better quality data on consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction through survey research (Lingoes and Pfaff, 1972; Pfaff, 1972; Warland, Herrmann, and Willits, 1975; Handy and Pfaff, 1975; Day and Landon, 1975) and efforts to develop better conceptualizations of satisfaction and dissatisfaction (Hunt, 1977; Day, 1977; Day and Landon, 1977). This paper seeks to make a contribution to knowledge and understanding of this increasingly important aspect of consumer behavior and to take a step toward the development of better methods of obtaining data on the post-dissatisfaction behavior of consumers.

The results reported here were obtained as part of a survey research project which utilized a set of questionnaires developed in 1976 under a research contract with the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. The basic objectives and overall structure of the study were similar to those of a previous project which was begun by the senior author at the Federal Trade Commission in 1974; however, many changes in the details of execution have resulted from field experience with previous versions of the questionnaire.

The unique feature of the study design is its comprehensive scope. A single study can obtain general indications of levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction for almost 200 different product categories spanning the full range of consumer products and services. As respondents work through the sections of related product or service categories, they are asked periodically if they have had unsatisfactory experiences with items from any of the preceding set of categories. If the answer is yes, the respondent is asked to indicate the particular product or service with which they have had the most unsatisfactory experience, answer a battery of questions which probe for the sources of dissatisfaction, and provide information on any actions which might have been taken as a result of the unsatisfactory experience.

The survey was conducted in a single Midwestern city in the fall of 1976. A two-stage probability sampling plan was used to select approximately 600 dwelling units. Self-administered questionnaires were dropped off and picked up, and the overall response rate was approximately 80%. Four different questionnaires were assigned systematically over dwelling units. Three of these questionnaires covered different major categories of products or services; durable products, nondurable products, and services. The fourth questionnaire covered the entire range of products and services. The questionnaires which cover only one of the three major classes further divide the items into four sections and contain a probe for unsatisfactory experiences at the end of each of these. The combined questionnaire contains probes only at the end of each of the three major sections. Because of a concern that the longer combined questionnaire might have a lower completion rate, it was oversampled relative to the others. As a mild surprise, it turned out to have the highest completion rate. Usable responses were obtained from 125 respondents who got the separate services and intangibles questionnaires and from 171 respondents who were given the combined questionnaire.

Space does not permit the presentation and analysis of both sets of results or a complete comparative analysis of the effects of the increased opportunity to report unsatisfactory experiences on the pattern of responses. However, Table 1 reveals some of the differences in the pattern of reported dissatisfaction for the two questionnaires. A higher percentage of the respondents who had the separate services questionnaire named one or more instances of dissatisfaction (58.5% as compared to 39.8% of the respondents who had the combined questionnaire). Also, there were reports of dissatisfaction with items from a much higher percentage of the categories of services (67.1%) than the respondents who had the combined questionnaire (34.2%). Table 2 shows that the reported instances of dissatisfaction were more evenly divided over the four sections of the separate questionnaire, as compared with the corresponding groupings of the items in the combined questionnaire. These differences tend to support the expectation that separate questionnaires will provide a more sensitive indication of the pattern of consumer dissatisfaction.

Various alternative courses of action are available to consumers who have experienced dissatisfaction, ranging from doing nothing to suing a seller or manufacturer for millions of dollars in damages. The conceptual framework utilized in this study has been described elsewhere (Day and Landon, 1977). The dissatisfied consumer's options can be classified as follows:

A. Take no action at all--forget the experience.

B. Take some form of private action:

1) change brands or supplier

2) stop using the product class

3) warn family or friends

C. Take some form of public action:

1) seek redress directly from the seller or manufacturer

2) take legal action against the seller or manufacturer

3) register a complaint with; the seller or manufacturer, a public consumer protection agency, or a private consumer organization.

These alternatives, except for the "do nothing" response, can be utilized by consumers in various combinations. Further discussion of this framework and some results of previous studies are available elsewhere (Day and Landon, 1975).


This section will present and discuss the major findings from the separate services questionnaire. A brief description of the questionnaire will be helpful at this point. The 73 categories of services and intangible products are organized into four sections covering: repairs and general services; professional and personal services; financial services and insurance; and rentals, public transportation, and utilities. The sections were developed by grouping together those service items which are purchased and consumed in similar ways to form four sections of approximately equal length. The sections provide convenient units for retrospective probes for unsatisfactory experiences and the consumer's responses to them.

