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Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127

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Industrial Marketing Management

Customer response to dissatisfaction: A synthesis of literature and

conceptual framework
Jodie L. Ferguson a,, Wesley J. Johnston b,1
Department of Marketing, School of Business, Virginia Commonwealth University, P.O. Box 844000, Richmond, VA 23284-4000, United States
Center for Business and Industrial Marketing, J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University, P.O. Box 3991, Atlanta, GA 30302-3991, United States

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Business-to-business customers who are dissatised with services or products may respond by voicing
Received 3 October 2008 complaints, by exiting the transaction relationships, by spreading negative word-of-mouth (WOM) about
Received in revised form 7 April 2010 their experiences, and/or by continuing the transactional relationships as they are. The authors synthesize
Accepted 13 April 2010
extant customer (dis)satisfaction response behaviors in the organizational buyer behavior literature, and
discuss within-rm and third-party recipients of voicing and negative WOM. A model of customer response
behavior is disclosed featuring possible inuences of exit, voice, loyalty, and negative WOM: number of
Customer dissatisfaction
alternative suppliers, past complaint response behavior, number of years in relationship, and type of
Response behavior purchase. Propositions are provided on the effects of inuence variables on response behavior relationships.
Word-of-mouth 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

In Sheth's (1973) general model of industrial buying behavior, he customers. Negative WOM may cause the supplier to lose credibility
suggested that consumers' satisfaction with past buying experiences or suffer a tarnished reputation, which can mean substantial revenue
inuences their future purchase decisions. Similarly, their dissatis- loss from multiple sources. With the proliferation of the Internet,
faction with their past buying experiences should also inuence their negative WOM on trade organization websites could blanket the
future purchase decisions. Unlike satisfaction, however, dissatisfac- entire industry, potentially crippling the supplier. Bonoma, Zaltman
tion has the potential to cause negative future decisions, not simply and Johnston (1977)) reported that rms rely on WOM communica-
future purchase decisions such as declining to repurchase, but also tion within rms to make buying decisions. Negative WOM can not
decisions to complain and to spread negative word-of-mouth (WOM) only ruin the supplier's reputation for the buying center involved, but
that will damage the business or reputation of the offending provider can spread to other buying centers within the rm, causing lost
or supplier. revenues for the supplier in other departments.
Suppliers have a great stake in lessening such harm by under- In this paper, the authors strive to accomplish the following
standing dissatised customers' potential responses and understand- objectives: (1) to dene business customer dissatisfaction with a
ing what factors cause them to respond in certain ways. Companies purchase experience, (2) to synthesize the extant research on business
must be aware that dissatised customers may wreak damage customer (dis)satisfaction and subsequent behavioral responses to
depending on the behavior they choose in responding to dissatisfac- dissatisfaction, (3) to provide a conceptual framework for examining
tion. They may simply complain about their dissatisfaction, or they business customer dissatisfaction response behavior, (4) to explore the
might terminate the transaction relationship, severing future reven- potential recipients of complaining and negative WOM in a business-to-
ues, dissolving the company's relational investment, and costing the business context, (5) to proposition potential inuences on the business
company dissolution expenses, sanctions for future business, and set- customer dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship, and (6) to
up outlays to establish new relationships (Tahtinen & Vaaland, 2006). suggest propensities for individual members of buying centers to
Negative WOM is one extreme hazard with far-reaching con- engage in response behaviors.
sequences. Money, Gilly, and Graham (1998) demonstrated that
current customers responding to dissatisfactory experiences may 1. Business customer (dis)satisfaction
spread negative WOM to a supplier's existing and potential
As the role of the business relationship and focus on the customer
has come to the foreground, the business-to-business literature has
Corresponding author. Tel.: + 1 804 828 3201; fax: +1 804 828 0200.
E-mail addresses: (J.L. Ferguson),
paid increasing attention to customer satisfaction (see Emerson &
(W.J. Johnston). Grimm, 1999; Tikkanen & Alajoutsijarvi, 2002; Tikkanen, Alajoutsi-
Tel.: + 995 404 413 7851. jarvi, & Tahtinen, 2000). The satisfaction literature derives its concept

0019-8501/$ see front matter 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
J. L. Ferguson, W. J. Johnston / Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127 119

Table 1
Summary of business-to-business research relevant to (dis)satisfaction and response behaviors.

