Behavioral Aspects of Customer Commitment



Citation:

Peter Weinberg (1998) ,"Behavioral Aspects of Customer Commitment", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 268-272.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 268-272

BEHAVIORAL ASPECTS OF CUSTOMER COMMITMENT

Peter Weinberg, University of the Saarland, Germany

1. CUSTOMER COMMITMENT AS AN OBJECT OF CONSUMER RESEARCH

In Germany, the interest in the concept of customer commitment is steadily increasing. Under expressions such as customer proximity (Albers 1989), relationship management (Diller 1995), customer commitment (Diller 1996, Meyer et al. 1995), customer-close business relationships (Gemnnden 1989), repeat purchase marketing (Hansen et al. 1992), customer satisfaction (Lingenfelder et al. 1991), or business relationships (Plinke 1989, Weiber et al. 1994), for example, the economic and psychological dimensions of the customers’ commitment are being examined.

The primary goal of the scholarly discussion is to answer the question of how customer satisfaction can be reinforced and stabilized as the basis of long-term business relationships. Areas of application are business relationships in the consumer sector as well as in the business-to-business sector, in which research angles range from the classic economic or behavioral science approaches to the neo-institutional economic approach. Thus, many diverse linguistic and methodical reflections about customers are being made.

When we examine the articles which are oriented towards behavioral science, we can see that they discuss the central concepts of psychic and ocial commitment on which lasting business relationships can depend. Involvement, commitment, trust and satisfaction (Diller 1996) are especially important in characterizing a customer commitment. The establishment of trust presupposes the willingness of the customer to become involved in a business relationship. At the same time, it often depends on the involvement, e.g., with regard to the product, the service or, above these, to the supplier.

Trust and obligation are closely connected with one another (Morgan et al. 1994, Moorman et al. 1992 and 1993) and are be considered important factors for the quality of business relationships because they support cooperative behavior. Within the relationship, trust also leads to harmony and stability which, in turn, strengthen the trust in the form of feedback (echo-effect). The inner obligation (commitment) of the customer can manifest itself as loyalty and express itself as customer loyalty (Weinberg 1977) within the business relationship.

Diller (1995, 1996), above all, is examining which psychic determinants influence customer commitment in addition to those mentioned above. For example, sympathy (emotional esteem), because of comparable values, and attitudes within the business relationship also count as such determinants. One can commit partners emotionally if they are handled generously and react with thankfulness. Or one attempts to address social motives (such as the we-feeling) with reinforced interhuman contacts. Here, we can appropriate the descriptive potential of consumer research (e.g., Kroeber-Riel et al. 1996).

Those articles which investigate the idea of reinforcing a long-lasting business relationship by "empathizing" with the partner (according to Diller 1994) or fostering the participation of the demander in the supply of the offerer (integrativity according to Engelhardt et al. 1995) are particularly relevant. According to this viewpoint, customer commitment not only depends on the supply itself, but also on the process of the supply. Thus, the dynamic character of a partnership, which requires permanent customer care, is particularly emphasized.

If we now reflect on these outlined descriptive approaches, we notice the lack of a systematology to arrange the multitude of the individual findings according to their relevance and value for describing customer commitment. My article will outline this systematology.

Taking up the classic typology of consumer research terms established by Kroeber-Riel et al. (1996), I will attempt to systematize the aspects of customer commitment in regard to behavioral science. During this I will differentiate between prerequisites for customer commitment on the one hand, as well as the determinants in behavioral science on the other. The article will be supplemented with psychic processes which explain the interactions within the business relationship and which could be the result of a successful customer commitment, as well as those processes which can be influenced via marketing.

2. ANCHORING CUSTOMER COMMITMENT IN THE BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES

2.1. Inner Commitment as the Core of the Definition

From the viewpoint of behavioral science, customer commitment is understood as a psychic construct of an individual’s obligation to and solidarity with another individual or business relationship. According to Diller (1996, p. 88) this psychic customer commitment expresses the desire for a lasting business relationship and also takes into account the willingness of the individuals to place themselves into this relationship trustingly.