As in the other three questionnaires used in the present research project, the respondent works through each section of the services questionnaire one category at a time, first indicating whether or not any items from the category have been purchased within a specified time (the past two years in the case of services). Respondents who have made a purchase check a two point importance scale and a four point satisfaction scale ("always satisfied" to "always dissatisfied"). After they have completed the scales for all categories in a section, respondents are asked to look back over the section and indicate if they have had one or more experiences in which they were highly dissatisfied. If the answer is yes, the respondent then reports the number of unsatisfactory experiences with items from that section during the past two years and enters the number of the specific item which was "the most unsatisfactory." The respondent then checks any of 14 to 16 possible reasons for dissatisfaction with services which have contributed to dissatisfaction with that particular item. The reasons include statements such as "the service was provided in a careless and unprofessional manner." This is followed by a list of possible actions (including no action) that a dissatisfied consumer might take, based on the classifications of responses to dissatisfaction as outlined in the previous section. Data on the frequency of use of the various items and the frequency of "always dissatisfied'' response from the satisfaction scale will be presented below, along with summaries and discussion of responses to the items found to be "the most unsatisfactory.'' Discussion of the full satisfaction/dissatisfaction scale and the importance ratings for both the separate services questionnaire and the services section of the combined questionnaire has been presented elsewhere (Day and Bodur, 1977).

Frequency of Dissatisfaction

One of the advantages of using survey research to study the consumer's response to dissatisfaction versus relying on volunteered complaints, is that it provides data on all users of a product or service and not just the complainers. In particular, data from a sample of the entire consumer population provide a frame of reference for putting the complaints of dissatisfied consumers in perspective. At the simplest level, an estimate of the total number of consumers allows the expression of the number of dissatisfied consumers as a percentage of the user population and permits the comparison of levels of dissatisfaction among users over different products or services. If one simply used the number of complaints as an indicator of dissatisfaction, then a service used by a small segment of the population would never be recognized as a consumer problem even if practically all of its users were dissatisfied. Conversely, a very widely used service might appear to be a major consumer problem even though the rate of dissatisfaction with it is well below the average for all services.

The number of respondents who reported purchasing each of the 73 services included in the survey are shown in the first column of Tables 3-6, which cover the four sections of services. It can be seen that there is a wide range in the fractions of the sample using the various services. The number of instances of reported dissatisfaction for each kind of service in the four sections is shown in the second column of Tables 3-6. The percentage of users who were dissatisfied also varies widely. The highest rates of reported dissatisfaction for any of the 73 items occurred with services used by relatively small fractions of the sample; 21.1% of the users of employment agencies were dissatisfied and 20.0% of the users of nursing homes reported dissatisfaction (Table 4). These services were used by 15.2% and 4.0% of the sample, respectively. Other services with high rates of dissatisfaction among users but relatively small numbers of users included furniture rental services (Table 6) and septic tank services (Table 3). The highest percentage of dissatisfied respondents in any widely used category was 18.8% for auto repairs with 80.8% of the sample reporting a purchase within the past two years (Table 2). Auto repairs has headed the list of volunteered complaints for years, but some items with substantial rates of dissatisfaction but smaller user bases have not ranked high on complaint lists.

To determine if the extreme negative responses on the satisfaction scale (always dissatisfied) are predictive of the frequency of reported dissatisfaction provided at the end of each section, the two sets of responses were compared. Column 3 in Tables 3-6 contains the number of "always dissatisfied" responses for each item in the section. Spearman rank correlation coefficients between the two sets of responses in each section were as follows: repairs and general services (Table 3), rs = .91; professional and personal services (Table 4), rs = .83; financial services and insurance (Table 5), rs = .93; rentals, public transportation, and utilities (Table 6), rs = .96. All correlations were significant beyond the .001 level, suggesting that the responses reflecting extreme dissatisfaction on satisfaction/dissatisfaction scales for particular categories are predictive of reports of dissatisfaction.

Reasons for Dissatisfaction

Respondents who indicated that they had been highly dissatisfied with a particular service considered a list of possible reasons for being dissatisfied and were instructed to check all of the reasons which they felt applied to their unsatisfactory experience. If they checked multiple reasons, respondents were asked to indicate which one of the items was the most important. The reasons varied slightly in number and content over the four sections of services to reflect differences in the nature of the services and the circumstances of purchase and use. The wording of the statements, the number of times each was checked, and the number of times each was named as most important are given for each of the four sections in Tables 7-10. The number of instances of reported dissatisfaction varies over the sections with "repairs and general services" showing considerably more causes of dissatisfaction than the other sections. The average number of reasons given in a particular instance of dissatisfaction was very consistent over the four sections, and the overall average number of reasons given was 2.62.

The great majority of the reasons given for dissatisfaction were directly related to the quality of the supplier's performance. Because of the differences in the nature of the particular service items, several different statements were related to various aspects of the performance of the service. By far the most frequently mentioned reason for dissatisfaction was "The service was rendered in a careless, unprofessional manner." The percentage of those respondents reporting an instance of dissatisfaction who checked this item ranged from 58.3% for rentals, public transportation, and utilities to 84.6% for professional and personal services. It was also checked as the most important of the reasons for all four sections. The stronger indication of gross incompetence with harmful results was the second most frequently checked reason for dissatisfaction in the repairs and general services and the professional and personal services sections. Some reasons related to quality which were relevant for only one or two of the sections were important in those sections. For example, in the repairs and general services section, the third and fourth most frequent responses were "performance of the item was worse after the repairs than before" and "the quality of parts or materials was inferior."

