Behavioural Consequences of Customer Loyalty on Complaining Behaviour
Alexandra Zaugg, Natalie Jäggi, University of Bern
The influence of customer loyalty on complaint behaviour has rarely been studied to date.
However, for effective service recovery, it is imperative to know who ends the relationship
and who complains to the company. This paper provides a framework on how three loyalty
types react to a critical incident causing dissatisfaction. Truly loyal customers are expected to
complain instead of leaving, whereas disloyal consumers will prefer to choose exit.
Considering loyalty for explaining complaining behaviour will support managers in develo-
ping effective customer care concepts as well as focusing on the most valuable customers, the
truly loyal and profitable ones.
Customer loyalty is a key concept whose importance is widely acknowledged by academics
and practitioners (Agustin and Singh, 2005, p. 96; Caruana, 2004, p. 256; Eggert, 2000, p.
119; Peter, 1999, p. 1030). Loyal customers are said to have a positive attitude towards the
company as well as to be less price-sensitive and less inclined to switch provider (Caruana,
2004, p. 256; Eggert, 2000, p. 122; Jones and Farquhar, 2003, p. 72; Staack, 2004, p. 68).
This has a positive effect on a company's profit (Caruana, 2004, p. 256; Jones and Farquhar,
2003, p. 72; Reichheld et al., 2000, p. 135).
But up to now, customer loyalty as a determinant for consumer complaint behaviour (CCB)
has hardly been studied, though a triage by loyalty types may explain customer reactions to a
critical incident causing dissatisfaction. So far, the overwhelming part of research has focused
on the antecedents of customer loyalty (Crié, 2003, p. 72; Eggert, 2000, p. 119; Herrmann et
al., 2000, pp. 293; Homburg et al., 2003, pp. 103; Jeker, 2002, pp. 104; Peter, 1999, pp. 1033;
Strauss and Hill, 2001, p. 71). Therefore, this exploratory study will gain first insights into
customer loyalty as an antecedent for CCB. The basic assumption underlying this study is that
loyalty has attitudinal and behavioural consequences (Aspinall et al., 2001, p. 81; Caruana,
2004, p. 259; Thatcher and George, 2004, p. 245).
Identifying customer loyalty types will support management in developing effective customer
care concepts, e.g. provide special services for profitable and truly loyal customers or turn
spuriously loyal into truly loyal customers. As a result, customers would defect less, spread
more positive word-of-mouth and be accessible to cross-buying.
The next section will provide a brief literature review on the key construct customer loyalty.
Subsequently, the behavioural consequences of customer loyalty on complaint behaviour will
be outlined for the two complaint responses exit and complaint to the company. The methodo-
logy section presents how the hypotheses will be tested. Finally, the paper will be concluded
with the limitations and the managerial implications of the framework.
Literature Review: The Concept of Customer Loyalty
There are numerous definitions and terms for the concept of customer loyalty, e.g. customer
retention, commitment or customer bonding (Dick and Basu, 1994, pp. 99; Diller, 1996, pp.
81; Gounaris and Stathakopoulos, 2004, p. 283; Oliver, 1999, p. 34; Peter, 1999, p. 1030;
Thatcher and George, 2004, p. 245). However, most conceptualizations include at least one of
the following three dimensions:
• perspective: corporate and customer
• time: past and future
• nature of loyalty: true and spurious
In a corporate view, customer loyalty (often named customer retention) consists of all measu-
res taken by the company to strengthen the customer-company-relationship (Diller, 1996, p.
82; Eggert, 2000, p. 120; Homburg and Bruhn, 2003, p. 8; Gerpott, 2000, p. 24). Whereas in
the customer perspective, it refers to the customer's attitude to the relationship with a provider
/ brand / product (Jones and Farquhar, 2003, p. 72; Thatcher and George, 2004, p. 244), which
inter alia becomes evident by the willingness to repatronize (Dick and Basu, 1994, p. 100;
Diller, 1996, p. 83).
On the subject of time, customer loyalty is often conceptualized as past buying behaviour and
/ or repurchase intentions (Hong and Goo, 2004, p. 534; Jones and Farquhar, 2003, p. 72). Be-
cause intentions are not always a reliable indicator for actual future behaviour, the buying hi-
story (if available) and the behavioural intents are frequently combined (Gerpott, 2000, pp.