Author(s) Variables involved Outcomes and responses behaviors Key ndings

Backhaus and Bauer (2000) Presence of critical incidents, Critical incidents impact satisfaction
satisfaction formation.
Barksdale, Powell, and Hargrove Purchase price, number of Voicing (complaining) Conjoint analysis shows that purchasers
(1984) suppliers, types of purchase, fall into three categories for deciding
relationship with supplier industrial complaining behavior: some
do not use consistent rules, some use a
single rule (e.g., price), and some use price
and number of suppliers.
Blois (2008) Business-to-business exchanges Exit, voice, and loyalty, and Hirschman's (1970) model of customer
nancial implications to response behavior is applied to business-
response behaviors to-business markets from an IMP perspective.
Exploration of nancial implications to
response behaviors.
Emerson and Grimm (1999) Satisfaction, rm, and environmental Loyalty Product line growth rate and supplier
variables exibility are found to inuence the customer
servicesatisfaction relationship.
Giller and Matear (2001) Interaction between trigger event Relationship termination Perspectives on relationship termination
and existing state of the relationship are discussed and a model of inter-rm
relationship termination presented with
support through four case studies.
Hansen, Samuelsen, and Silseth Customer perceived value Word-of-mouth and searching for Customer perceived value is positively
(2008) alternatives related to word-of-mouth (positive) and
negatively related to searching for alternatives.
Hansen, Swan, and Powers (1996a) Expertise, jurisdictional Do nothing, complain, warn others, A typology of dissatisfaction style groups:
disagreement, vendorbuyer third-party action squawker, complainer, activist, and wait
communications, dependency; and squawk.
Hansen, Swan, and Powers (1996b) Effectiveness of complaint actions Types of complaint actions: positive Buyers experience problems in different
(seeking vendor assistance) and negative problem categories (e.g., delivery).
(switching, negative WOM, complaints Survey of buyers to estimate the
that harm rm reputation, wait and see) effectiveness of 13 complaint actions.
Heide and Weiss (1995)* Pace of technology change, Vendor consideration and switching Buyers' decision processes studied in
technology heterogeneity, behavior high-technology markets. Pace of technology,
experience, technological vendor-related switching costs, and
compatibility, vendor-related formalization all positively affect switching
switching costs, importance of behavior, while experience and centralization
purchase, formalization, negatively affect switching behavior.
Hibbard, Kumar, and Stern (2001)* Destructive act intensity, supplier Disengagement, constructive discussion, Responses to destructive acts in channels
attribution, self-attribution, external passive acceptance, venting; performance setting examined.
attribution, relationship quality, total (supplier's perspective) and relationship Cognitions about the destructive act and
dependence and relative dependence quality relationship characteristics to inuence
engagement in responses to the destructive act.
Jones, Mothersbaugh, and Beatty Switching costs Repurchase intentions Switching costs examined and six dimensions
(2002) proposed: lost performance costs, uncertainty
costs, pre-switching search and evaluation costs,
post-switching behavioral and cognitive costs,
set-up costs, and sunk costs.
Liu (2006) Customer value Switching costs Firms can inuence perceptions of switching
costs by increasing perceptions of customer value.
Liu, Leach, and Bernhardt (2005) Customer value; customer Share-of-business intention Customer value, comprising three dimensions
satisfaction and perceived (economic value, value of core services, and value
switching costs of support services), customer satisfaction, and
perceived switching costs inuence share-of-
business repurchase decisions.
Patterson, Johnson, and Spreng Expectations (inuenced by novelty, Intentions The disconrmation paradigm for determining
(1997) importance, decision complexity) satisfaction can be applied to industrial buying
and performance (inuenced by situations.
stake holding and uncertainty), A model of satisfaction is tested;
disconrmation, fairness; all but two hypothesized relationships
satisfaction are conrmed.
Perkins (1993) Satisfaction An approach to measuring customer
satisfaction, using product and service
Ping (1993)* Investment in relationship, Loyalty, voice, exiting, opportunism, Negative associations found between
witching costs, alternative neglect satisfaction and exit and neglect and
attractiveness, satisfaction between investment and neglect.
Positive associations found between
alternative attractiveness and exit, neglect,
and opportunism; between investment and
voice; between satisfaction and voice; and
between switching cost and loyalty.
Ping (1994)* Alternative attractiveness; Exit Relationship satisfaction has a nonlinear
relationship satisfaction moderating effect of alternative attractiveness
(moderator) on exit behavior in a channels setting.

(continued on next page)

120 J. L. Ferguson, W. J. Johnston / Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127

Table 1 (continued)
Author(s) Variables involved Outcomes and responses behaviors Key ndings

Ping (1997)* Satisfaction, cost of exit, Voice In B2B relationships, satisfaction, cost of exit,
partnering rm demographics and partnering rm demographics affect
voicing behavior.
Schellhase, Hardock, and Ohlwein Customer satisfaction Measurement for customer satisfaction in
(1999) B2B marketing.
Specically developed for retail organizations
and their suppliers.
Sharma (2006) Dissatisfaction, marketers' Key account success Dissatisfaction leads to lower key account
relational assets, buyer's relational success.
assets, quality of alternatives,
buyer's knowledge of key account
personnel, lack of innovation,
social/personal bonds, environment
Tikkanen and Alajoutsijarvi (2002) Customer satisfaction Discussion of current procedures for tracking
customer satisfaction. Three steps proposed (the
inner context of a business relationship, the
connected network of the customersupplier
relationship, and the outer context of the
connected network) that must be considered
for industrial customer satisfaction.
Tikkanen et al. (2000) Critical incidents; (dis)satisfaction Case study demonstrates that critical
incidents affect buyer satisfaction and
Trawick and Swan (1981) Follow-up required, actual response Intentions to reorder, reorders Satisfaction with rm response is affected
equals desired, prior complaint by follow-up, actual/desired response, prior
response, buyer rm larger than complaining handled satisfactorily, and the
supplier, buyer rm a major buyer rm being a major customer.
customer, another supplier Satisfaction with rm response to
available; satisfaction with rm complaining behavior signicantly impacted
response to complaining behavior actual reordering.
Williams and Rao (1980) Dissatisfaction, individual aspects Organizational buyer complaint A model proposed of organizational buyer
of behavior, problem situation, behavior complaint behavior
structural variables, types of purchase

