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This article was downloaded by: [Selcuk Universitesi] On: 02 February 2015, At: 23:06 Publisher: Routledge Informahttp://www.tandfonline.com/loi/mmtp20 Why Customers Feel Locked Into Relationships: Using Qualitative Research to Uncover The Lock-in Factors Mary P. Harrison , Sharon E. Beatty , Kristy E. Reynolds & Stephanie M. Noble Department of Business, Birmingham-Southern College, Birmingham, AL Department of Management and Marketing, Culverhouse College of Commerce & Business Administration, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN Published online: 08 Dec 2014. To cite this article: Mary P. Harrison , Sharon E. Beatty , Kristy E. Reynolds & Stephanie M. Noble (2012) Why Customers Feel Locked Into Relationships: Using Qualitative Research to Uncover The Lock-in Factors, Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 20:4, 391-406 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2753/MTP1069-6679200403 PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the “Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use of the Content. This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at http:// www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions " id="pdf-obj-0-6" src="pdf-obj-0-6.jpg">

Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice

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Why Customers Feel Locked Into Relationships: Using Qualitative Research to Uncover The Lock-in Factors

Mary P. Harrison a , Sharon E. Beatty b , Kristy E. Reynolds b & Stephanie M. Noble c a Department of Business, Birmingham-Southern College, Birmingham, AL b Department of Management and Marketing, Culverhouse College of Commerce & Business Administration, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL c Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN Published online: 08 Dec 2014.

To cite this article: Mary P. Harrison , Sharon E. Beatty , Kristy E. Reynolds & Stephanie M. Noble (2012) Why Customers Feel Locked Into Relationships: Using Qualitative Research to Uncover The Lock-in Factors, Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 20:4, 391-406

PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE

Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the “Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use of the Content.

This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any

form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at http:// www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

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Why Customers Feel loCked into relationships:

using Qualitative researCh to u nCover the loCk-in FaC tors

mary p. harrison, sharon e. Beatty, kristy e. reynolds, and stephanie m. noble

This research explores the lock‑in phenomena in service relationships, using qualitative research to uncover the factors keeping customers in service relationships. We conducted 22 in‑depth interviews, with 44 service relationships discussed. Four broad categories of service relationship lock‑in factors emerge from the interviews, with 14 specific subcategories. The four broad categories of lock‑in factors are relational benefits of staying, switching barriers, obligatory factors, and personality factors. All the categories appear across both positive and negative relationships, although interesting differences in category prevalence between positive and negative relationships are insightful and discussed. In the majority of service relationships, participants mention multiple factors in regard to lock‑in, rather than just one factor or category. Researchers in marketing have paid little attention to obligatory factors and personality factors and yet these factors are present in the data in a substantial way and occur in conjunction with the more well‑studied factors.

The attendants who work there are great; they even see me pulling up, and before I even walk in the door, they’ve already gone to the back to pull my clothes. They know my name; they address me every time and ask how I’m doing. It’s definitely great service. It makes you feel good when you walk in and everyone knows your name and your clothes are ready to go. The problem is they keep ruining my shirts. I have lost count; it’s probably over ten shirts that they’ve put holes in the same spot. It’s kind of been a hassle; they really don’t want to do much about it, but they have reimbursed me for some of these. (Steve, about his dry cleaner)

The positive is that I love going to my dentist. They know all about my family and they are just so inviting and so welcoming. The negative is that I just don’t think that he does the best job in the world because

mary p. harrison (Ph.D., University of Alabama), Assistant Profes‑ sor of Marketing, Department of Business, Birmingham‑Southern College, Birmingham, AL, mharriso@bsc.edu.

sharon e. Beatty (Ph.D., University of Oregon), Reese Phifer Fellow and Professor of Marketing, Department of Management and Marketing, Culverhouse College of Commerce & Business Administration, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, sbeatty@ cba.ua.edu.

kristy e. reynolds (Ph.D., University of Alabama), Bruno Profes‑ sor of Marketing, Department of Management and Marketing, Culverhouse College of Commerce & Business Administration, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, kreynold@cba.ua.edu.

stephanie m. noble (Ph.D., University of Massachusetts–Amherst), Associate Professor of Marketing, Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, snoble@utk.edu.

I have a tooth and it just keeps falling out. That is a problem. (Anna, about her dentist)

These quotations illustrate that customers do not always stay in service relationships for the quality of the core service—many other factors can lock a customer into a relationship. In this study, we seek to identify the specific reasons customers feel locked into service relationships. Customers who stay in service relationships provide mul‑ tiple benefits to the firm. Keeping existing customers is cheaper than finding new customers. Having a base of loyal customers for a product or service improves sales for other firm offerings. In addition, customers who stay with the provider become more efficient customers (i.e., they understand the service process) (Xue and Harker 2002) and show behavioral or psychological allegiance in the presence of alternatives (Melnyk, van Osselaer, and Bijmolt 2009). Although customer loyalty is a heavily studied topic in marketing, there seems to be a general assumption that satisfaction or switching barriers are the only reasons cus‑ tomers stay in their relationships with service providers. This paper challenges this assumption. We conduct qualitative interviews with customers who feel locked into either a positive or a negative service relationship (noting that a “locked‑in relationship” is not inherently negative). The phrase “locked into a relation‑ ship” refers to a situation in which a customer feels bound to their relationship (sometimes self‑imposed) with the service provider. The customer feels firmly entrenched in this relationship. From the analysis of the interviews, two factors that have received almost no attention in this

Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, vol. 20, no. 4 (fall 2012), pp. 391–406. © 2012 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved. Permissions: www.copyright.com ISSN 1069–6679 (print) / ISSN 1944–7175 (online) DOI: 10.2753/MTP1069-6679200403

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literature area—obligatory factors and personality factors— offer new insights to the field. In addition, we confirm previous research relative to staying reasons that finds that relational benefits and switching barriers are major factors that influence customers to stay in relationships. Interestingly, in the majority of service relationships, all four factors uncovered (obligatory, personality, relational benefits, and switching barriers) may be present in locked‑in relationships, suggesting the complexity of this issue. The complexity of the reasons that lock customers into service relationships illustrates the fact that multiple, varied reasons create a lattice to hold customers in. Just as a lattice consists of interlaced strips of wood or metal crossed and fastened together to create a structure, these locked‑in relationships often consist of multiple, interconnected lock‑in factors. In a lattice, each additional beam of wood or piece of metal serves to strengthen the overall structure. In a locked‑in relationship, each lock‑in factor (i.e., reason for staying) may intensify the overall bond between the customer and the service provider. This paper first addresses the background of the idea of “lock‑in.” Next, the qualitative methodology, data collec‑ tion, and findings appear. The resulting 4 major lock‑in factors and 14 subcategories are discussed, with quotations from the research, comparing these findings with the existing literature. Finally, a discussion of the findings, presentation of a lock‑in model, a discussion of implica‑ tions (theoretical and managerial), and future research directions appear.