28). In addition, the cross buying potential and the intention to recommend may complete the
set of indicators (Eggert, 2000, p. 120; Gerpott, 2000, p. 30).
Nature of loyalty is implicitly or explicitly taken into consideration in most definitions (Dick
and Basu, 1994, pp. 99; Diller, 1996, pp. 81; Gustafsson et al., 2005, p. 210; Jones and Farqu-
har, 2003, p. 72; Peter, 1999, p. 1030). Basically, there are three types: disloyal, spuriously lo-
yal and truly loyal. Disloyal customers have no ties whatsoever with the provider (Gounaris
and Stathakopoulos, 2004, p. 286), whereas spuriously loyal customers depend on their provi-
der due to switching barriers, i.e. they are “trapped” (Aspinall, et al., 2001, p. 79; Bliemel and
Eggert, 1998, p. 41; Gustafsson, et al., 2005, p. 211; Plinke and Söllner, 2003, p. 68; Staack,
2004, p. 68). Though spuriously loyal customers may be dissatisfied, they must maintain the
relationship, which results in a neutral or even negative attitude towards the company (Eggert,
2000, pp. 126; Staack, 2004, p. 69). Thus, they are less inclined to recommend the company
in question or to cross-buy.
Conversely, truly loyal customers are positive-minded towards the company, they feel an in-
ner commitment (Diller, 1996, p. 88; Gounaris and Stathakopoulos, 2004, p. 284; Gustafsson,
et al., 2005, p. 211; Müller, 2004, p. 156). True loyalty can be defined as „[…] a deeply held
commitment to rebuy or repatronize a preferred product/service consistently in the future, the-
reby causing repetitive same-brand or same brand-set purchasing, despite situational influen-
ces and marketing efforts having the potential to cause switching behavior.” (Oliver, 1997, p.
392). Thanks to their conviction, truly loyal customers do not consider switching supplier
(Oliver, 1999, p. 37; Staack, 2004, p. 68; Thatcher and George, 2004, p. 245). Additionally,
they often buy other products / services from the provider and do recommend it to their
friends and relatives (Eggert, 2000, p. 127).
For this study, the nature of loyalty is a key dimension. We hence define customer loyalty as
customer attitude towards the supplier, which is reflected in past repatronage and future repur-
chase intentions. Both behavioural and attitudinal consequences of customer loyalty are diffe-
rent for spurious and truly loyal customers. We assume that mainly the type of loyalty is deci-
sive for explaining behavioural differences, not the degree of loyalty within these categories,
and suggest that different types of loyalty choose different complaint patterns.
Having outlined the key concept for the study, the following section will present our proposi-
tions of how customer loyalty may influence the propensity to end the relationship and to
complain to the company.
Complaining Behaviour Varies over Different Loyalty Types
The better a company has dealt with a complaint, the higher the complaint satisfaction and
thus, the more likely true customer loyalty will be. According to the recovery paradox, the
successful resolution of a complaint may even lead to a higher overall satisfaction than before
the critical incident (Homburg and Fürst, 2003, p. 3; Jones and Farquhar, 2003, p. 74; Smith
and Bolton, 1998, pp. 69; Stauss and Seidel, 2004, p. 28). Given that many authors consider
(complaint) satisfaction as a key antecedent for customer loyalty (Boshoff, 1999, p. 247;
Homburg and Fürst, 2005, p. 27; Hong and Goo, 2004, p. 536; Lapidus and Pinkerton, 1995,
p. 107; Morganowsky and Mayer Buckley, 1987, p. 225; Yim et al., 2004, p. 268) and CCB is
triggered by dissatisfaction, we suggest that customer loyalty also directly influences the
course of action taken after a negative critical incident, a hitherto rarely examined hypothesis
(exceptions are Dick and Basu, 1994, p. 100; Forrester and Maute, 2001, p. 226). Basically,
we believe that each type of loyalty has a different propensity to end the relationship after a
critical incident and to complain to the company about this event. Which type is assumed to
take which actions is outlined in the next two sections.
