Dissatisfaction Attributions and Consumer Complaint Behavior

S. Krishnan, (student), University of Pittsburgh
Valerie A. Valle, University of Pittsburgh
ABSTRACT - An attribution theory framework is used to examine the impact of attributions about responsibility for post purchase dissatisfaction on consumer complaint behavior. An empirical taxonomy of complaint behavior is first developed and resultant types of complaint behavior are examined in the context of a framework of psychological distance of attributions about cause of dissatisfaction. Attributions were found to be an important mediator in the explanation of complaint behavior.
[ to cite ]:
S. Krishnan and Valerie A. Valle (1979) ,"Dissatisfaction Attributions and Consumer Complaint Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 445-449.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 445-449

DISSATISFACTION ATTRIBUTIONS AND CONSUMER COMPLAINT BEHAVIOR

S. Krishnan (student), University of Pittsburgh

Valerie A. Valle, University of Pittsburgh

[This study was supported by the Administration on Aging, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (Grant No. 5-38131).]

ABSTRACT -

An attribution theory framework is used to examine the impact of attributions about responsibility for post purchase dissatisfaction on consumer complaint behavior. An empirical taxonomy of complaint behavior is first developed and resultant types of complaint behavior are examined in the context of a framework of psychological distance of attributions about cause of dissatisfaction. Attributions were found to be an important mediator in the explanation of complaint behavior.

INTRODUCTION

The study of consumer complaint behavior is important from both a marketing management and a social welfare perspective. Consumer complaints constitute an important feedback mechanism for marketing management to monitor consumer satisfaction with their products and services. Non-complaint by dissatisfied consumers blocks off this feedback. Such a consumer may decide not to buy the product again or warn family and friends to avoid the product, which can be costly to the marketer. Without knowledge of the sources of dissatisfaction, management will be unable to change its procedures. From a social welfare perspective, it becomes important to study remedial action seeking behavior of disadvantaged consumer groups. Such an understanding is important for formulation of consumer protection legislations as well as plans for making consumer protection programs more effective.

Until recently consumer complaint behavior has been a relatively neglected area of marketing research. The main thrust of research in this field is reflected in Hunt (1977) and Day (1977). This material has been largely restricted to descriptive studies of different types of complaint behavior. These studies include empirical research on incidence of complaining behavior, relating demographic variables to complaint behavior (Granbois, Summers, Frazier 1977; Kraft 1977), analysis of records of consumer protection agencies (Liefeld, Edgecombe, Wolfe 1975), records of companies that have received complaint letters (Diener 1977), broader surveys of consumers (Warland, Herrmann, Willits, 1975; Gr°nhaug 1977). However, these approaches lack explanatory power and are insufficient to capture the underlying process resulting in complaint behavior.

Day & Landon (1977) outline the steps toward the development of a theory of consumer complaint behavior. Though their conceptualization delineates circumstances leading to consumer dissatisfaction, a broad typology of complaint behavior, factors influencing complaint behavior and a preliminary decision model of complaint behavior, no empirical evidence is cited to substantiate their theoretical framework. Landon (1977) has proposed a model of consumer complaint behavior where the major explanatory variables suggested are: dissatisfaction, importance, benefit from complaining, and personality. His formulation, however, remains largely atheoretical.

Systematic application of theoretical constructs is necessary for a better understanding of consumer complaint behavior. Attribution theory, which is concerned with the perceived causes of events, holds great promise as a relevant theoretical approach.

CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK

The basic premise of this paper is that attributions of responsibility act as a mediator between a consumer's reaction to a product and the behavioral response that follows. Certainly a consumer who feels dissatisfied because he or she was foolish when making a purchase will react differently than one who feels that the manufacturer is responsible for the dissatisfaction.

Most of the research relating attributions to consumer behavior has been rather loosely based on the theory developed by Harold Kelley (1967), such as the work by Settle and his associates (Settle 1972; Settle and Golden 1974). The problems associated with this early work have been summarized by Burnkrant (1975). The theoretical base for this paper is the two dimensional schema developed by Weiner et al. (1972), describing the possible attributions following an achievement situation. A success or failure can be attributed either to something about the actor (internally) or to something about the environment or situation (externally). In addition, the performance can be attributed to something which does not vary over time (stable) or to something which varies over time (unstable).