*From the marketing channels literature.

of (dis)satisfaction from Oliver's disconrmation between perceived expectations for the product/service purchased (Williams & Rao,
post-purchase outcomes (i.e., supplier performance) and pre-purchase 1980), and they may each have different experiences that shape their
expectations (Oliver, 1980). The disconrmation affects the customer's perceptions of supplier performance, depending on their involvement
level of satisfaction. Although satisfaction can vary in degree, from less in aspects of service, product specications, and/or operations. With
to more (i.e., resulting in a continuum), generally speaking, a positive their differences in expectations and perceived outcomes, individuals
disconrmation results in satisfaction and a negative disconrmation may experience dissatisfaction while others are content. For example,
results in dissatisfaction (Oliver, 1980). Customers may respond to Bob Buyer's experience with the supplier's sales representative may
satisfaction by spreading positive WOM or purchasing and repurchasing exceed his expectations, while Ursula User's experience with the
more frequently. Dissatised customers, however, may refuse to supplier's late delivery may fail to meet her expectations. In this
repurchase from the supplier, or may undertake malicious attempts to situation, the buyer is satised but the user is dissatised. Business
get even or harm the supplier, such as by spreading negative WOM. customer dissatisfaction results when at least one member of the
Therefore, in this paper the authors focus on framing customer buying center is dissatised with a purchase experience, because that
responses to dissatisfaction, which may help suppliers better under- one dissatised member can respond with behaviors that harm the
stand dissatised customers' negative responses and better devise supplier.
measures to prevent or modify such responses. Thus suppliers should be aware that in business-to-business
Tikkanen et al. (2000) suggested that one cross-sectional negative purchases, customers may be dissatised with their purchase experi-
occurrence may not cause customers to become dissatised; rather a ence when a supplier fails to meet the expectations of at least one
series of dissatisfactory incidences may cause them to become member of the customer's buying center on one or more aspect of
dissatised holistically with the supplier. Similarly, when a company service, product specications, and/or operations.
fails to meet purchasing consumers' expectations in one or several
aspects of the buying process, they may become dissatised with the 2. (Dis)satisfaction and response behaviors in the literature
whole purchase experience. Perkins (1993) suggested several failures
that may lead to customer (dis)satisfaction: service (e.g., sales service, The authors' review of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in the
and technology support), product specications (e.g., technical organizational buyer behavior literature gave insights into business
quality, and reliability), and operations (e.g., price, on-time delivery, customer dissatisfaction response behavior. Table 1 provides a
and availability). summary of this literature. Much of the research focused on dening
Webster and Wind (1972), in their general model of buying or measuring satisfaction (Backhaus & Bauer, 2000; Perkins, 1993;
behavior, discussed the concept of the buying center within a buyer Schellhase et al., 1999). The research that examined responses to (dis)
(i.e., customer). Because the buying process can be so complex and satisfaction, such as exit behavior, was limited and typically focused
involve multiple persons, multiple goals, and potentially conicting on one or a limited number of response behaviors (Barksdale et al.,
decision criteria, to handle the buying process a company creates a 1984; Giller & Matear, 2001; Jones et al., 2002). Research by Hansen
buying center, which comprises all organizational members involved et al. (1996a) did, however, examine complaining and spreading
in the buying process, including users, inuencers, deciders, buyers, negative WOM behaviors, but only revealed clusters of similar
and gatekeepers. Buying center members may have different levels of responding groups. A more complete framework of responses to
J. L. Ferguson, W. J. Johnston / Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127 121