Behavioural Consequences Concerning Relationship Status
Depending on the nature of loyalty, some types are less prone to end the relationship after a
negative critical incident than others. As disloyal customers do not have any commitment to
or ties with the supplier, they are free to choose the best offer available and are very likely to
complain with their feet, as they strive for minimising their efforts (Blodgett and Granbois,
1992, n.p.; Richter-Mundani, 1999, p. 154), i.e. they are most likely to end the relationship.
Hence, we suggest that disloyal customers will most often select exit (H1a).
H1a Disloyal customers end the relationship after a critical incident most frequently.
In contrast, truly loyal customers are expected to stay, because they take per definitionem a
strong interest in maintaining the relationship. They have been satisfied with the services and
products they have been offered until the critical incident (DeWitt and Brady, 2003, p. 196).
Therefore, they are very likely to give the company the opportunity to fix the problem. Fee-
ling committed to the company, they anticipate that the recovery will live up fully to their ex-
pectations. So, they are dissatisfied with this single event, which they deem to be a one-off
occurrence, and not with the entire relationship (Ping, 1993, p. 343). Hence, truly loyal custo-
mers have no reason to choose exit after a critical incident and are bound to stay (H1b).
H1b Truly loyal customers mostly stay after a critical incident.
Spuriously loyal customers do not have a genuine interest in continuing the relationship
(Staack, 2004, pp. 68), i.e. they cannot switch because the switching costs are perceived as
too high. Exit would require considerable efforts, making it too strenuous an answer (Panther
and Farquhar, 2004, p. 350). Thus, spuriously loyal consumers tend to inertia (Jones and
Farquhar, 2003, p. 71). However, a critical incident may considerably reduce the small bene-
fits they still derive from staying. As a result, the perceived switching costs decrease as well,
because staying has become even less attractive. Thus, they are expected to opt more often for
exit than truly loyal customers, but less often than disloyal (H1c).
H1c Spuriously loyal customers stay less often after a critical incident than truly loyal cus-
tomers, but more often than disloyal customers do.
Companies should prefer complaining customers to those ending the relationship or staying
silent. Which consumers are prone to complain to the company is discussed consequently.
Behavioural Consequences Concerning Communication
For deciding whether to lodge a complaint or not, the costs involved with complaining play a
major part (Kolodinsky, 1995, p. 50; Singh, 1990, p. 74). Whereas remaining silent requires
minimal effort, expressing the dissatisfaction to the company necessitates more endeavours
(Bolfing, 1989, p. 7). Depending on the type of loyalty, customers are more or less inclined to
invest in complaining. Unless disloyal customers are so annoyed that they need to get the fru-
stration off their chest, they are not likely to lodge a complaint (Richter-Mundani, 1999, p.
154; Sampson, 1998, p. 75). They rather change provider. Therefore, we suggest that disloyal
customers complain less often to the company than the two other loyalty types do (H2a).
H2a Disloyal customers complain the least often to the company.
In contrast, truly loyal customers should attach importance to voicing their dissatisfaction to
the company. Save a highly serious incident has occurred, they are prone to stay and thus take
a strong interest in making the company know that there is a problem which should be dealt
with (Blodgett and Granbois, 1992, n.p.; Maute and Forrester Jr., 1993, p. 226; Richter-Mun-
dani, 1999, p. 154). Remaining silent implies that the problem could reoccur, because the
company is unaware of it. A complaint to the company can be regarded as an attempt to chan-
ge an unfavourable state rather than avoid it (Müller, 2004, p. 156). In addition, truly loyal
customers are likely to assess their chances for getting redress to be higher than disloyal cus-
tomers do, because their basic attitude to the company is positive. As the probability for a suc-
cessful complaint is another key determinant for deciding whether to complain or not (Töpfer,
1999, p. 472), we expect truly loyal customers to complain most often (H2b).
H2b Truly loyal customers complain most often to the company.