This core definition also complies with daily speech to define interhuman relationships as a "we-feeling," which forms the basis of the desie for mutual solidarity. The psychic construct of customer commitment thus expresses

- emotions (or inner processes of arousal) and

- motivations (emotions with a cognitive goal orientation).

Thus, from the viewpoint of behavioral science, the expression of customer commitment should be assigned to the activating processes. We must now introduce the proven system of psychic variables (Kroeber-Riel et al. 1996, pp. 49) for the further analysis of customer commitment.

2.2. Customer Satisfaction as a Prerequisite for Customer Commitment

With the term satisfaction we mean the positive result of a psychic should-is comparison. Within this satisfaction an attitude expresses itself, namely, a predisposition to an individual or a business relationship (Kroeber-Riel et al. 1996, pp. 167).

The satisfaction of customers comprises their level of demand (in a "should-value") and, for example, manifests itself in complaints which are an important indicator for measuring customer satisfaction (Lingenfelder et al. 1991). In addition, satisfaction can be ascertained directly with the use of satisfaction scales or recorded with methods which concentrate on events and characteristics (Stauss et al. 1992).

For the behavioral analysis of customer commitment it is important to differentiate between

- the satisfaction with the trading results, and

- the satisfaction with the business relationship

The first case concerns a prerequisite for the construction of a stable customer commitment (satisfaction from an economic viewpoint), the second concerns the result of a successful customer commitment (satisfaction from the viewpoint of behavioral science). The following section will discuss the economic viewpoint.

Customers who are not satisfied with the trading result do not seek any customer commitment but, as changing customers, look for better business relationships. Therefore, for the analysis and description of the concepts of customer commitment, the economic satisfaction with the business relationship must be assumed as a given. Because of the current dominating circumstances on many markets such as

- market saturation, production stage and information overload

we are dealing with customers who are sooner involved on a low rather than a high level (Kroeber-Riel et al. 1996, pp. 90, pp. 389).

Therefore, from the marketing viewpoint it is not useful (and often not practicable) to activate low-involvement customers so that they turn towards the offer with a high level of activity for an extended period of time. It is exactly these low-involvement customers who can be approached with an emotional address (e.g., with communication) to strengthen the psychic customer commitment.

The construction and stabilizing of an emotional customer commitment can make use of proven social techniques which have been developed in the field of experience-marketing (Weinberg 1992). These help to establish a "hot" customer commitment to the business partner (as the result of a successful business relationship) (Diller 1996, p. 87).

2.3. Psychic Determinants of Customer Comitment

For the most part, customer commitment as a psychic construct is based on the need for interhuman integration in the sense of obligation and solidarity. The desire for commitment therefore expresses a general human drive, connected with a behavioral orientation (Kroeber-Riel et al. 1996, pp. 141).

2.3.1. Motivation and Attitude

We can formulate the human connection motive according to the motivation hierarchy of Maslow, who, as many know, arranged the human motivations according to their varying urgency for human behavior. According to this hierarchy, after biological needs such as hunger and thirst as well as the need for security, there follow the desires for affection, love and validity, namely, social motives which affect the embedding of the individual in interhuman relationships.

This idealistic viewpoint might not always be empirically fitting in the stringency shown above. It essentially depends on the relative satisfaction of the motives, and here experience shows that business relationships which are based on interhuman contacts are also subject to comparable connection orientations as in the private sphere, albeit in a more modified and weaker form.

If we expand the expression of motivation to include cognitive components, the customer commitment can be interpreted as a means-end interrelation: In their partners the customers see a fitting possibility (= cognitive interpretation) to satisfy their economic and personal desires. As a rule, this purpose-means awareness arises from learning processes.

Thus, the expression of attitude, which is also of fundamental importance for the description of customer commitment (Diller 1996, p. 83), comes to the foreground (Kroeber-Riel et al. 1996, pp. 167). According to the means-end analysis, attitudes are described as the subjectively perceived suitability of objects (this also includes people and institutions) to satisfying one’s own motivations (such as personally and economically successful business relationships). They therefore express subjectively, emotionally and cognitively sound judgments.