business customer dissatisfaction needs to be developed, as exem- complaining; Trawick & Swan, 1981), but have provided no
plied by Ping (1993, 1994, 1997) and Hibbard et al. (2001) who framework for classifying most response behaviors in a business-to-
developed models of response behavior for the marketing channels business context, particularly as it relates to the buying center. We
and retailing contexts. need to more clearly conceptualize the targets of customers' response
Hansen et al. (1996a) adapted Singh's (1990) typology of behaviors. Specically, who is on the receiving end of voicing and
consumer response styles to an industrial market setting by negative WOM? Finally, Hirschman's (1970) model of exit, voice, and
developing four dissatisfaction style groups: squawkers, activists, loyalty has been adapted in marketing channels and retailing
complainers, and wait and squawkers. The groups were clustered contexts, has seen limited adaptation in the business-to-business
according to their behavioral responses to a dissatisfying experience: context (with the exception of Blois, 2008), and can be used to more
doing nothing, complaining, switching suppliers, warning others, or completely frame business customer dissatisfaction response
taking third-party actions. In contrast to categorizing customers by behavior.
their response behaviors, we identied the recipients of the different
responses to frame the behaviors themselves and their contributions. 3. Dissatisfaction response behavior framework
Earlier literature on customer complaints focused on complaints
delivered solely to the supplier (Barksdale et al., 1984; Trawick & In the current paper, our proposed framework focuses on four
Swan, 1981; Williams & Rao, 1980). In their studies, Hansen et al. response behaviors: exit, voice, loyalty (Hirschman, 1970), and
(1996a,b) included complaint behavior to third-party individuals as spreading negative WOM (Singh, 1990). Blois (2008) summarized and
well as positive and negative complaint actions, such as negative dened Hirschman's (1970) concepts in the business-to-business
WOM. However, these studies focused on complaints to suppliers (i.e., context, where exit is moving from an existing supplier to one of its
the dyadic partner in the transactional relationship). Tikkanen et al. competitors, where voice is an attempt to change, rather than escape
(2000) suggested that the network outside the customersupplier from, an objectionable state of affairsthrough general protest, and
dyad is crucial in satisfaction. Today's communication options grow where loyalty is an option where a customer may continue to purchase
ever more intense, so complaint behavior beyond the supplier and the from a supplierin hope that improvement or reform can be achieved
spread of negative WOM has heightened importance; therefore, we from within (Blois, 2008, p. 3; Hirschman, 1970, pp. 4, 15, 79). Finally,
have included complaining and spreading negative WOM within the Richins's (1983) premier article on consumers' negative WOM dened
dyadic relationship and outside to third parties in our framework of spreading negative WOM as telling others about the unsatisfactory
dissatisfaction response behaviors. product or [supplier] (p. 68).
In the next section, we discuss each of the four response behaviors
2.1. Hirschman's exit, voice, and loyalty dissatisfaction response model in more detail. It is important to note that exit, voice, loyalty, and
negative WOM are not mutually exclusive responses (Singh, 1990).
As early as Hirschman's (1970) response framework, researchers Instead, these responses can be engaged individually or together. For
were focusing on response behavior frameworks. Several social example, it is possible for a customer to complain (e.g., voice) to the
science arenas have recognized Hirschman's framework, including supplier about poor performance and switch to another supplier (e.g.,
psychology, political science, consumer behavior, and organizational exit) when it is time to reorder the product. Also, voicing and negative
behavior (Singh, 1991). The framework model suggests that custo- WOM are directed actions. The behavior is directed from the customer
mers will behave in one of three general ways in reaction to a to or at the supplier, or another individual or group.
dissatisfactory purchase experience: exit, voice, or loyalty.
When customers exit, they sever their relationship with the selling 3.1. Exit, voice, loyalty, and negative WOM
or servicing rm. When they activate the voice option they express
their desire to change the undesirable situation and to seek When customers choose to exit, they no longer wish to continue
satisfaction. When they select the loyalty option, they choose to their transaction relationship with the supplier. Their experience is so
continue their current transactional relationship; they omit the choice severe that they believe that solely voicing their displeasure will not
of exiting the relationship. Singh (1990) took the framework one step persuade the vendor to respond in a way that will rectify the experience.
further by introducing another option that was similar to voicing but Their dissatisfactory experience may be the last in a succession of
needed its own classication: negative WOM, which entails commu- inadequate responses, possibly being the one to push the customer to
nicating to others but not the supplier about the dissatisfactory sever the transaction relationship. Customers who choose to exit must
experience. nd alternative sources to provide the service.
The marketing channels literature has somewhat accepted The exit response does not necessarily mean that the customer
Hirschman's framework since the model is basic for dissatisfaction exits all transactions with the supplier. In organizational buying
literature (Hibbard et al., 2001; Ping 1993, 1994, 1997). These studies behavior, a rm may use a vendor for multiple different products and/
loosely used the exit, voice, and loyalty model and adapted it to or services. Faced with a dissatisfactory situation, the rm may decide
include additional variables to t the channels context. Ping (1993, to exit the relationship for that particular product or service, but may
1997) and Hibbard et al. (2001) tested the effects of antecedents on decide to continue as usual with other products or services because
response behavior and found support for these effects and for the use the same supplier fullls those needs. For example, Customer A
of Hirschman's response variables in the channels setting. purchases bolts and fasteners from Supplier B. Supplier B delivers the
Blois (2008) used Hirschman's (1970) model to describe business- bolts on time but the fasteners are two weeks late. Customer A may
to-business responses in eloquently adapting the model of exit, voice, decide to sever the fastener purchasing part of the relationship but
and loyalty to responses, but limited the focus to nancial implica- continue the bolt purchasing. Because of satisfactory service on the
tions of exercising each response behavior. bolt orders, Customer A will continue that portion of the relationship
with Supplier B, but will exit the fastener portion of the relationship.
2.2. Literature summary Customers who experience dissatisfaction with a supplier can
complain (i.e., voice) to persuade the supplier to solve the problem;
Reviewing the literature of dissatisfaction and response behaviors the goal of voicing is to turn the experience from dissatisfactory to
revealed multiple opportunities. First, researchers have conducted satisfactory (Trawick & Swan, 1981). Voice is an active response to
limited research on dissatisfaction in a business-to-business context. dissatisfaction, with intent to seek restitution (Singh, 1991). Voice is
They have paid some attention to various response behaviors (e.g., often directed to the supplier but can also be directed toward
122 J. L. Ferguson, W. J. Johnston / Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127