BaCkground Conceptualizing lock-in

Academic researchers of late have been highly interested in the idea of lock‑in—from psychology (Rogers and Bazerman 2008) to economics (Frank 2007), to organizational behav‑ ior (van Driel and Dolfsma 2009), and also in marketing and consumer behavior (Murray and Haubl 2007). Lock‑in, across the literature, appears to influence an individual’s behavior in substantial ways and is of major interest in this study. The economics literature uses the term “lock‑in” to refer to path dependencies, or “lock‑in by historical events.” Frank (2007) illustrates how individuals or cultures main‑ tain preferences for food based on historical dependence on taste and social meaning of consumption choices. He shows that the history of consumption can alter future consumption, leading to path dependence in consumption.

van Driel and Dolfsma (2009) argue for relating the key elements of path dependence, initial conditions and mecha‑ nisms creating lock‑in, for use in the historical analysis of organizational change. Path dependence in organizations is sometimes referred to as “vendor lock‑in,” defined as “a customer dependent on a vendor for products and services who cannot move to another vendor without substantial switching costs, real and/or perceived” by the Linux Information Project (www .linfo.org/vendor_lockin.html). In technological lock‑in, past decisions (e.g., purchasing a particular computer oper‑ ating system) limit future decisions (e.g., purchasing new software), even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant (Arthur 1989; Liebowitz and Margolis 1995). In consumer behavior, Murray and Haubl (2007) note that “cognitive lock‑in” occurs after repeated consumption or use of a product, such that the probability of a consumer choosing his or her usual product over the competing alternative increases over time. This cognitive lock‑in is similar to a familiarity effect or habituation (Monin 2003; Zajonc 1968). Commons (1990) finds that humans usually act in habitual or conventional ways and will normally only actively make choices when faced with new or unusual problems. Lock‑in also refers to a situation in which there are no options. In many U.S. cities, there is only one cable, natural gas, or electric utility provider. Brustein (2010) notes that social networkers are locked into Facebook because no viable alternative exists. Thus, lock‑in is relevant across a number of domains. For this study context, lock‑in to a service provider involves a customer who feels bound to a relationship or to a service provider and feels that he or she is unable or unwilling to leave that service provider. Lock‑in is a fixed, stable state, and is not necessarily voluntary. It is a restriction on the customer, sometimes self‑imposed, in which the customer feels confined to the service relation‑ ship for either positive or negative reasons. The customer feels firmly entrenched in the relationship. The reasons for staying uncovered in this study are the antecedents of lock‑in. Lock‑in results when one or more of these reasons ultimately lock the customer in (see Table 1 for definitions of constructs similar to lock‑in). Lock‑in differs from loy‑ alty because loyalty refers to the propensity to purchase a company’s services again (i.e., behavioral loyalty) and/ or favorable beliefs toward service offerings that produce that propensity (i.e., attitudinal loyalty), whereas lock‑in is a true binding, or feeling of confinement to the service provider. Lock‑in differs from commitment because com‑

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Table 1 Construct Definitions (Lock-In Versus Similar Constructs)

Construct

Definition

Lock-in

A strong binding to the service provider; a fixed state in which a customer feels that he or she cannot or will

Attitudinal loyalty

not be able to leave; a confinement to one service provider (sometimes self-imposed) Favorable beliefs toward the service offerings, which produce a propensity to behave positively toward a

Behavioral loyalty Affective commitment

company or brand (Zhang, Dixit, and Friedmann 2010) Propensity to purchase with reference to the pattern of past purchases (Zhang, Dixit, and Friedmann 2010) Degree of emotional attachment to, identification with, and involvement with an object or person of interest

Calculative commitment

(Meyer and Smith 2000) Degree to which an individual feels that it is necessary to stay with another (Gustafsson, Johnson, and Roos

Normative commitment

2005; Meyer and Herscovitch 2001) Degree to which an individual feels obligated, called, or compelled to stay with another (Bansal, Irving, and

Future purchase intentions Repeat purchase behavior

Taylor 2004) Forthcoming and impending levels of usage of a product or service (Liu 2007) Replenishing and repurchasing the same products or services (Paul et al. 2009)

mitment is the degree to which an individual feels an attachment to, obligation to, or a necessity to stay with a provider, whereas lock‑in is a fixed state in which a customer feels firmly entrenched in the relationship.

staying versus switching

In the services marketing literature, researchers devote more time to understanding why customers switch away from relationships than why they stay in relationships. In regard to switching, Keaveney (1995) identifies numerous reasons as to why customers switch away from service providers (e.g., pricing, inconvenience, service failure, response to ser‑ vice failure, competition, ethical problems, and involuntary switching). In a study of reasons why people switched to a new bank, Lees, Garland, and Wright (2007) find that the main reasons were utility maximization (e.g., lower fees), dissatisfaction with the old bank, and stochastic reasons (e.g., the customer relocated). Similarly, Colgate and Hedge (2001) find that the main reasons for switching to a new bank were better pricing at the new firm and issues related to service failures in the old firm. Peng and Wang (2006) find that, for UK utility customers who switched provid‑ ers, obtaining a lower price was the main reason customers switched. Ganesh, Arnold, and Reynolds (2000) find two types of switchers, the dissatisfied switcher and the satisfied switcher (a customer who leaves for reasons other than dis‑ satisfaction, such as relocation). Interestingly, dissatisfied switchers tend to be more satisfied with their new firm (in a retail‑banking context). In regard to staying in relationships (i.e., exhibiting behavioral loyalty), several reasons have been the focus

of study, including dependence (Ganesan 1994), com‑ mitment (Morgan and Hunt 1994), and risk aversion (Raju 1980). However, the specific reasons for staying are underresearched. Most research in this area draws from the literature on switching costs or barriers (e.g., Colgate et al. 2007), or satisfaction or relational benefits (Peng and Wang 2006). In one of the few papers that look at specific staying reasons, Colgate et al. (2007) study customers in China and New Zealand who considered switching to a different service provider, but instead decided to stay with their current provider. They find two major themes as to why customers stay—switching barriers and affirmatory factors. The switching barriers (similar to the switching barriers addressed in Jones, Mothersbaugh, and Beatty 2000) discourage a customer from leaving, and include time and effort, lack of alternatives, emotional bonds, and switching costs. The affirmatory factors (similar to relationship benefits in Gwinner, Gremler, and Bitner 1998) include confidence, social bonds, and good service recovery. Paul et al. (2009), in studying repeat purchase drivers, find three general categories: service relationship attributes (e.g., reliability, expertise), relationship‑driving benefits (e.g., money savings, affiliation), and motivational values (e.g., tradition, security). Thus, the reasons for staying in relationships are not the opposite of the reasons for switching. Reasons for switching tend to focus on problems and dissatisfaction or alternative firms drawing the customer away. The main reasons found thus far for staying focus on satisfaction and benefits, ser‑ vice quality, and switching barriers. The goal of this paper is to identify fully the factors (and subcategories of these factors) that lock individuals into relationships.

