Country of Origin Effects on Expectation of Service Quality For Life Insurance Among Thai Consumers

ABSTRACT - This study investigates expectations of service quality toward life insurance across service brand origin, design origin, and nationality of service provider i.e., sales representatives. The effect of country of origin (COO) was measured against three dimensions of expected service quality, generated from empirical data. Results showed that brand origin and nationality have significant effects on expectations, while design origin has a minimal effect. However, COO effects seem to be specific dimension of expected service quality. Furthermore, nationality has the most relative importance for overall quality expectations, followed by brand, and design origin.


Krairoek Pinkaeo and Mark Speece (2002) ,"Country of Origin Effects on Expectation of Service Quality For Life Insurance Among Thai Consumers", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 295-301-.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 295-301-


Krairoek Pinkaeo, Bangkok University, Thailand

Mark Speece, Bangkok University, Thailand


This study investigates expectations of service quality toward life insurance across service brand origin, design origin, and nationality of service provider i.e., sales representatives. The effect of country of origin (COO) was measured against three dimensions of expected service quality, generated from empirical data. Results showed that brand origin and nationality have significant effects on expectations, while design origin has a minimal effect. However, COO effects seem to be specific dimension of expected service quality. Furthermore, nationality has the most relative importance for overall quality expectations, followed by brand, and design origin.

Country of origin (COO) has been investigated more than two decades. Al-Sulaiti and Baker (1998) review the substantial evidence attesting to the impact of COO on consumer evaluation of products. However, the effect of COO for services has rarely received much attention. Few COO studies are done on services, although trade in services is growing substantially, and will increase more in the future due to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Due to globalization, services from many countries compete in local markets, and a particular service can have more than one COO, i.e., branded in one country, designed in a second country, but delivered by personnel of another country. Thus, service could be multi-dimensional, just like products. How COO dimensions affect expected service quality will be a very important issue as service markets are more fully liberalized under World Trade Organization regulations. Potential customers will buy a service only if they think service quality meets or exceeds their expectations. Expected service quality is likely to be determined partly by COO perceptions.

Thailand is a good case study since the life insurance market in Thailand is currently being liberalized and the market has large potential for growth in the future. According to the Life Insurance Development Plan, the main goal is to increase the ratio of insurance contracts in the total population to 21 percent by 2002 (Sue Thurakit, 13 June 1996). However, the current rate is only 12 percent, compared to 16-18 percent in Malaysia, and 300 percent in Japan (Phujadkarn Raiwan, 5 September 2000). Thus, the market should grow rapidly at the same time as it is being liberalized. This study focuses on two main COO issues which will be important in the market. First, services may have multiple origins in the age of joint ventures and partnerships, and we investigate whether the effect of COO on expectations of service quality is partitioned. Second, the relative importance of each COO dimension on overall quality expectations is investigated.


The expectation of service quality is an integral part of service quality, defined as the desire of customers about what service should be offered (Parasuraman, Zeithaml & Berry, 1988). Boulding et al. (1993) summarized three definitions of expectations: (1) will expectation: what the service will deliver in the next encounter; (2) should expectation representing the normative standard: what the service should deliver in the next encounter; and (3) ideal standard expectations. Shah et al. (1999) defined the expected service as what potential customers expect the service will deliver.

Researchers have debated the exact number of dimensions of service quality, however, they seem to agree that service quality is multi dimensional. Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1985) determined ten dimensions of service quality, which then were combined into five dimensions: reliability, tangibles, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy (Parasuraman, Zeithaml & Berry, 1988). These five dimensions have been popular since SERVQUAL, the measurement tool of service quality, was introduced. However, other researchers have found a different number of dimensions from those proposed by Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1988). For example, Freeman and Dart (1993) found seven dimensions in accounting services, while Joseph (1998) found a different set of seven dimensions of service quality in higher education.

Carman (1990) recommended that the original ten dimensions for services in general, as proposed by Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1985), should be used in early research. Until the dimensionality in a particular industry is well established, the original ten can be analyzed to help uncover the dimensions specific to an industry. As there does not seem to be agreement, for this study, we started with the ten original dimensions of service quality proposed by Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1985), which we then combined by factor analysis based on empirical data. Expectation of service quality for this study is defined as what consumers expect service from a certain country should deliver.