According to the three-component theory attitudes include, in addition to the affective (emotional and motivational) and cognitive components, a behavioral component as well: From the stronger positive or negative evaluation of the business partner or the business relationship follows the corresponding willingness to behave in a certain manner as a customer; e.g., to intensify customer commitment and increase partner loyalty.

If we follow this approach of the expression, the attitude to the business partner or the supplier organization which is behind the customer commitment can influence the business relationship itself: The more positive the attitude, the sooner a positive result (e.g., the willingness to repeat purchases) will occur. This connection is not, however, valid in an unlimited number of cases.

As a rule, in long-term business relationships the result-oriented involvement sinks under conditions as market saturation, product maturity and information overload. Situational influences such as pressure of time and financial restrictions can influence the current business relationship as well as the desired trading results. If no stable and distinctly positive attitude towards the supplier exists, then the current behavioral situation will influence the future customer commitment negatively.

The decisive factor, therefore, is how stable the attitude system within the business relationship is with regard to time. Customer commitments on the basis of surviving behavioral dispositions (attitudes) provide for the continuity of the behavior in the business relationship. This primarily applies to attitudes which carry the emotional anchoring and cognitive assessment of the business relationship, only secondarily for the assessment of the trading result. However, both attitude areas mut (at least in the long-term) be consistent with one another.

2.3.2. Values and Emotional Benefits

Many social researchers (e.g., Schulze 1992) see the increasing orientation towards emotional benefits as the fundamental change of values in today’s society. This is accompanied by a long-term increasing environmental consciousness in all affluent societies.

Individuals who orient themselves towards emotional benefits want to develop themselves emotionally. Their individuality is reflected in all areas of life: in the share of the responsibility for particular areas of life, in the increasing societal involvement and, last but not least, in the demand for products and services which depend on the personally structured business relationship. This value orientation can be understood as an expression of an overall trend for the realization of an individual lifestyle (Kroeber-Riel et al. 1996, pp. 113).

The orientation towards emotional benefits as a lifestyle is not to be confused with event orientation as substitute values in a superficial society (Weinberg 1992, pp. 21). The often-criticized "benefit density" does not replace any ethical belief systems. The search for emotional benefits can be combined with every system of ethics, and characterizes the individuality with which the immaterial and material values are formulated and subjectively perceived. The individuals in this society distinguish themselves by means of a communicative behavior which places them in the center of interhuman relationships.

This personal value orientation does not remain without consequences on professional business relationships and the commitment concepts which are constituted by them, especially communicatively. The motivation and attitude towards the endeavored customer commitment are thus eclipsed by value trends as to how business partners want to position themselves in the network of the relationship. We can therefore formulate the following hypotheses:

Lifestyle Orientation

Concepts of customer commitment with regard to the lifestyle in a society which is oriented towards emotional benefits C>

Emotional Benefit Orientation

Arranging business relationships according to their contribution to the individual quality of life C>

Customer Commitment

Loyalty in dependence on the lifestyle and value trends

This hypothesis incites us to attribute loyal behavior, as the expression of a stable business relationship, to the overall determinants of the societal orientation. Once again, we must state that such considerations require the satisfaction with the economic trading results. Only then can such commitment concepts develop.

These considerations are supported by an increasing "de-materialization" of consumption processes in the widest sense. The more self-evident and, therefore, also more exchangeable the performance results on markets with manifestations of saturation, product maturity, and information overload are, the more customers seek dimensions of interaction which express their personal feelings of value and self-experience.

The "private" and "professional" spheres of an individual or customer can then be increasingly combined. The daily role behavior becomes more consistent and receives a naturally individual touch in the business relationship as the expression of personality. Such a customer commitment which is oriented towards the societal trends in values and emotional benefits optially supplements the economic satisfaction with the trading result and the psychic satisfaction with the business relationship.

3. ASPECTS OF INTERACTION REGARDING CUSTOMER COMMITMENT

I have already mentioned the reciprocity of business relationships (Diller 1994, Engelhardt et al. 1995). In the following I will delineate the implications of this for understanding customer commitments.