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method

We use in‑depth interviews to examine service relation‑ ships that individuals might feel locked into or bound to (i.e., unable to break up with the provider). Although researchers have done much work on related topics, such as commitment, loyalty, and relationship marketing, the topic warrants exploratory research because the majority of the previous research focuses on satisfaction and switching barriers, and thus, all the reasons that customers stay in relationships have not been uncovered (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Strauss and Corbin 1998). The new ideas found here illustrate the usefulness and value of doing qualitative work in a well‑researched domain. In‑depth interviews allow for a meaningful understanding of the topic from the customer’s point of view. Similar to Haytko and Baker (2004) and Noble, Haytko, and Phillips (2009), the interviews focus on the perspective of the interviewees (i.e., a phenomeno‑ logical focus). Qualitative methods allow the researcher to obtain the intricate details related to the experience, such as the feelings, thought processes, and emotions that are difficult to learn through other research methods (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Using a grounded theory approach, the themes discovered in this research emerge directly from the data (Strauss and Corbin 1998).

data Collection

Three highly trained interviewers (two doctoral students and one master’s‑level student) conducted 22 personal in‑depth interviews with individuals from 8 different states (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Noble, Haytko, and Phillips 2009). Participants were located through recommendations and snowball sampling (Patton 1990) and were interviewed at a place of their choosing. The interviewers asked participants to talk about their relationships with several service providers to whom they felt they “couldn’t easily leave or break up with” (i.e., felt locked into). The interviewers asked the questions twice— once in regard to a relationship the participants felt “at least somewhat positively about” and then again about a relationship they felt “at least somewhat negatively about.” Interviewers asked participants about both positive and negative relationships because a customer can feel locked into relationships that are positive as well as relationships that are negative. The order of the positive and nega ‑ tive relationship questions varied across interviews. Two respondents could not think of a negative relationship, so they discussed two positive relationships. Out of the 44

service relationships discussed, 24 were positive and 20 were negative. Interviewers used a discussion guide that probed the reasons why the individual felt locked into the service relationship. We extensively pretested and revised the discussion guide as needed prior to data collection (Wooten 2000). Interviews were unstructured, allowing respondents to tell their stories as much as possible, but questions focused on the history of the service relation‑ ships, the reasons why they felt locked in, how they felt about the relationships, if they had tried to get out of the relationship, and what they would do if the provider moved or closed business. The participants viewed a list of major service provider types initially to aid them in thinking about types of potential service providers. Each interview lasted approximately 30 to 50 minutes, was tape‑recorded, and was transcribed before interpretation. The sample includes 14 women and 8 men, ranging from 22 to 69 years old (see Table 2 for demographic information). The service providers most often discussed in positive relationships were hairdressers, dentists, and home maintenance contractors; the service providers most often mentioned in negative relationships were cell phone service providers, banks, and landlords. The participants discussed over 20 different service provider types in the interviews. (See Table 3 for the full list of service provider types mentioned.) Seventy percent of the relationships discussed involve personal relationships, based on a review of the interview transcripts. In personal service relationships, the partners get to know each other and develop a history of shared interaction, while pseudorelationships involve repeated con‑ tact between a customer and a provider, but the customer does not necessarily get to know any particular individual within the company (Gutek et al. 1999). In the positive relationships, 88 percent of the relationships described were personal service relationships; in the negative relationships, 50 percent were personal service relationships. These figures appear in Table 3. We first prepared detailed memos for each interview (Strauss and Corbin 1998). We also discussed each interview as it was completed, noting any issues or potential biases, and discussing the emerging main ideas (see Noble, Haytko, and Phillips 2009). Next, we reviewed and discussed the transcripts and field notes extensively, using open‑coding methods to identify concepts with common properties and dimensions. This involved looking for similarities and differences across the participants’ responses. Next, we clustered the data pertaining to the same categories together and identified recurring themes in the data. Using

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Table 2 Demographics of Sample

 

Pseudonyms

Age

Gender

Race

State

Profession

Alisha

34

Female

B

New Jersey

Technology manager

Amy

40

Female

B

New Jersey

Retail manager

Anna

26

Female

W

Alabama

Real estate agent

Autumn

36

Female

W

Mississippi

Homemaker

Blaine

25

Male

W

Mississippi

Graduate student

Carissa

43

Female

B

Mississippi

Cosmetologist

Chad

29

Male

W

Alabama

Accountant

Darren

26

Male

W

Georgia

Computer technician

Daylen

34

Male

W

New York

Nonprofit employee

Emily

27

Female

W

Alabama

School counselor

Heather

21

Female

W

Mississippi

Undergraduate student

Jacquelyn

25

Female

W

Mississippi

Administrative assistant

Janette

22

Female

W

New Mexico

Financial planning assistant

Jefferson

62

Male

W

Mississippi

Writer

Joel

25

Male

W

Alabama

Engineer

Jude

69

Male

W

Maryland

Retired physician

Kalina

37

Female

B

Maryland

Architect

Laura

24

Female

W

Mississippi

Restaurant hostess

Priscilla

52

Female

W

Alabama

Accountant

Rachel

26

Female

W

Tennessee

Anthropologist

Steve

31

Male

W

Mississippi

Service manager

Teresa

26

Female

W

Georgia

Attorney

axial coding, we fit the data into an explanatory framework. During axial coding, we created tables and charts, showing how the data fit together. We looked for quotations that did not fit into the emerging framework throughout the coding process to ensure that the framework fit the data (see Noble and Phillips 2004). Finally, we identified the prevalent themes in the data and used selective coding to integrate the concepts around the core categories. During this stage of coding, the objective was to synthesize the major concepts and their connections (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Fourteen subcategories emerged and were grouped into four broad categories of staying reasons.