Country of origin can attach to many different aspects of a service. For products, many researchers have confirmed effects from brand origin (Nes & Bilkey, 1993; Speece et al., 1994). Design origin is also distinct (Han & Terpstra, 1988; Chao, 1998). Performance of contact personnel has a major impact on customer perceptions of service quality (Goud-Williams, 1999). Basic things such as dress (Solomon, 1985) and manner (Berry, Zeithaml & Parasuraman, 1985) influence perceptions of service contact personnel. For the COO effect of nationality, McGee and Spiro (199 1) found that customers in industrial markets perceived Japanese salespeople as more friendly and likable than US salespeople. Indian salespeople were perceived to be more professional and likable than those from the US.

For this study, country of brand refers to the country where consumers perceive the brand originated, country of design is the country in which the insurance policy is designed, and nationality is of sales representatives. In earlier work, Pinkaeo and Speece (2000) show that consumers hold higher expectations toward life insurance policies associated with brand, design, or nationality of sales representatives from developed countries, compared to COO of newly industrializing countries (NICs), or developing countries.


Familiarity and price have frequently been found to affect both COO and expectations; thus, they are included as control factors for this study. There are two views about the effect of product familiarity on COO. First, consumers may use COO to evaluate product quality when they lack product information, i.e., COO is a proxy to fill in their gap in knowledge (Eroglu & Machleit, 1989). In the second view, COO becomes a summary construct when consumers have extensive product class knowledge and actually have substantial experience with products from some countries, so that they can use COO for quality perceptions (Han, 1989). Familiarity also affects service quality expectations (Clow & Vorhies, 1993), but its effect in the context of COO has not been investigated.

Price is a moderator of COO. Zain and Yasin (1997) found that COO has a greater impact on expensive than on inexpensive goods. A high priced product requires high consumer involvement that encourages the importance of COO. Price can also affect expectations of service quality. Customer expectations could be higher at higher prices, because of perceived association with better quality (Parasuraman, Zeithaml & Berry, 1991).


Although our research did not address ethnocentrism directly, results are likely to be influenced by ethnocentrism. Levine and Campbell (1972) defined consumer ethnocentrism as consumer preference for domestic products. For example, Japanese consumers evaluated domestic products more favorably than they did US products, regardless of objective quality scores (Gurhan-Canli & Maheswaran, 2000). Ethnocentrism has only occasionally been studied in services. Bruning (1997) found that Canadian consumers with strong ethnocentric tendencies prefer their national air carrier to foreign ones. Pinkaeo and Speece (2000) found that Thai consumers consistently hold higher expectations toward life insurance for brand origin, design origin and nationality of service providers associated with Thailand than is consistent with Thailand's objective place in the economic development hierarchy.


The study started with three pilot surveys and one expert opinion pilot. The first pilot was undertaken to confirm that Thai consumers perceive life insurance as a high involvement service, in which COO image is likely to play a real role. Two other pilots established the general hierarchy of country images and realistic price ranges for insurance policies, from which levels were chosen for the main study. From the hierarchy, the USA and Thailand were each selected as levels for brand, and design origin. The USA, Thailand, and India were chosen for nationality of service providers. Each of these countries was apart from one another substantially and significantly, so each of them could have images distinct enough to show the COO impact. Realistic price ranges which consumers still might consider to buy are Baht 10,000 for low annual premium, and Baht 21,000 for high annual premium.

A fourth expert opinion pilot asked industry experts, marketing managers from ten life insurance companies, to help select and adapt previously published measures of expected service quality on the ten service dimensions to life insurance. Questionnaire items were used only with strong consensus that the item actually measured the dimension. Communication, courtesy, reliability, and tangible each used only one scale item, while the other six service dimensions each used more than one item.

The three COO dimensions and price constitute 24 different combinations (2 x 2 x 3 x 2). To reduce the answering task for respondents, between-subject design was implemented with 24 versions of the questionnaire covering each of the combinations. Each questionnaire was composed of three parts. The first covered consumer expectations toward the insurance policy, measured by the items representing the ten service dimensions. The second part was service familiarity. Both expectations and familiarity were measured by a 7-point scale. Double back translation was used (English to Thai and back to English), and no discrepancy between the two English versions of the final questionnaire was found. Then the questionnaire was tested to investigate the potential problems in the research due to the clarity, the wording, and the format of questionnaire.