individuals within the buying rm (i.e., the customer) or to a third-

party. For example, if Bob Buyer is dissatised with Suzie Supplier's
prices, he can complain to Suzie to lower the prices, complain to Dean
Decider (i.e., within the buying center) to increase the budget, or
complain to Len Lawyer (i.e., third-party) to sue Suzie for price
The loyalty option may seem passive, but may actually be a
calculated response on the customer's part. When executing loyalty,
the customer chooses to refrain from exiting the relationship; rather,
the customer will continue the transactional relationship and status
quo purchases in hopes that the supplier will perform better in the
future. Blois (2008) suggested that even as customers remain loyal,
they may still voice or spread negative WOM.
Spreading negative WOM describes the very active response the
customer takes to inform others about the dissatisfactory experience
(Singh, 1990). Negative WOM is not directed toward the supplier, but
instead is directed to other individuals either within the buying rm
or third-party recipients. Voice and negative WOM are similar but
they have distinctions. Voice is an active option where the customer
seeks change; negative WOM is active, but not to effect change.
Negative WOM can be thought of as venting or as an attempt to
express frustration.
Fig. 1. Within-rm voicing and negative word-of-mouth.

3.2. Within-rm and third-party recipients

In their exit, voice, and loyalty studies pertaining to marketing Fig. 1 also demonstrates how members of the buying center can
channels, Hibbard et al. (2001) and Ping (1993) examined customers' spread negative WOM beyond the initial buying center and to other
responses to a single informant only, their responses to the supplier. buying centers within the buying rm. When faced with a dissatisfying
In reality, customer response behavior could stem from a variety of supplier experience, members of the buying center can vent to other
individuals within the buying center and could be directed toward buying centers, thereby expressing dissatisfaction with a common
individuals and/or groups inside or outside the dyadic relationship supplier and executing negative WOM response behavior.
(i.e., customersupplier). Tikkanen et al. (2000) suggested that when Voice and negative WOM can also be directed toward third parties.
studying customer satisfaction, one must look at the internal context A dissatised buying center member may decide that voicing to a legal
(i.e., the buyerseller dyad) as well as the external context (i.e., outlet or suing the supplier is the best response to get restitution.
industry scene). Along these lines, the response behavior should be Members of the buying rm's buying center may feel the urge to
considered within the buying rm (i.e., the customer), between the spread negative WOM about the supplier to friends and colleagues
two rms (i.e., customer and supplier), and within the industrial who may be current or potential customers of the supplier. Another
network. In the following section we discuss these situations. outlet for buying center members to vent may be a neutral third-party
Voice and negative WOM are distinctive from exit and loyalty such as a trade organization. Trade organizations may have blogs,
because voice and negative WOM are directed to a recipient, either newswires, or chat rooms established for communicating dissatisfac-
the supplier or beyond the supplier. When customers decide to exit or tion. Similar customers could use trade organizations as a resource to
remain loyal, they either sever or keep their relationship. They can make purchasing decisions and to learn about other dissatised
direct voice to the supplier, to others within their buying center, or to customers' experiences. Fig. 2 depicts the third-party recipient
third parties. Like voice, they can direct negative WOM to others options.
within the buying rm, beyond the buying center but within the
boundaries of the rm (i.e., to other buying centers within the rm),
or to third parties (e.g., legal outlets). Fig. 1 illustrates within-rm
voicing and negative WOM, and Fig. 2 illustrates supplier and third-
party voicing and negative WOM.
Johnston and Bonoma (1981) suggested that the buying center
exists as a communication network that derives its conguration from
regularized patterns of communication. Among other communication
dimensions, the vertical involvement and lateral involvement imply
that communication ows up and down organizational hierarchical
levels and side-to-side among divisions or departments, all within
buying centers.
Fig. 1 demonstrates that because all members of the buying center
can experience different levels of (dis)satisfaction, all members of the
buying center can also direct both voice and negative WOM to each
other. For example, Ursula User complains to Bob Buyer about an
insufcient supply of product from a purchase in an effort to correct
the delivery. Bob, in turn, must then complain directly to the supplier
to correct the problem. Because Ursula complains to Bob, she executes
voice. On the other hand, if Ursula complains to Bob just to express
frustration while making do with the dissatisfactory delivery, she
executes negative WOM. Fig. 2. Supplier and third-party voicing and negative word-of-mouth.
J. L. Ferguson, W. J. Johnston / Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127 123