Category Frequencies

In order to compare themes across relationships, we conducted a content analysis of the qualitative data. This method (using a content analysis on qualitative interview transcripts) is found in numerous others studies with similar data sets (e.g., Ahava and Palojoki 2004 [group interviews with 59 teenage consumers]; Frankwick, Walker, and Ward 1994 [23 managerial interviews]; Kessous and Roux 2008 [16 interviews with consumers]). To quantify the prevalence

of the various subcategories, we gave the list of the 14 sub‑ categories that emerged from the data to a group of coders (three doctoral students different from the interviewers) who counted how many times the subcategory appeared across interviews. Using specific coding instructions along with an example quotation for each subcategory, the stu‑ dents coded the interviews on their own after a training and practice session. Each interview was coded by two of the three coders (i.e., each coder coded about two of the three interviews). Next, the three students met to compare frequencies for each interview. The interjudge reliability for the positive relationships was 84 percent, while the reliability for the negative relationships was 81 percent. These reliabilities are reasonable and similar to averages for these types of studies (see Gremler 2004). The student coders discussed any disagreements until agreement was achieved.

Findings

The four broad categories of lock‑in factors uncovered in the data include relational benefits/satisfaction, switching barriers, obligatory factors, and personality factors. See

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Table 3 Service Providers Represented in Sample*

Service Providers (Positive Relationships) (n = 24)

Service Providers (Negative Relationships) (n = 20)

Bank Car maintenance Contractor Dentist Financial advisor Gym Hairstylist Home alarm service Nail salon Pharmacist Printer Real estate agent Stockbroker Veterinarian

Positive Relationships

Percentage of personal service relationships: 88* Percentage of pseudorelationships: 12

Accountant Bank Cell phone service provider Dentist Dry cleaner Hairstylist Hotel Internet service provider Landlord Mortgage lender Seamstress Stockbroker

Negative Relationships

Percentage of personal service relationships: 50 Percentage of pseudorelationships: 50

Overall (Positive and Negative Relationships)

Percentage of personal service relationships: 70 Percentage of pseudorelationships: 30

Notes: No service provider type received more than two mentions in positive relationships, with the exception of hairstylists (9). No service provider type received more than three mentions in negative relation‑ ships, with the exception of cell phone service providers (4). *Inter‑ views were carefully scanned—if the individual referred to someone specific within a firm that he/she appeared to have a relationship with then that relationship was classified as a personal service relationship.

Table 4 for the full listing that includes percentage of men‑ tions across all relationships (and listings of percentages for both positive and negative relationships); the percentages represent the prevalence of the categories and subcategories across the interviews. The benefits/satisfaction and switch‑ ing barriers represent the two areas that are well studied, while the obligatory and personality factors represent two areas that have been understudied in the literature. All four categories appear in both the positive and negative relationships. In all the relationships, relational benefits/satisfaction appear in 93 percent of the cases, both switching barriers and obligatory factors in 82 percent, and personality factors in 68 percent. Interestingly, these num‑ bers vary little between positive and negative relationships overall, while considerable variation exists in the subcat‑ egories by positive and negative relationships, which we will address further. These numbers provide an indication

of the importance of each category (but should be viewed cautiously, given the limited sample size). To illustrate how the different categories combine to create lock‑in, we compiled Table 5. We looked at each service relationship individually and counted the number of major categories that each staying reason mentioned represented per respondent. As noted in Table 5, more than one category is responsible for individuals feeling locked into a relationship (in 98 percent of relationships). In fact, the majority of respondents mention factors from all four categories in regard to holding them in a relationship. This suggests that lock‑in is often the result of multiple staying reasons. A discussion of each category appears below, along with how these findings fit with prior research. Obligatory factors and personality factors appear first because they have received less attention relative to staying in relationships versus the other two more researched areas.

obligatory Factors

Obligation plays a major role in holding customers in service relationships. Obligatory factors are reasons that involve a sense of duty or responsibility to continue to do business with the service provider (i.e., reasons an individual thinks he or she “should” stay). Individuals stay because they feel that staying is the right or moral thing to do or because others expect them to stay. The participants discussed a sense of obligation to the service provider based on four factors—long history with the service provider or a sense of owing the provider, the expectations of friends or family members, a family member or friend provides the service, and the need to help the service provider stay in business. See Table 4 for percentages for all subcategories.

Long Past History/Sense of Owing the Provider

When discussing the long past history or sense of owing the service provider, the participants talked about not leaving because they have been in the relationship for a long time. This reason was more prevalent for positive relationships than negative (79 percent versus 55 percent), but was the strongest obligatory factor for both. The idea of staying in the relationship because of a long history is similar to the sunk‑cost effect. The sunk‑cost effect states that consumers will respond to previous investments by becoming increas‑ ingly willing to invest additional resources (Gourville and Soman 1998; Heath and Soll 1996; Soman and Cheema 2001), much like the escalation ‑of‑ commitment effect. The sunk‑cost effect is similar to Jones, Mothersbaugh,

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Table 4 Lock-In Factors: Subcategories and Percentages

 

Major Category/Subcategory

Percentage of Positive Relationships that Include the Subcategory (n = 24)

Percentage of Negative Relationships that Include the Subcategory (n = 20)

Percentage Found Across All Relationships (n = 44)

Relational Benefits and Satisfaction

100

85

93

Satisfaction

100

55

86

Special treatment benefits: they go out of their way for me

67

25

48

Social benefits: we are friends, we have a lot in common, they

63

25

46

know me Confidence benefits/I trust them

25

5

16

Switching Barriers

79

85

82

Procedural switching costs, hassle to switch, too much trouble to find a new provider

46

70

57

Unsure of better alternatives (grass is not greener), fear that someone else won’t be able to do it as well

38

50

43

Discomfort or embarrassment to switch

46

10

30

Obligatory Factors

83

80

82

Length, history, investment in relationship, sunk costs, I owe them

79

55

68

Expectations of friends or family members (they expect me to

46

45

46

stay), recommended by family member or friend, or family uses or likes them Family member or friend of the family provides the service

17

15

16

Need to help the service provider stay in business

25

5

16

Personality Factors

75

60

68

Desire to avoid confrontation or negative situations or to not

13

40

25

hurt others’ feelings Resistance to change, routine-seeking, likes the familiar, doesn’t like to experiment

29

15

23

and Beatty’s (2002) sunk costs, in which the customer perceives that the effort, money, or time invested in the relationship is not recoupable. However, the emphasis in the current study is on the sense of obligation felt due to having made a substantial investment in the relationship. It tends to produce a sense of a moral obligation to remain with the service provider.