This study focused on Thai consumers of middle class or up. (Marketing research firms define consumers with household monthly income over Baht 20,000 as middle class or up.) This could include people whose individual monthly income is Baht 10,000 if there is another working person in the household, which is very common in Bangkok. The data were gathered from students in evening programs at graduate schools in ten universities in Bangkok. Of total 889 respondents, all are classified as middle class or up by our standards. Sixty percent had already bought life insurance. About 43 percent are male and the average age is between 31 and 40 years. All of them are working, mostly for private companies.

Follow up Study

A follow-up conjoint study examined the relative importance of the COO dimensions and price on overall expectations of service quality. Eight of the 24 combinations were sufficient for an orthogonal design from which partworths and weights could be calculated. Each profile was printed on separate cards and the order of cards was randomized. Two different random orders were used to counteract the order effect when respondents were asked to rank cards. The target population was the same as those previously identified in the main study. One hundred and forty nine evening MBA students from another university, not in the main survey, participated in this study, so none of these respondents were in any of the earlier surveys. The number of men and women was almost equal. Eighty percent had bought life insurance. Most respondents work at private companies and average of 37 years old. All are middle class or up, and about 50 percent have monthly income more than Bt. 40,000.


Factor analysis of the questions representing the original 10 dimensions generated only three factors, which accounted for 67 percent of total variance (Table 1). The first factor was labeled "contact personnel performance" since all items seem to relate to the service performed by contact personnel individually. The second factor was named "customer financial concerns", which relates to customers' confidence in and satisfaction with the policy. The third factor that is relevant to tangible things and is called "tangible". Factor scores for these three dimensions of expected service quality were used for further analysis of COO effects.

Partitioned COO Impact on Expectation of Service Quality

The effect of each COO dimension on consumer expectations of service quality was investigated by Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA), Analysis of Variance (ANOVA), and nonparametric tests. Results showed that generally, consumer expectations are significantly affected by brand origin, nationality of sales reps, and service familiarity, but the effect is dimension specific for service quality (Table 2). Design origin and price have a very weak impact, found by the non-parametric tests (Table 3). No interaction effects among brand country, design country, arid nationality of sales reps were found. It seems that effects of one COO can not add or cancel out another COO. Price is apparently not a moderator of COO for services, which is different from COO for products. On the other hand, service familiarity may change quality expectations toward life insurance with different brand origins.

Country of brand has significant impact on consumer expectations. Consumers expect that US life insurance has better quality than Thai life insurance. Usually, consumers use brand in their evaluation of product; thus, brand origin, a part of brand, is likely to show the impact on consumer expectations. However, the effect seems to be service dimension specific. Only contact personnel performance and tangible are significantly affected by brand origin. These results are partly consistent with data reported in Pinkaeo and Speece (2000). Consumers might use country image of brand to form their expectations for the dimension of contact personnel performance, but ethnocentrism causes higher consumer expectations for tangible toward a Thai brand than a US brand.



Design origin shows a minimal effect detected by the nonparametric tests. Consumers are likely to have consistently higher expectations for insurance policies designed by Thai insurers across all three dimensions than those of US insurers. However, these different expectations are so small that they cannot be found by MANOVA. These results seem not to follow the hierarchy of country image shown in Pinkaeo and Speece (2000). The possible reason is a context specific COO. Since more information about a specific insurance policy was provided in this study, general COO become weaker but ethnocentrism may not be weaker. In addition, these differences could be explained by a service specific ethnocentrisni, just as service specific COO. Consumers may believe that policies designed by local insurers can better serve local needs.

Nationality of sales reps has significant effect on consumer expectations of service quality only for contact personnel performance. Life insurance is a high contact service for which the sales reps could play an important role in consumer expectations. McColl-Kennedy and Fetter (1999) noted that consumers seem more likely to seek advice from industry people and sales reps for life insurance compared to several other relatively high involvement services. This could make the role of sales reps a more critical factor than with many services. Consumers who have not yet bought life insurance are likely to rely on sales reps as a major source of information before purchase and most of their time could be spent on consulting them. Even after purchase, sales reps still act as contact personnel when consumers have problems or claims, and when they want to repurchase. Thus, consumer expectations for life insurance could partly depend on their perceptions toward sales reps, including their nationality.