4. Inuences of the dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship because it may also inuence the likelihood of customers
participating in dissatisfaction response behavior.
A number of variables may moderate the business customer
dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship more radically than 4.1. The dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship
the consumer relationship does because both customer and supplier
may have so much more at stake. Business-to-business purchases may When holding constant the number of alternatives, past compliant
be worth more money, be more abundant, and have more people response, length of relationship, and type of purchase, the more
involved in the purchase. Thus, the business customer's decision to dissatised a customer the more likely the customer will exit, voice, or
engage in exiting, voicing, loyalty, or spreading WOM may have spread negative WOM, and the less likely the customer will remain
greater consequences (e.g., loss of productivity or loss of prots) and loyal. A dissatised customer may want to exit and nd an alternative
may negatively affect more people (e.g., reprimanding or ring that will provide more satisfactory experiences. Also a dissatised
salespersons or other associates). customer may seek to make the dissatisfactory experience satisfactory
Limited business-to-business research has explored the factors that by voicing complaints or by spreading negative WOM to warn others
inuence response behaviors. Hansen et al. (1996a) suggested that or to inict harm on the supplier by discouraging future customers. As
expertise, jurisdictional disagreement, vendorbuyer communications, levels of dissatisfaction increase, the customer is less likely to continue
and dependency are variables that inuence response behavior. Hibbard hoping that the problem will work itself out or that it will not happen
et al. (2001) found that intensity of destructive acts, attribution, and again.
relationship quality all inuence response behavior. Although many
additional moderators may exist, in the next section we propose that Proposition 1. The greater the level of dissatisfaction,
four moderators may particularly inuence the business customer (i.e.,
(a) the more likely the customer will engage in voicing,
any member of the buying center of a purchasing rm) dissatisfaction
(b) the more likely the customer will exit,
response behavior relationship. Fig. 3 demonstrates the four inuences
(c) the less likely the customer will remain loyal, and
of dissatisfactionresponse behavior.
(d) the more likely the customer will engage in negative WOM
(1) Number of alternative suppliers. Blois (2008) suggested that
the number of alternative suppliers available to the customer
may inuence response behavior; to help persuade the 4.2. Number of alternative suppliers
supplier, customers may threaten exit, even if they fail to
follow through. Thus, the number of supplier alternatives is The concentration of alternative suppliers available to the customer at
posited to inuence each response behavior. the time of dissatisfaction may inuence response behavior. This can
(2) Past complaint response. When customers want the supplier to include the ability to fulll the need internally (i.e., within the means of
repair a dissatisfactory experience, customers are likely to the buying rm), using another supplier, or nding a substitute solution.
respond depending on how that supplier previously acted to When the supplier is the only alternative, or one of just a few, the
rectify complaints. Trawick and Swan (1981) suggested that customer will react differently to a dissatisfactory experience. Hirschman
satisfaction with the supplier's previous responses to com- (1970) identied that in this competitive situation the seller with little
plaints may affect future purchase intentions. Hence, supplier competition has a monopoly or a loose monopoly.
response to prior complaining is posited to moderate the The more alternatives a customer has, the more condent the
relationship between dissatisfactionresponse behavior. customer will feel, and the less the customer will feel dependent on the
(3) Number of years in relationship. In his research of retailers and supplier. When faced with a dissatisfying experience, the customer will
wholesalers, Ping (1997) found signicant relationships be- feel more condent that alternatives are available if the supplier
tween the number of years with partner, satisfaction, and voice. provides no restitution. In this case, the customer is likely to solve the
Years of relationship did not directly affect voice, but the length problem by voicing. Other options are available, so the customer can
of time the customer and supplier have worked together may switch to an alternative if voice fails to rectify the situation. The
moderate the dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship. customer is also more likely to exit and less likely to remain loyal
(4) Type of purchase. Patterson et al. (1997) found that type of because multiple alternatives are available to ll the product or service
purchase inuenced the individual factors of satisfaction. That need. An abundance of alternative suppliers may bring about more
is, novelty, complexity, and importance all signicantly negative WOM behavior because the customer will feel less pressure to
impacted customer expectations and perceptions of perfor- protect or salvage a relationship with the supplier if the negative WOM
mance. Type of purchase is included as a potential moderator gets back to the supplier. The following proposition suggests the
inuence of the number of alternative suppliers on response behavior.