  • I should stay with her because if you have been with

someone for 13 years

she provided the service for

. . . so long she kind of feels like family, even though she is not. (Carissa, about her seamstress)

  • I think I should stay because

. . .

I have been there

so long [at least ten years]. (Rachel, about her

pharmacist)

Further, respondents talked about feeling the need to stay with the service provider to repay them for what they

had done for them in the past, in other words, a need to reciprocate (Gouldner 1960). The feeling of obligation to repay what another has done is a dominant norm in society (Cialdini 1995; Gouldner 1960). Social exchange theory indicates that individuals act on anticipated reciprocity and take actions contingent on rewarding the actions of others (Blau 1964). Following are some quotations from our data that represent this idea:

Well, because she did me a favor by doing that [coming in on her day off] for my wedding. I just feel like she should get my business all the time. It was really nice of her to do. She didn’t know me then. (Jacquelyn, about her hairdresser)

Just because they have gone out of their way to pro‑ vide me service, so I feel guilty going to someone else at this point. (Kalina, about her home maintenance contractor)

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Table 5 Number of Categories Mentioned

 

Positive

Negative

Categories

Relationships

Relationships

Overall

Mentioned

(Percent)

(Percent)

(Percent)

  • 4 dimensions

  • 63 40

52

mentioned

  • 3 dimensions

  • 13 30

21

mentioned

  • 2 dimensions

  • 25 25

25

mentioned

dimension

  • 1 0

5

2

mentioned

he was still my dad’s accountant and he would ask my dad why I wasn’t using him. (Teresa, about her accountant)

Okay, the one I can think of is my hairdresser, and I go to see him because the mother of a guy I was dating at

the time (for three years) introduced me to him, and

  • I just felt like since she suggested him, that I should

definitely go see him. I would feel bad not taking her

suggestion after she asked me to go with her and meet him and all this kind of stuff. I felt locked into the

relationship, like I couldn’t say no, because she took me over there and introduced me to him, and said “Janette might start coming to you.” (Janette, about

her hairdresser)

Because of all the freebies and stuff she does. I feel like I owe her something because she does that. (Heather, about her hairdresser)

Expectations of Friends or Family

The subcategory of expectations of friends or family mem‑ bers came up as second in number of mentions here and was mentioned in both positive and negative relationships equally. This reason corresponds with the literature on sub‑ jective norms. Subjective norms reflect a social pressure in which a person perceives that important others desire for him or her to behave in a certain manner (Bansal, Irving, and Taylor 2004; Fishbein and Ajzen 1980). It refers to the influence one’s personal community has on the specified behavior (Fitzmaurice 2005) and represents a moral obliga‑ tion to someone. Consumers who consider engaging in a new behavior are less eager to do so if they feel that doing so would bring disapproval from close, important people in their lives (Fitzmaurice 2005). Generally, the stronger the subjective norms felt toward a behavior, the stronger an individual feels compelled to act (or not act depending on the direction of effect) (Bansal and Taylor 2002). In the following quotations, participants note that individuals close to them want them to stay in a relationship:

The reason that I knew this person was in this business was through my aunt, so if for some reason she found out that I did end the relationship, she may have a negative feeling or outlook towards me because, hey, this is someone I told you was good and then you backed out of the deal. (Chad, about his mortgage lender)

It was actually my dad’s accountant who would always make some kind of mistake on my returns. But I felt like I couldn’t really break off the relationship because

Family Member or Friend Provides the Service

Beyond subjective norms, participants also talked about the importance of staying in a relationship because the person who provided the service was a family member or a friend (equally represented in both positive and negative relationships). An individual’s relationship with friends and family goes far beyond the particular service provided and involves a strong, deep sense of obligation and loyalty. The feelings of family obligation fit with Hamilton’s rule (1964), which states that humans will prefer kin when all other things are equal (although the feelings of obligation expressed here tend to go beyond preference and involved a sense of lock‑in or not being able to escape). Wellman and Wortley (1990) find that in multiple‑role relationships (i.e., a friend or family member who is also the service provider), there is a detailed knowledge of each other’s needs as well as multiple claims on each other’s attention, tending to produce a push to stay together.

  • I have a family member who owns an alarm company

and so any services that we need as far as alarm and

security, we go to him. My uncle owns

it. . . .

My uncle

just came on down and said he would give this to us

and this is how much it is going to cost and I will give

you a deal on

it. . . .

I really do feel like if I left, my

uncle would be upset. I think they would wonder why

  • I left. (Anna, about her alarm company)

We were friends first and then the business relation‑ ship came later so I feel like it would be really hard to leave. (Teresa, about her printer)

Need to Help the Service Provider Stay in Business

Finally, participants talked about supporting the business or helping the service provider stay in business. This category speaks again to the sense of duty or responsibility that cus‑

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tomers may come to feel. Interestingly, this idea evolved primarily in the positive relationships. This idea illustrates the importance of moral obligations to the individual or company. Individuals feel obligated to the service provider to support or help them stay in business. This is similar to the idea of community benefits, described by Paul et al. (2009) as a driver of repeat purchase intentions. The cus‑ tomer feels that he or she can support the sustainability of the community by staying with the service provider.

His office is in my neighborhood and I feel somewhat of a loyalty to use professionals who do not leave the city. So many people have decided to move out of my inner‑city neighborhood so I feel a loyalty to him for that. (Alisha, about her dentist)

She lives in New Orleans and when Hurricane Katrina hit, she basically lost her home, office, and a whole bunch of other stuff so I feel like by giving her busi‑ ness, I am helping her get back on her feet and that sort of thing, so if I broke up the relationship, then I would feel like I am just ditching someone that has no home or anything. (Teresa, about her printer)

She needs the business. I am always very conscious

of that as

well. . . .