Since nationality of sales reps contained three levels (US, Thailand, and India), a post hoc test was utilized. For contact personnel performance, consumer expectations for policies sold by Thai, US, and Indian sales reps are significantly different from each other. (For US/Thailand, sig.=.085; for US/India, sig.=.00 1; and for Thailand/India, sig.=000). Thai sales reps have the highest consumer expectations, followed by US, and Indian sales reps. These results seem not to consistent with Pinkaeo and Speece (2000). Like consumer expectations for country of design, those for nationality of sales reps are likely to be affected by ethnocentrism. If the quality of service requires high information transfer, consumers may believe that a native speaker can do it better

Price has a very small effect on consumer expectations, detected only in the non-parametric test. This is inconsistent with previous service studies which indicate that price has a significant relationship with quality expectations. Probably, the proportion of non-buyer to buyers may cause the insignificant effect of price. Without buying experience, non-buyer could not distinguish the relationship between price and quality expectations clearly. However, the non-parametric tests showed that higher annual premium is likely to decrease consumer expectations across all three dimensions. Probably, the price-quality relationship has a threshold. This could happen for life insurance, for which buyers usually compare their investment and return. When consumers believe that the return is lower than they expected (i.e., too high price), their expectations for quality of life insurance are likely to decrease. Another reason may be perceptions of price gouging. If customers believe there is no additional quality at higher price, this makes the policy less attractive.





For service familiarity, consumers with a high level of service familiarity have different expectations from those with a low level of service familiarity significantly. Generally, they have relatively high levels of familiarity (mean=4.45 and std.=1.58) since 60 percent of them already bought life insurance. They can be divided into two groups by two levels of familiarity, high familiarity and low familiarity. (The level of service familiarity was defined by using the median of 4.00 as a cutting point; below and equal to 4.00 for low familiarity with n=405, and above 4.00 for high familiarity with n=484). Consumers with high familiarity level have higher expectations than those with low familiarity level. Consumers are likely to require better service for all three dimensions when they have better knowledge about life insurance.



Relative Importance of COO Dimensions

The follow-up conjoint study was conducted to examine the relative weights of each COO dimension and utility values for each country. Results showed that nationality is the most important factor, followed by price, brand, and design origin (Table 4). In addition, the range between Thailand and US for sales reps is bigger than for brand and design origin, showing that nationality is more important than brand and design origin. As mentioned in discussing the main study, life insurance is a high contact service for which the sales reps could play an important role in customer expectations. Thus, customers may pay much attention to any aspect of sales reps, including nationality, which may be used to form their expectations of service quality. Consumers reported a higher utility value for life insurance policies with Thai sales reps than for those of American or Indian sales reps. These results could be explained by ethnocentrism.

Price is second behind nationality in importance. Customers also consider the annual premiums when they form expectations toward life insurance. High annual premium is likely to decrease consumer expectations. Since the nature of life insurance is a kind of investment, customers have to make a comparison of investments; i.e., annual premiums with financial return. Whenever the annual premium is higher than their expected break-even point, the quality of life insurance is expected to be lower. Another reason is price gouging, indicating that annual premiums increase, while it has no additional quality.

Brand origin has similar relative weight to design origin. The utility scores indicate that life insurance policies with US brand have higher consumer expectations than those with Thai brand. Consumers are likely to use country image of brand to form their expectations. For country of design, life insurance policies designed by life insurers from Thailand encourage consumers to form higher overall quality expectations than those done by life insurers from the USA. As mentioned, Thai consumers probably perceive that local life insurers have a better understanding of local needs than foreign insurers do.


The results from this study suggest several business implications for the promotion policies of life insurance firms from Thailand or other countries which are likely to enter the life insurance market in Thailand. Promotion efforts can either emphasize or downplay origin in either nationality of sales reps or brand. This would depend on the favorability of the image of that country among Thai consumers. Further, to increase overall expectations, promotion should highlight the specific dimensions of expected service quality which are significantly influenced by COO dimensions. On the other hand, promoting the design origin is likely to get only minor benefits since COO effects on design origin of insurance policies are very minimal.