Proposition 2. The number of alternatives will moderate the business

customer dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship. The more
alternative suppliers available to the customer,

(a) the more likely the customer will engage in voicing,

(b) the more likely the customer will exit,
(c) the less likely the customer will remain loyal, and
(d) the more likely the customer will engage in negative WOM

4.3. Past complaint response

A supplier's response to a customer's voice is called complaint

response behavior, dened as the action the supplier takes to provide
Fig. 3. Inuences on the dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship. restitution. If a customer has led a complaint (i.e., voiced) with the
124 J. L. Ferguson, W. J. Johnston / Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127

supplier in the past, the supplier's response to the complaint may 4.5. Type of purchase
inuence the customer's future behavior (Trawick & Swan, 1981). If
the supplier responds as the customer desires (e.g., responds in a McQuiston (1989) studied the impact of three types of purchases
timely way or gives a refund), then the customer will be satised with (i.e., novelty, complexity, and importance) on participation and
the supplier's complaint response behavior. If the supplier fails to inuence variables in an industrial purchase decision. Novelty was
respond as the customer desires, then the customer will be identied as individuals' lack of experience with similar purchase
dissatised with the supplier's complaint response. situations in the buying center of the buying rm, complexity as how
Trawick and Swan (1981) found that customers' satisfaction with a much information the customer must gather to accurately evaluate the
complaint response affects whether they will reorder from the product before making a purchase, and importance as the perceived
supplier. Satisfaction with complaint response behavior could also impact of the purchase on organizational protability and productivity.
inuence the customer's response when another dissatisfying Novelty, complexity, and importance may inuence response behavior.
experience occurs. If the supplier responded satisfactorily to a past When involved in novelty purchases, customers may feel less
complaint, the customer will be likely respond as before (i.e., through condent about their purchase decision. They may feel that their
voice) to future dissatisfactory experiences. If the supplier has inexperience could have contributed to the supplier's failure, that they
provided dissatisfactory responses to past complaints, the customer might have communicated their specications inadequately, that they
will be less likely to complain again or to remain loyal, and may could have failed to understand the supplier's specications, that they
choose to exit or spread negative WOM. The following propositions might be responsible. They may then be less likely to spread negative
regard past complaint response behavior. WOM because they lack condence in their judgment as to whether the
supplier met their expectations or who is responsible for the situation.
Proposition 3. Past complaint responses will moderate the business
They may prefer to voice their dissatisfying purchase experience to the
customer dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship.
supplier to reiterate what they need and to help resolve the problem.
Also, they may choose to exit instead of remaining loyal in this novelty
(a): When suppliers have given satisfactory responses to past voicing,
purchase situation because with they have so little invested in the new
customers are more likely to respond to dissatisfaction by voicing
purchase and may nd it simpler to end the transaction relationship.
(b): When suppliers have given dissatisfactory responses to past voicing, Proposition 5. The type of purchase will moderate the business customer
customers are more likely to respond to dissatisfaction by exiting or dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship. For a novelty purchase,
spreading negative WOM, and less likely to respond by voicing or
remaining loyal. (a) the more likely the customer will engage in voicing,
(b) the more likely the customer will exit,
(c) the less likely the customer will remain loyal, and
4.4. Number of years in relationship (d) the less likely the customer will engage in negative WOM behavior.

A highly complex purchase decision involves a great deal of

The number of years in the relationship refers to the number of years
investment on the part of the customer. With so much invested, the
the customer and supplier have done business with each other.
customer will want to voice complaints to rectify the problem and will
According to Day (2000), a long-term relationship can range from
nd it very difcult to sever the relationship easily. Also, if the
transactional exchanges (e.g., purely contractual or automated
purchase is highly complex and the customer has invested much time
purchases) to collaborative exchanges (e.g., complete collaboration
in the purchase decision, the customer feels responsible for letting
with supplier); on one hand, some long-term contracts contain no
others in similar purchase situations know about the dissatisfactory
emotional commitment to keep the relationship going (p. 12). On
experience. Thus, this customer may choose to spread negative WOM.
the other hand, Dwyer, Schurr, and Oh (1987) suggested that
terminating relationships that have developed over extended periods Proposition 6. The type of purchase will moderate the business customer
may be similar to termination of personal relationships, resulting in dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship. For a highly complex
psychological, emotional, and physical stress (p. 19). Even purchase,
without emotional connection, leaving a long-time supplier may
incur switching costs such as new supplier set-up expenses. (a) the more likely the customer will engage in voicing,
Despite the customer's emotional involvement in the relationship, (b) the less likely the customer will exit,
the number of years of doing business with the supplier is likely to (c) the more likely the customer will remain loyal, and
impact how the customer responds to dissatisfaction. The customer who (d) the more likely the customer will engage in negative WOM
has been in business with the same supplier for years may feel more behavior.
comfortable bringing a problem to the supplier's attention and more Highly important purchases will also nd the customer more likely
hopeful that it will be resolved. Also, because of satisfactory previous to le complaints, not only with the supplier but with a legal outlet if
experiences with a long-term supplier, the customer may be more necessary. A dissatisfactory experience with a highly important
willing to let the dissatisfying experience pass without acting. Finally, if a purchase can be very costly. The customer may also be more likely to
customer has remained with a supplier for a long time, the customer exit the relationship to prevent further dissatisfying experiences. As
may be less likely to spread negative WOM. The customer may fear that with the highly complex purchase, customers will also have invested
spreading negative WOM will cause others to judge that an inadequate time and money in making the purchase decision for a highly important
supplier duped the customer into a long-term relationship. purchase. They may decide to spread negative WOM to inform others
Proposition 4. The number of years in the relationship will moderate who are making such important purchase decisions about the
the business customer dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship. dissatisfactory experience.
The more years of doing business with the supplier, Proposition 7. The type of purchase will moderate the business
customer dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship. For a highly
(a) the more likely the customer will engage in voicing, important purchase,
(b) the less likely the customer will exit,
(c) the more likely the customer will remain loyal, and (a) the more likely the customer will engage in voicing,
(d) the less likely the customer will engage in negative WOM behavior. (b) the more likely the customer will exit,
J. L. Ferguson, W. J. Johnston / Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127 125