Attributions made when dissatisfied with a product or service can be fit into this two dimensional scheme (see Figure 1). For example, a person who believes he received a bad product because he does not have the ability to deal adequately in the marketplace is making a stable, internal attribution. Someone who feels dissatisfied because she didn't spend enough time shopping is making an internal, unstable attribution. The person who blames a bad product on the nature of the manufacturing company is making a stable, external attribution. Finally, perceiving that a product is a "lemon" (i.e., an unusual example of a poor product) is an unstable, external attribution.

FIGURE 1

EXAMPLES OF ATTRIBUTIONS FOLLOWING DISSATISFACTION WITH A PRODUCT

For achievement situations, it has been found that whether an attribution is internal or external effects a person's response to the situation. An internal attribution leads to more pride following success and shame following failures (Feather, 1967). In addition, an observer is more likely to reward or punish an individual who was perceived to be responsible for his/ her own success or failure (Weiner & Kukla, 1970). It is predicted that the type of attribution made about a product performance will affect the type of response made by the consumer.

Valle and Wallendorf (1977) report a pilot study using open ended interviews which investigated whether attributions about a product's performance fell into dimensions similar to those relevant for achievement situations. They found that the attributions could be coded into a locus of control dimension, but that it was more complex than simply internal versus external. They suggested a widened classification labeled "psychological distance from the consumer". At one end is an attribution to oneself (e.g., one's own shopping ability) which corresponds to an internal attribution. The other categories of attributions include (in increasing "externality") people known by the consumer (e.g., friends), the retailer and representatives (e.g., sales clerks or service personnel), the manufacturer, and the larger social system (e.g., laws, all manufacturers). They report that the type of action taken by a dissatisfied consumer tended to be consistent with the psychological distance of the attribution.

In this paper an empirical taxonomy of complaint behavior is first established and then the relationships between types of attribution of blame and types of complaint behavior is examined.

RESEARCH BACKGROUND AND METHODOLOGY

The data used in this study is part of a research effort investigating the consumer problems of the elderly with special focus on susceptibility to unfair marketing practices, information processing, perception of the market place, dissatisfaction and complaint behavior. A series of two mail questionnaires with structured questions were used as the primary data collection instrument. The questionnaires were developed through focus group interviews of senior citizens in a large metropolitan area and its rural suburbs. The first wave of mail survey had 2849 useable responses with 62.2% elderly respondents (i.e., over 65 years of age). The analysis includes only the first wave responses of the elderly consumers.

Respondents answered a series of questions regarding their "bad buying experiences". A bad buying experience was defined as any buying experience where the respondent had felt dissatisfied with the product or service, or had felt that he/she had been cheated or taken advantage of. After describing the product/ service involved in the bad buying experience and the nature of dissatisfaction encountered the respondents answered two questions regarding attributions of blame for the bad buying experience as well as the actions they took after the bad buying experience. Table 1 and Table 2 show the list of attributions of blame and complaint actions, respectively, used in these questions

TABLE 1

ATTRIBUTIONS FOR DISSATISFACTION

TABLE 2

ACTIONS FOLLOWING DISSATISFACTION

ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION

A principal components analysis was performed on responses to items in Table 2 regarding complaint behavior, to uncover the underlying structure of complaint actions. An eigenvalue of 1.0 was used to limit the number of factors extracted. Table 3 shows the varimax rotated factor loadings matrix. The stability of the factor loadings was checked by performing two independent factor analyses on odd and even sequence numbered cases and computing the Harman (1967) reliability coefficient. The reliability coefficient for the two split-halves was 0.86.

Factor Interpretation:

Factor 1 has the following characteristics:

- complain to family and friends following the bad buying experience

- decide not to buy the product or service again in future

- complain to salesperson involved in the purchase

This type of complaint behavior fits with Day and Landon (1977) classification of 'Private Action' and constitute actions that are non-assertive in nature. There is no attempt to involve public institutions.