Either Thai life insurers or foreign life insurers from a country with a higher or lower country image relative to Thai country image may use Thai or foreigners as sales reps. (Foreign sales reps might be allowed to sell life insurance when the life insurance industry is fully liberalized.) However, promotion efforts should emphasize Thai sales reps and highlight such service quality dimensions as contact personnel performance which seems to be a major part of service quality delivery. Thai ethnocentricity toward Thai sales reps will improve consumer expectations. On the other hand, promotion efforts stressing foreign sales reps could decrease consumer expectations, especially the sales rep from a country with an unfavorable image. However, recruiting only foreign sales reps is probably not practical in Thailand, anyway, except perhaps some niche segments.

Besides nationality of sales reps, brand origin affects Thai consumer expectations for life insurance. When foreign insurers from a country with a more favorable image enter the Thai life insurance market, they can take advantage of their brand origin. Some care has to be taken in applying these general recommendations, as not all countries with highly favorable images are exactly equal in consumer expectations. For example, a brand from one country with high favorable image should not go head-to-head against that from another country with an even higher favorable image in building on brand origin image. In general, though, a promotional message stressing that a brand originated from a country with a more favorable image can improve consumer expectations.

In contrast, foreign insurers from countries with a less favorable image should downplay or give no clue to actual brand origin. Alternatively, they may use a new brand name for the Thai market. Choosing a brand name that sounds as if it comes from a country with a more favorable image can help to increase consumer expectations. On the other hand, a brand name that sounds as if it is from a country with a less favorable image should be avoided.


Partitioned country of origin (COO) studies are relatively well established on products, but whether similar results could be found in services has not been confirmed. Thus, this study investigated the effect of brand origin, design origin, and nationality of service provider (sales representative) on consumer expectations of service quality. Price and service familiarity are control factors. Three major results are found. First, COO dimensions have significant effects on consumer expectations, but different magnitudes. Brand origin, nationality, and familiarity have significant impacts while design origin and price seem to show very minimal effect. For brand origin, consumers are likely to have higher expectations for insurance policies associated with brand from more favorable image country than those from less favorable image country.

For design origin and nationality, consumer expectations tend to be affected by ethnocentrism. Insurance policies with Thai design or Thai sales reps have higher quality expectations than those with US design or American and Indian sales reps. Thai consumers hold higher expectations toward life insurance associated with Thai design / Thai sales reps than is consistent with Thailand's objective place in the economic development hierarchy. If the quality of service requires high information transfer and good understanding of local needs, consumers may believe that local contact personnel can do it better.

Second, service quality expectations are multi dimensional and the different dimensions are likely to show COO effects differently. Results showed that COO effects are dimension specific on service quality. Brand origin affects contact personnel performance and tangible, while nationality has significant impact only on contact personnel performance. Price seems to affect customers' financial issues; only minimally, it is not significant in the MANOVA. On the other hand, all three dimensions of consumer expectations are significantly different by service familiarity.

Finally, sales reps play an important role in service quality delivery for life insurance; thus, consumers tend to use their nationality as cues for quality expectations. Results show that nationality of sales reps carries the largest relative weight. The next relative important feature is price, then followed by brand and design origin. In summary, these results are not fully consistent with COO on products due to the distinguishing characteristics of services, but generally, it seems that much of the COO effects established for products is also valid for high level services.


Some limitations should be mentioned. First, only country of brand, country of design and nationality of service providers are investigated in this study; thus, other combinations of COO dimensions on services could have different results. Secondly, it was conducted in Thailand, so the results may not be generalizable to respondents in other countries, especially on issues of consumer ethnocentrism which are quite likely to differ across countries of respondents. Thirdly, other services are likely to generate different results, especially the effect of nationality of service providers. Personal contact is not very important for low involvement services.

Accordingly, further research on COO in services should extend to other COO dimensions, other countries, and other services to investigate how far these results could be generalized. Next, this study includes India in levels of nationality, which is likely to affect the weight of importance for nationality of service providers because the pilot indicated that India is perceived as a country with an extremely low image. This study chose this design to more accurately reflect likely market scenarios, but these results need confirmations in future research.


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Krairoek Pinkaeo, Bangkok University, Thailand
Mark Speece, Bangkok University, Thailand


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2002

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