I know it helps her out. (Blaine,

about his hairdresser)

personality Factors

Personality factors related to lock‑in represent distinctive, stable traits of an individual that cause them to stay with (not abandon) a service provider. Two subcategories emerged in regard to personality or individual difference variables:

(1) the desire to avoid confronting others or hurting other people’s feelings and (2) resistance to change. Since per‑ sonality factors have received little attention in regard to staying in relationships, this topic is especially interest‑ ing. Surprisingly, although several researchers address personality variables relative to commitment–relationship proneness (see Bloemer and Odekerken‑Schröder 2007; Odekerken ‑ Schröder, De Wulf, and Schumacher 2003; Vasquez‑Carrasco and Foxall 2006) and the needs for social affiliation and variety (Vasquez‑Carrasco and Foxall 2006), no one addresses the two personality constructs identified here. People who avoid confrontation prefer not to assert themselves in order to preserve the rapport and smooth relations with others (Schroeder 1965). Not surprisingly, this factor shows up more in negative relationships than in positive relationships (in more than a three‑to‑one ratio, in fact). High avoiders need to be seen as pleasant or nice (Brock 1998). Avoiding confrontation is often characteristic

Fall 2012 399

of females as they seem to care more about maintaining harmonious relationships with others (versus males) (Hatch and Forgays 2001). Further, they are often highly concerned about the potential negative effect of the expression of anger on others, consequently toning down their reactions (Hatch and Forgays 2001). Avoiding is one of the five major conflict styles in the conflict resolution literature (Rahim 2001), showing that avoiding conflict is a very common way that individuals may address problems or issues in relationships. Our participants note how much easier it is to just stay in a relationship, even if it is not perfect rather than to confront the issue or the person:

That is just me. I hate confrontation. That is one thing that I don’t do, unless it is extremely important like where my job is depending upon it. I don’t like to confront people, especially when they are trying. (Blaine, about his hairdresser)

  • I hate to confront them about the problem. Because

  • I am a nonconfrontational person and I would rather

accept the problem than face them or confront them

and have a whole argument or heated discussion. (Teresa, about her accountant)

  • I think it is pretty much the same in everything. I

am not a very confrontational person, so I will put up with anything until it gets out of hand. (Heather, about her bank)

Closely related to avoiding confrontation is the desire not to hurt the service provider’s feelings. This reaction is consistent with the personality variable of agreeableness (from the five‑factor model of personality). Agreeableness is a disposition to express kindness, sympathy, and compas‑ sion to others (Harris and Fleming 2005) and seems to hold individuals in relationships with service providers.

It would make me feel like a mean or uncaring per‑

son if I

left. . . .

I think it would hurt her feelings if I

chose to go to another printer to have my personalized

stationery done. (Teresa, about her printer)

  • I think about what the other person thinks about me

and also how I affect their feelings by leaving them. Especially in a business situation when you are giving them money for what they are doing for you and you all of a sudden back off that and stop giving them your business, you think that is telling them they are not doing a good job. (Chad, about his hairdresser)

Resistance to Change

Individuals who are resistant to change prefer the familiar and do not change their minds easily. Although this personality

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factor came through in both positive and negative relation‑ ships, it came up twice as often in positive versus negative relationships. Individuals high in resistance to change feel as though change is painful, even if those changes could potentially improve their life. People high in resistance to change like to preserve their routines and enjoy consistency (Oreg 2003). Brotherton (2001) finds that individuals pur‑ suing routizination motives are less likely to change where they shop. In marketing, resistance to change is relevant to resistance to innovation, for example, when companies introducing new products or new technologies sometimes meet resistance from end users (Ellen, Bearden, and Sharma 1991). Respondents talked about staying to avoid needing to change or to have consistency in their lives, even when they are not completely happy with the service provider.

I like consistency in my relationships for sure and sometimes I endure things that I find unpleasant just so that I can maintain consistency. (Daylen, about his landlord)

I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like change very much, and when I get used to a certain place then that’s where I’m going to keep going. That’s why I stuck with the dentist. (Steve, about his dentist)

relational Benefits and satisfaction

In the in‑depth interviews, respondents talked repeatedly about the positive benefits they receive from staying in the relationship with their service provider. This factor, as expected, was discussed much more in positive relation‑ ships than in negative ones. This finding confirms the previous findings in marketing research that relational benefits strongly influence staying behavior. Four factors emerged in this category: (1) satisfaction with the core service (including convenience benefits and affordable pricing), (2) special treatment benefits, (3) social benefits, and (4) confidence benefits.

Satisfaction

Many participants talked about staying with their service provider because they are satisfied with the service. This is also the concept that has received the most attention in the literature relative to this topic (Gustafsson, Johnson, and Roos 2005; Homburg, Koschate, and Hoyer 2005). They stay because the service is of good quality, the prices are acceptable, or the service is convenient (e.g., Seiders et al. 2007). To determine their level of satisfaction, an individual may consider all the positive and negative things about the

service provider (i.e., using a compensatory model) (Garba‑ rino and Johnson 1999). As long as the positives outweigh the negatives, a customer will tend to stay with the service provider. Repeatedly, throughout these interviews, the participants said that while some parts of the relationship were unsatisfactory, other parts of the relationship met or exceeded their expectations (similar to the multi‑attribute model), encouraging them to remain with the service provider. Satisfaction appears in all of the positive service relationships (100 percent) and more than half the negative service relationships (55 percent). See Table 4 for percent‑ ages for all the subcategories.

I think she is a very good beautician and I like what she does when she does my hair. The negative is just the inconvenience of having to go to her at just those certain times and having to wait when I am there for my slot. (Alisha, about her hairdresser)

The only thing that I really don’t like is that it’s so expensive, but he’s a really funny guy, he’s a nice guy, and he does a really good job, so I enjoy those parts of the relationship. (Janette, about her hairdresser)

You know stockbrokers are never right 100 percent of the time, so you just kind of have to take the good with the bad. (Joel, about his stockbroker)

Special Treatment, Social, and Confidence Benefits

The other factors include the three relational benefits, spe‑ cial treatment, social, and confidence benefits, originally identified by Gwinner, Gremler, and Bitner (1998). Those authors found that customers perceive benefits as special treatment if they believe others do not receive the same treatment (i.e., special services or discounts). Participants talked about specific instances in which they felt that the service provider went beyond their normal services to give them special treatment, thus making them feel locked in:

If our alarm goes off, he personally calls us. He does not have one of his employees call to see if we are okay. (Anna, about her home alarm service provider)

I had to go get my bangs trimmed one day, and she said come in right now and she put me in another chair

and cut them and did not charge me for

it. . . .

And I

have referred three people to her, so that is probably

another reason why I get special treatment. (Heather, about her hairdresser)

Gwinner, Gremler, and Bitner (1998) and Reynolds and Beatty (1999) mention social benefits, or enjoying the time spent with the service provider, as a factor that would keep

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individuals in relationships. Rosenbaum (2009) shows that service relationships may also provide the customer with needed social support. Han, Kwortnik, and Wang (2008) demonstrate that commercial friendships are part of social benefits and influence commitment. Price and Arnould (1999) show that in commercial friendships, customers often describe the service provider as a close friend. The partici‑ pants in our study talked about becoming friends with their service provider and feeling comfortable around them, and this tended to make the participants feel as though they wanted to stay in the relationship. In this subcategory, only mentions of “becoming” friends with their provider were included, not those individuals who were friends with their provider before the business relationship started (which instead fell under obligatory factors). This is an important distinction, as Grayson (2007) notes that business relation‑ ships that begin as friendships are more sensitive to conflict than relationships that begin as business relationships.