According to Diller (1994, pp. 210-212) the communication in a business relationship can lead to different depths or rather "personal proximities" because of the differing levels of strong mutual "empathy" between the partners. Customer commitment, in the sense defined here, is thus emotionally strengthened by interactions which must be in accord with the psychic determinants being dealt with. Interactions in the sense of emotional care can strengthen the mutual value assessment in a business relationship.

Integrativity according to Engelhardt et al. (1995) does not emphasize the aspect of empathy so much as the involvement of a successor in the construction of performance in the sense of a "reciprocal contingency" (p. 37) which actually determines the business relationship. Thereby a strengthened commitment between the business partners arises due to the integrativity on the levels of process and potential. This theoretic aspect of interaction explicitly includes the longer-term business relationships in the business-to-business sector.

Both aspects of the business relationship (empathy or integrativity) can be reduced to fundamental patterns of interaction theories (Weinberg 1986, pp. 79) and can be applied to business relationships:

- The probability of a successful business relationship increases with the expectation of gratification which is considered sufficient because of the interactions.

- Communication within business relationships has a rewarding character if it contributes to the satisfaction of the customer and thereby stabilizes the business relationship.

- Business relationships are subject to social rules. If they contravene against these, e.g., with dissatisfaction, insufficient emotional integration, or careless leadership of negotiations, they negatively affect the values of the reward for the customer and reduce the likelihood of a long-term successful business relationship.

The customer commitment therefore depends on the mutual behavior of both partners in the business relationship. It can be controlled and influenced by fitting social techniques. Social techniques can be learned. Thus, the decisive factor does not depend on the characteristics, needs and interests of the business partners, but rather on their know-how regarding social techniques especially (Kroeber-Riel et al. 1996, pp. 529).

4. PSYCHIC CONSEQUENCES OF CUSTOMER COMMITMENT

From the multitude of possible psychic processes which can arise from a stable customer commitment, two particularly relevant consequences for business relationships should be examined.

Trust occurs when a business relationship is successful over a long period of time on the economic as well as the personal level. Here it is difficult to determine the roots of the perceived trustworthiness. They range from the physical appearance to social status (Kroeber-Riel 1996, p. 494) and, naturally, inlude the personal experiences in the business relationship.

According to Diller (1996, p. 89) trust, as the consequence of customer commitment, has numerous implications for the business relationship, among other things:

- Trust leads to harmony and stability, which produce trust in return (echo-effect).

- Trust reduces the complexity of the surroundings, and thus in the business relationship as well. It helps to concentrate the information process and decision-making process to the most essential points.

- Trust creates free spaces" within the business relationship, because a trustful customer commitment allows for situational adjustment processes and grants the partner more individuality as well as independence.

Loyalty is a further expression of customer commitment in the sense of inner commitment and can express itself in many ways, e.g., in loyal behavior to the business partner. Loyalty can be influenced in numerous ways, e.g., through the partner’s accommodation and openness, the exchange of confidential information, or through common interests in each other, among other examples (Diller 1995, 1996).

Loyalty is based on trust and expresses the willingness to maintain the business relationship trustfully in the widest sense and to remain loyal to it. Thus, behind this there is a psychic process of intensive customer commitment which also has declamatory consequences: One "stands by" his/her partners, regards them highly, and even declares support for them when the business relationship is subject to disturbances or changes.

The registration of loyalty is possible in many numerous ways (Reichheld 1993): on the one hand through observations of the customer loyalty, brand loyalty or business loyalty; on the other through polls, whether they are direct regarding the strength of the commitment or indirect with indicators. The satisfaction with the business relationship, experiences with the complaint management, or the intensity of the communication relationship also are to be considered, to name a few examples. The emotional components of the inner commitment constitute the decisive factor.

Loyal behavior is the economically most interesting consequence of a stable customer commitment. It expresses itself in the loyalty to the business partner, the company or offers.

From empirical examinations (see Weinberg 1977, 1992) we know that the loyal behavior

- increases with age

- is supported by the inclination to habits, and

- can be stabilized by an emotional conditioning.