Thc various possible reasons for dissatisfaction relating to marketing practices as opposed to "service quality" were checked very infrequently. The statements relating to misleading advertising, deceptive practices of salesmen, credit practices, and warranties were also checked infrequently. While there was some degree of concern about prices or fees, these were completely overshadowed by concerns with the quality of performance. A fraudulent practice related to the price or fee, "I was charged for work that was not done," was indicated in 19.2% of the instances in the "professional and personal services" section and in 19.4% of the instances in the "rentals, public transportation, and utilities" section. Similar reasons in the other two sections were checked somewhat less frequently.

The results shown in Tables 7-10 strongly suggest that the respondents who reported dissatisfaction with services were much more strongly concerned with performance or "service quality" issues than with marketing practices. Previous studies of tangible products have tended to show that aspects other than product quality play a more important role in voiced complaints. Although some of the data from the durable products and nondurable products sections of the present study have not been analyzed, the results of a previous study using an earlier version of the "combined" instrument used in this study suggested that marketing practices and price-related issues are somewhat more frequently mentioned for both durables and nondurables than for services (Day and Landon, 1976). This may be a reflection of the more direct and personal relationships involved in the purchase and use of many services than in the purchase and use of tangible products. Hopefully, the completion of the analysis of the present project and additional future research on the marketing of services will shed light on this and many other issues relating to services.

Post-Dissatisfaction Responses

In 29 of the 133 reported instances of dissatisfaction (21.8%), the respondent indicated that no action was taken. Although a detailed probe for reasons for these respondents' nonbehavioral response to dissatisfaction was not feasible, respondents were asked to indicate which of four possible reasons best explained why they had taken no action. These responses are shown in Table 11. None of the respondents checked the "procrastinator's response" of "I wanted to do something about it but never got around to it." The modal response was "I didn't think anything I could do would make any difference." This appears to reflect either a defeatist attitude or a pessimistic appraisal of the chances for successfully obtaining redress. With the possible exception of the "not worth it" response, it seems likely that better information and encouragement to seek redress might lead to a reduction in the number of no-action responses.

In 104 of the 133 instances, the respondent reported taking some action. A summary of reported actions is given in Table 12. A total of 250 actions were reported, an average of 2.4 actions per instance of reported dissatisfaction. These are classified as private actions, redress seeking, and complaining. The total number of actions of each of the three types are shown in the right hand column in Table 12. The distribution of the specific responses within each of the three types is shown in the body of Table 12. Private actions accounted for 46.4% of total actions and 81% of the private actions involved either changing to another supplier of the service or warning others. The remaining 19% reported that they had decided to quit using that service altogether. The public actions were equally split between redress seeking and complaining. Redress seekers primarily sought "replacement" (redoing) of the service or a financial adjustment. An overwhelming majority of the public complaints (80.6%) were directed to the company or professional person providing the service.

The results presented in Tables 10 and 11 suggest that while dissatisfied consumers take no action in connection with a substantial number of cases, approximately 80% of such instances do result in some form of action. More than 45% of the reported actions were of a "private" nature of the type that would never be brought to the attention of business firms, consumer advocates, or consumer protection agencies.


This paper has presented some of the results from a broader study of consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction and post-dissatisfaction response. The focus was on the post-evaluation responses from a comprehensive study of consumer services, using the data from a probability sample of 125 households in a single Midwestern city. The data include the total number of users of each of 73 categories of services as well as the number of instances of reported dissatisfaction for each category. This allows the evaluation of relative levels of expressed dissatisfaction among the various types of services. A classification of responses into nonbehavioral (no action), private actions, redress-seeking, and public complaining was applied to the results. It was found that in more than 20% of the instances of expressed dissatisfaction, no action was taken and that 46.5% of reported actions were of a private nature, such as boycotting the supplier or warning friends.

These results suggest that more complete and more readily interpretable data about levels of consumer dissatisfaction can be obtained by survey research then by keeping records of public complaints. The results also suggest that comprehensive studies of the entire range of consumer products and services are feasible and can provide useful data of a type that is not readily obtainable in any other way. The comprehensive survey shows promise as a diagnostic tool for identifying areas in which more detailed data are needed. It also offers considerable promise as a tool for consumer behavior theorists who wish to develop more complete models of the consumer's purchase, consumption, and evaluation process. Although the results reported here were from a rather small sample from a single city and cannot be freely generalized, they suggest the need for a large national study as a starting point for the development of a comprehensive data base on consumer satisfactions, dissatisfactions, and post-dissatisfaction responses.


























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