She talks to me and I feel like we are friends. We buy each other Christmas presents. I feel like she is my friend now. (Heather, about her hairdresser)

Kate has actually asked me to come over and eat with her husband and kids. (Blaine, about his hairdresser)

She is a friend now, it would be hard to find someone else and it would hurt her if I left. I enjoy our relation‑ ship. (Autumn, about her real estate agent)

Confidence benefits experienced in the relationship represent feelings of trust and self‑assurance in the service provider (Paul et al. 2009). Confidence benefits include perceptions of comfort in knowing what to expect in the service encounter (Hennig‑Thurau, Gwinner, and Gremler 2002), which causes the customer to want to stay with the service provider (i.e., to feel no reason to leave and often a sense of lock‑in).

She always listens and if you bring a picture, she can do it just like the picture. (Jacquelyn, about her hairdresser)

I have a good relationship with them, I’m comfort‑ able with them, and you know, even though they’re 20 miles away, I don’t mind driving because I know I’m going to people that I know and trust. (Steve, about his dentist)

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The finding that switching barriers are highly relevant to individuals feeling that they cannot leave confirms previ‑ ous research. These factors seem almost equally important in both positive and negative relationships (79 percent versus 85 percent). Three subcategories seemed to hold people in: (1) perceptions of high procedural switching costs, (2) unsure of better alternatives, and (3) embarrass‑ ment or discomfort to switch. See Table 4 for the prevalence of these subcategories. The switching barriers category coincides with the work of other researchers who have studied traditional switching costs and barriers (Burnham, Frels, and Mahajan 2003; Jones, Mothersbaugh, and Beatty 2002). The procedural switching costs are equivalent to Jones et al.’s (2007) procedural costs, which include the time, effort, or hassle a consumer might expect if he or she switched. Jones and his colleagues identify these potential costs as a negative source of constraint in their research. They also find that when customers perceive few viable alternatives, they are more likely to stay with the provider.

Procedural Switching Costs

Many participants discussed the amount of time and effort it would take to move to another provider, saying that they would rather stay with the current provider than deal with the hassle of switching. This factor came up more in the negative than in the positive relationships (70 percent versus 46 percent). Often with medical records, car main‑ tenance records, pet shot records, and so forth, it takes time and effort to ensure that the appropriate information is passed along to a new provider. In addition, search time to find a new provider simply is often not worth the hassle to the participants.

We would have to do a lot of research. It is like finding a new doctor. (Darren, about his veterinarian)

  • I tried to find someone else before, and I’m kinda old

and set in my ways, and it would be a lot of trouble to

find someone else. (Priscilla, about her hairdresser)

Just because it would be difficult to find somebody

who could provide the service for me in the way that

  • I like. It’s not a risk that I want to take with my hair,

at this point. (Emily, about her hairdresser)

switching Barriers

Switching barriers are the obstacles and costs that custom‑ ers must overcome in order to switch service providers.

Unsure of Better Alternatives

Participants often mentioned that they really did not know what other options exist, or that they were not sure that

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another option would be better (addressing traditional issues of lack of attractive alternatives and the uncertainty involved with switching) (see Jones, Mothersbaugh, and Beatty 2000, 2002). These customers stay because they do not feel as though they have any other options or any better options.

  • I thought, I don’t know, maybe the whole industry is

this way, so we just stayed with this person. (Chad,

(about his mortgage lender)

He is an irrational individual, but I am not likely to find anything any cheaper than this for the price or even slightly more. (Daylen, about his landlord)

  • I don’t know if I could obtain better service anywhere

else, so I just deal with it. (Heather, about her bank)

Discomfort/Embarrassment in Switching

A third factor that participants mentioned is that switching may be uncomfortable or embarrassing to do, thus causing them to feel locked in or unable to escape. Interestingly, although Zaslow (2004) discusses the inability of individu‑ als to fire their service provider because of the awkwardness of the situation, this idea appears to have not been stud‑ ied. Thus, an individual may simply stay (and feel locked in) in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to say good‑bye.

Running into him would be awkward later. We go to the same church and I see them all the time. (Anna, about her alarm service)

If I stopped going to her, seeing her after that would be painful. Since she is a personal friend, it would be a little strange. (Teresa, about her printer)

So if I saw her and she asked why I hadn’t been in,

  • I couldn’t say that I had been getting my hair cut at some other place. It would be a little weird. (Blaine,

about his hairdresser)

disCussion

This study contributes to the marketing literature in several ways. First, we conceptualize and elaborate on the concept of lock‑in. We differentiate it from similar ideas, such as commitment and loyalty, while also drawing on a wide range of literature to help us conceptualize the idea. Second, based on our qualitative interviews, we uncover four factors that appear to serve as lock‑in factors. While researchers have previously identified two of these factors (relational

benefits/satisfaction and switching barriers) in regard to staying reasons, two other factors (obligatory factors and personality factors) have received little attention. Further, we also more fully develop the factors by identifying their subcategories and providing rich descriptions and quota‑ tions relative to these subcategories. Finally, we also identify their overall relevance as well as their relevance in positively versus negatively valenced relationships. Obligatory factors have recently received some attention by at least one researcher: Bansal, Irving and Taylor (2004) found that the main driver of intentions to switch providers was normative commitment, in which customers felt that they “should” stay in the relationship. The current paper finds several important obligatory factors, including one’s past history or investment in the relationship, expectations of family or friends, a family member or a friend provides the service, and a moral need to help the service provider. These subcategories help in understanding more about the nature of obligations felt to stay with a service provider. Further, these feelings could be negative or positive— negative if they are not happy, but feel there is pressure to stay or positive if they are happy with the relationship, but additionally feel that there is a moral or obligatory reason they should stay. Further, while research on personality factors affecting customers’ decisions to stay in relationships is scant, no research identifies the personality factors shown here in regard to a staying or switching decision. The personal‑ ity factors identified in this research represent individual differences that provide some additional understanding as to why individuals stay in relationships. First, participants high in conflict avoidance stay with a service provider because they do not want to confront someone (the ser‑ vice provider or even someone recommending or using the service provider). Thus, in many cases, the customer will endure an unhappy situation rather than complain or confront the service provider. They may feel locked in, but they often remain rather than confront the person or situation, even though they may be silently unhappy in that relationship. In addition, we show that individuals who desire the familiar or do not like change will not change providers, and may tend to feel locked in. These individuals look for stability and constancy in their lives, and this includes their service relationships. Thus, it is easier to “stay put” because the desire to not change keeps them locked in. Also, this research shows the value of doing qualita‑ tive research in a well‑established literature domain (i.e., relationship marketing). Using in‑depth interviews, con‑