In line with avoiding costs, spuriously loyal customers are not willing to invest in the relation-
ship by voicing their dissatisfaction to the company. So there is no point for complaining to
the company unless they really get upset. Mostly they are expected to minimise their inputs
by choosing silence. Obviously, this state should rather be labelled as “passive acceptance”
(Panther and Farquhar, 2004, p. 351) than considered as loyalty. But as long as they do have
to stay, they are still more interested in having the problem solved than disloyal customers
who do not have to overcome difficulties for switching supplier. Therefore, spuriously loyal
customers are likely to complain more often to the company than disloyal customers do, but
less often than truly loyal customers (H2c).
H2c Spuriously loyal customers complain less often to the company than truly loyal custo-
mers, but more often than disloyal customers do.
This explorative study forms the basis of a research project on CCB with focus on the e-chan-
nel, where customer loyalty is assumed to be a key determinant. Currently, an online survey is
being conducted with 7'500 students of a Swiss university (random sample, all faculties). All
students of this university have regular internet access as they are obliged to check their
emails regularly. They should hence not face any difficulties in answering an online survey.
For developing the questionnaire, existing measures of customer loyalty and CCB were revie-
wed. Unrelated to a product, neither of the constructs could be operationalised adequately, we
thus adapted the items to mobile telephony. This product is highly suitable, as it is used by
most subjects. And there are both spuriously and truly loyal customers.
Customer loyalty is measured by the two dimensions nature of loyalty and time, mainly based
on the items of Eggert (2000) who provides an elaborate concept for measuring the types of
loyalty. For true loyalty five items (positive feeling of being a customer, conviction of the
provider, sympathy for the provider, regret to end the relationship, obligation to fairness) and
for spurious loyalty six items were used (time involved, lacking alternatives, investments,
switching costs, signed contract, duration of the relationship).
In line with a large corpus of service recovery research (e.g. Blodgett et al., 1997; DeWitt and
Brady, 2003; McCollough, 2000; Smith and Bolton, 1998; Smith et al., 1999), CCB is being
examined by scenarios. Experimental settings avoid biases with retrospective self-reports
(DeWitt and Brady, 2003, p. 196; Smith and Bolton, 1998, p. 70) and all subjects have the sa-
me stimulus. Were they e.g. asked to choose a negative critical incident they experienced and
would they answer the questions concerning this event, the nature of the incident would vary
considerably, making it impossible to find out whether the different reactions are due to diffe-
rent stimuli or different response styles. To write the scenarios as realistic as possible, com-
plaints about network providers in a Swiss consumer forum were analysed and adapted.
To ensure the quality of the questionnaire, we used a two-stage pretest. First, the questionnai-
re was discussed in a focus group with fellow researchers. Having implemented the sugges-
tions for improvement, a pretest with forty alumni was conducted. These subjects were cho-
sen because they have almost the same educational level as the target population has. Encoun-
tering only minor problems we could remedy easily, the survey is currently being conducted.
In CCB research, there were many attempts to explain why customers select which complaint
response (e.g. Singh, 1990). A hitherto neglected determinant is customer loyalty. Including it
in a model of CCB could considerably improve the predicting power. Based on the results of
the study outlined above, a research project will be established to test a channel-specific mo-
del of CCB determinants, including customer loyalty. Moreover, it will be tested whether cus-
tomer loyalty is an important determinant for information search, too.
As the study is conducted for mobile telephony and with students as subjects, the results may
not hold true for all industries / populations. However, the study provides first insights into
the subject and forms an excellent basis for further research.
We feel that customer loyalty as a determinant of CCB is highly relevant for management, as
it highlights the value of complaints. Though there is overwhelming empirical evidence of the
importance of service recovery, numerous managers still suspect complaints to be a nuisance
rather than a gift. Given that truly loyal customers are a highly valuable asset for companies
requiring particular attention and that exactly this group of customers is probably most likely
to complain, management should reconsider their priorities. A complaint gives the company
the chance to remove the source of dissatisfaction and strengthen true loyalty by a successful
recovery. Moreover, complaint information can be used for avoiding potential sources of dis-
satisfaction permanently, e.g. by using it for TQM. This will help to increase overall customer
satisfaction, regardless of the loyalty type. Finally, only a very small minority of the complai-
nants takes advantage of service recovery and make unjustified demands. Thus managers are
strongly advised to encourage customers to complain and to take all complaints most serious-
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