In the form of customer loyalty, brand loyalty, or company loyalty the business relationship can be influenced positively with strategies of customer commitment (e.g., the influencing of trust and loyalty). Loyal behavior is strengthened when it succeeds in appealing to the "inertia tendency" within the feeling of commitment, in dependence on the orientation towards values and emotional benefits. One is even more loyal to an emotional relationship, the more the customer commitment, aimed directly at the person, fits to the individual’s value system.

5. IMPLICATIONS FOR MARKETING

The central starting points for the marketing of business relationships are the psychic determinants of customer commitment:

- The "we-feeling" of the customers is the expression of the desire for mutual solidarity with the business partner in whom they, within the ramework of the business relationship, sees the best possibility to satisfy their economic (and also personal) desires. It thus concerns the addressing of the emotions, motives and attitudes which influence the psychic customer commitment.

- The lifestyles and value trends of the customer, which help carry the customer commitment within the framework of the business relationship. It thus concerns the addressing of the value trends which are embedded in the psychic customer commitment.

The measures of these determinants which influence the customer commitment can be understood on two levels:

- On the level of objects we can combine all measures which concern the satisfaction with the economic success of the business relationship (e.g., by means of price policies, policies regarding terms and conditions, as well as regarding the product range) on the one hand, and the satisfaction with the business partners and their organizations on the other (e.g., by means of sales promotion and service policies which include special measures of personal customer care).

- On the communicative level it particularly concerns the strategies of influencing the emotions, in which area pictorial communication (Kroeber-Riel 1993) and emotional benefit marketing (Weinberg 1992) have contributed numerous empirically tested techniques. What counts here is, e.g., the addressing of the key emotional stimuli which on the one hand concern the motive and attitude systems of the customer commitment and, on the other, are anchored in the value system which also forms the basis of the business relationship.

Such a marketing orientation helps to stabilize the long-term business relationship. One reduces the misdirected investments in the area of communication, the service area, and during the formation of the business or the development of the product, to name just a few examples.

In conclusion I would like to present a short glance at the psychic consequences of the customer commitment from the behavioral viewpoint. It concerns the influencing of trust and loyalty to the supplier.

One can find offers especially in the articles on repeat purchase marketing (Hansen et al. 1992) which consider the questions of service, management of complaints, and communication. All starting points (often implicitly) wish to reinforce mutual, long-term business relationships in which trust, loyal behavior and confidence are stabilized.

In the center of the marketing directed towards this goal is the reduction of dissonance to maintain the satisfaction with the business relationship (not only with the trading result), a preventative communication to avoid "disturbing influences" as well as to reinforce the attitudes towards company loyalty and partner loyalty. Here, all of the instruments of marketing communication can play a role, such as intensive customer contacts via clubs, the media, events, etc. with which the business partner demonstrates its communicative competence and can address the inner commitment of its customers. Trust, loyalty and confidence, dynamic constructs of customer commitment, require continual maintenance in the field of marketing

SUMMARY

From the viewpoint of behavioral science, customer bonding is understood as a psychic construct of the obligation and solidarity of one person to another person or business relationship. This definition relates to daily speech, which defines interpersonal relationships as a "we-feeling," which forms the basis of a need for mutual solidarity.

The psychic construct of customer commitment can be attributed to activating processes such asemotions, motivations, and attitudes. The prerequisite is a stable satisfaction with the trading result to reinforce a satisfactory business relationship.

Customer commitment is also the expression of a lifestyle in a society which is oriented towards emotional benefits. The orientation of business relationships according to their contribution to the individual quality of life thus leads to supplier loyalty whenever loyalty is rewarded in the sense of lifestyle and value trends. Loyalty, trust and supplier loyalty are the central psychic results of a successful and stable concept of customer commitment.

From the viewpoint of marketing the special concern is how to influence these three processes. For this purpose we know a multitude of social technological instruments, on the objective as well as the communicative level, to stabilize a long-term business relationship.

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Authors

Peter Weinberg, University of the Saarland, Germany



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998



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