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sumers described why they feel locked into specific service relationships, and this led to revealing new findings, even in a relatively well‑trampled domain. As noted above, there are often multiple reasons for staying in a relationship. Relationships may be stronger when a host of reasons for lock‑in exist; however, one very strong lock‑in reason may also fully entrench an individual in a service relationship. The complexity or multiplicity of staying reasons is similar to Keaveney’s (1995) switch‑ ing findings, in which 55 percent of the critical switching incidents included two or more of the eight switching cat‑ egories. Further, the reasons for staying in relationships are quite different than the reasons for switching, which focus on very different issues, such as service failure and recovery, price, inconvenience, and poor service, suggesting a need to continue to focus more attention on staying reasons.

managerial impliC ations

By understanding why customers stay (even when not completely satisfied), service providers benefit in many ways (Dagger, Donaher, and Gibbs 2009). For example, if a service provider must cut staff or staff hours, it is important for managers to consider that these employees may have a customer base made up of friends, family members, long‑ time customers of the employee, or individuals who learned about the employee through someone they care about. By eliminating that employee, the company may eliminate profitable customers as well (Beatty et al. 1996). If a service provider understands its customers and their personalities, it can more easily encourage those custom‑ ers to stay. For example, if the service provider finds that it has a base of customers who are resistant to change and appreciate routine, it could avoid or slowly introduce new technologies/changes for that group of customers, or could offer education to aid this group in learning the new tech‑ nology. To encourage open communication with customers who want to avoid confrontation, service providers could set up convenient, anonymous feedback systems, either online or through its service establishment. This would allow service providers to take care of issues that otherwise would not be addressed. In addition, the knowledge of customer personality variables will help service providers understand the customers of its competitors, and how to effectively reach out to those individuals who are resistant to change or who avoid confrontation (e.g., offer to contact the previous provider to obtain all records). The better a service provider understands the complex‑ ity and the multitude of reasons customers stay, the better

Fall 2012 403

the firm will know its customers and the more the firm can work to appeal to those multitude of reasons for staying. For example, the service provider may want to draw the customer’s attention to the length of time he or she has been in the relationship in order to build up feelings as to what would be lost if he or she moved on. In addition, the service provider may wish to thank its customers for their long‑time commitment to the company or for doing their part to support the business even in rough times. Further, managers must recognize the downside effects of “lock‑in” relationships, especially those that are negatively constrained. In Jones et al.’s (2007) study, perceptions of high procedural switching costs increased negative emo‑ tions and negative word of mouth in both positive and negative relationships. Service providers that currently have a satisfied customer base should realize that if they choose to make it harder for customers to leave (i.e., increasing procedural switching costs), customers may feel like hos‑ tages and may advise friends and family to seek alternative service providers.

limitations and Future researCh

Some limitations of the study are noted here. To explore individuals’ feelings of lock‑in and to understand the full nature of the service relationship, we conducted a qualita‑ tive study. We note that there are always trade‑offs between what is gained and lost in qualitative versus quantitative approaches. Further, this convenience sample is certainly not representative of all segments of the market. As with all small sample‑size research, the percentages noted here are only indicative of the relevance of the factors discussed. In addition, since 70 percent of the relationships addressed could be coded as involving a personal service relationship (i.e., a person was mentioned), the factors identified are most likely more prevalent in personal service relationships than in relationships where a specific person is not involved. Additional research examining this issue would be useful. We hope that the findings in this research will encourage additional work in this topic, including expanding this research to a quantitative study and collect‑ ing data from a larger sample of customers. This research points to a number of underresearched areas in the services marketing literature. There is a need for research that focuses on obligatory factors in service relationships. In 36 of the 44 total service relationships discussed, at least 1 obligatory factor arises. Yet researchers know little about obligatory factors—for example, there is no literature in marketing that speaks to the nature of a service

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relationship in which a customer feels a moral obligation to stay with the service provider simply to help that service provider survive. Further, how does reciprocity manifest itself in customer–employee service relationships? More research is needed to understand the deep‑felt personal and moral obligations to stay that customers often feel toward service providers. Cross‑cultural research is also important in this area, as collectivist cultures are more sensitive to obligations toward members of their in‑group (Markus and Kitayama 1991). Also, further study is needed to understand how per‑ sonality characteristics influence an individual’s lock‑in to service relationships. An individual’s personality may keep him or her from walking away from a relationship (because of the individual’s desire not to confront the service pro‑ vider or because of his or her desire to maintain the status quo), but a point also exists at which the customer may say enough is enough. What is the breaking point, and what factors contribute to it? These personality variables might be more relevant in personal relationships, so additional study is needed that looks at personality variables in close, personal relationships. Research could connect the two personality variables found here, or the other staying reasons, to consumers’ proneness to engage in relationships (a variable receiving increasing attention) (Bloemer and Odekerken‑Schröder 2007). For example, are certain personality types (e.g., non‑ confrontational) more prone to staying in relationships as well? Thus, there are many intriguing research issues in this area, and we hope this study entices other researchers to consider some of these. In addition, we do not model or link the relationships between the various antecedents here, of which there are likely to be many; for example, higher social benefits may lead to higher feelings of investment or need to repay, and the expectations of friends or family members may be asso‑ ciated with greater procedural switching costs (the hassle to switch becomes greater). We do not address these more spe‑ cific linkages because our data do not afford us the luxury of being able to examine or postulate these linkages in depth. However, these areas are ripe for future exploration.

ConClusion

The findings of this study suggest that most customers are not locked into service relationships due to one factor, but instead by a combination of factors. Each reason binds the customer to the service provider in yet another way (each reason creates a “root” that more firmly plants the customer

in the relationship) and creates lock‑in. The majority of research up to this point focuses on satisfaction, relational benefits, and switching barriers as the main reasons cus‑ tomers stay in relationships. While these are important factors, they are not the whole story. Researchers should also examine in more depth the obligatory and personality factors. By more broadly addressing these issues, researchers can more fully understand what creates lock‑in.

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