Nor is there an attempt to seek direct remedial actions. This factor was accordingly labeled "Private Action Type".

Factor 2 has the following characteristics:

- hire lawyer

- consider legal alternatives to get remedial action

- complain to public agencies, senators, etc.

- stop payment to company involved

This form of complaint action concentrates on legal remedies with appropriate involvement of public agencies to support such legal actions. Accordingly, this factor was labeled "Legal Action Type".

Factor 3 has the following characteristics:

- complain to the company involved

- ask for refund or replacement

- complain to consumer agencies, etc.

- write complaint letters to newspapers

This type of complaint action involved direct confrontation with the selling company as well as 'Public Actions' to facilitate remedial actions. Since the main components of this factor include assertive actions to get remedial action after problem incidence, it was labeled "Remedial Action Seeking Type".

Factor 4 has the following characteristic:

- took no action at all following the bad buying experience

This factor was labeled "Non Complaining Type".

The above typology of complaint behavior has important implications for the study of consumer reactions to post purchase dissatisfaction in general. The influence of dissatisfaction attributions, type of dissatisfaction, consumer demographics on complaint behavior can be examined with respect to this empirical taxonomy.

A one-way analysis of variance was performed with each of the four types of complaint behavior being treated as the dependent variable and each of the attributions of blame (Table 1) as predictors. As per the conceptual framework developed, we can hypothesize that the mean score on Factor 4 should be significantly greater for those who made self attribution of blame when compared to those who did not make such an attribution. Similarly for those making external attributions, the mean on the first 3 Factors would be significantly greater than those who do not make such an attribution. Table 4 contains the results of the one-way analysis of variance.

For Factor 1 (Private Action Type) the mean scores for those who make external type attribution was found to be significantly greater than those who did not. It is interesting to note that in the case of self attribution the mean factor score for those who make such an attribution is significantly lower. Similar differences in means are observed for "Legal Action Type" factor and "Remedial Action Type" factor. In the case of "Non Complaining Type" however, the group mean for those who make self attribution is significantly greater.

TABLE 3

VARIMAX ROTATED FACTOR MATRIX

TABLE 4

ONE WAY ANALYSIS OF VARIANCE OF FACTOR SCORES FOR VARIOUS ATTRIBUTIONS OF BLAME

These preliminary results extend directional confirmation that attributions about cause of dissatisfaction act as important mediators in the explanation of complaint behavior. The analysis indicates that external attributions are necessary if any of the first three types of complaint behavior is to result and self attribution of blame, on the other hand, leads to non complaint.

The above analysis has examined only one of the factors, viz., attributions about dissatisfaction in the explanation of complaint behavior. Other factors such as individual consumer attributes, importance of purchase, characteristics of product/service involved, earlier history of bad buying experiences, social integration, awareness of information about consumer protection agencies and consumer rights, etc., would also influence the nature of complaint behavior. The influences of some of these factors is currently being examined with the help of the data base used in this preliminary study.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

The preliminary results reported in this paper indicate the importance of the use of an attribution theory framework for explaining consumer complaint behavior on post-purchase dissatisfaction. The empirical taxonomy of complaint behavior presented represents an important classification scheme for understanding and analyses of complaint behavior. Descriptive profiles of consumers (in terms of demographics and personality characteristics) who use one of these modes of complaint behavior as a dominant mode of reaction to post-purchase dissatisfaction would be of considerable interest to consumer protection agencies to design more effective programs and better implement current programs.

The relationship between attributions and complaint behavior has been examined using only the locus of control dimension of Weiner et al., (1972) framework by enlarging the internal-external classification. The other dimensions of stability-instability and intentional-unintentional if operationalized and incorporated could extend the explanatory power that has been achieved with the use of a single dimension framework. Additional research is needed for better operationalization of the 'psychological distance of attribution' and other dimensions of Weiner et al., framework in the development of a process model of consumer complaint behavior.

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