Table 2 dissatisfactory experiences with acquaintances at other rms. Since

Propensity to engage in response behavior by role of the buying center.
the buyer deals directly with the supplier, the buyer may be more
prone to voice directly to the supplier or to seek restitution from a
legal rm if the experience calls for it. The buyer may also have more
opportunities to spread negative WOM at trade conventions or
through buyer networking groups.

6. Discussion and future research

The current research makes several contributions to the study of

business customer dissatisfaction. A synthesis of extant business-to-
business literature on (dis)satisfaction and response behavior reveals
several gaps in our knowledge of dissatisfaction and response
(c) the less likely the customer will remain loyal, and behaviors. First, researchers have examined some business customer
(d) the more likely the customer will engage in negative WOM behavior. responses to dissatisfaction, but the possible responses should be
framed into a cohesive model. Using Hirshman's (1970) exit, voice,
and loyalty and Singh's (1990) negative WOM models, we developed
5. Role in the buying center and response behavior
a general framework of business customer dissatisfactionresponse
behavior. Also the extant response behavior literature lacks research
While the previous section examined inuences on a business
on the recipients of voicing and negative WOM behaviors beyond the
customer's response behavior (i.e., the general response of the rm
customersupplier dyad. We discuss and propose both within-rm
or the organizational buyer), the individual members of the rm's
and third-party recipients of voicing and negative WOM. Potentially
buying center may possess different propensities to engage in exiting,
many variables may inuence a dissatised customer's response
voicing, loyalty, and spreading negative WOM. Table 2 proposes
behavior. A few of these inuences have been demonstrated (e.g.,
buying center members' individual propensities to engage in response
expertise and dependency, see Hibbard et al., 2001), but other factors
may also inuence responses. Number of alternative suppliers, past
Proposition 8. The propensity to engage in exiting, voicing, loyalty, or complaint responses, number of years in the relationship, and type of
spreading negative WOM will depend on an individual's role in the purchase are all propositioned to moderate the customer dissatisfac-
buying center. tionresponse behavior relationship. Finally, we discuss the propen-
sity for individuals to react differently to a dissatisfactory situation
The tendency for an individual to choose response behavior may based on their role within the rm's buying center.
depend on the amount of vertical and horizontal inuence that While our purpose was to frame the customer dissatisfaction
members of the buying center possess; positions of authority, such as response behavior relationship and postulate potential inuencers of
management above the primary functions or senior management, that relationship, our propositions remain unveried. To test this
have more vertical inuence in purchases (Robey & Johnston, 1977) model, real-world case studies could be used to illustrate a customer's
and more control over whether the rm continues the relationship actual actions. First, critical incidence techniques could get study
with the seller after the dissatisfactory experience. Therefore, the participants to recall dissatisfactory service or purchase experiences.
roles of buyer and decider, who traditionally are managers above the Then a series of probing questions could expose how they responded.
primary functions, may have the highest propensities among buying Most of the proposed moderators of response behavior are objective
center members to exit or remain loyal. While the gatekeeper may not measures (e.g., number of alternate suppliers, number of years in
always possess the ultimate authority to choose which supplier the relationship, type of purchase), and scaled-response questions (i.e.,
rm deals with, a dissatised gatekeeper who controls the informa- subjective measures) could be used to measure satisfaction with past
tion suppliers relay may have moderate ability to engage in exiting complaint responses.
and loyalty. The unique dynamic of multiple buying center members makes
Lateral inuence involves communication along an organization's exploring dissatisfaction response behavior more complex than
horizontal structure, such as with multiple users or multiple consumer dissatisfaction response behavior. The effects of multiple
departments involved in a purchase situation (Robey & Johnston, response behaviors per an individual dissatisfactory experience should
1977). Users and inuencers are members of the buying center who, be examined. For example, the user may complain directly to the
through experience or rst-hand observation, can provide opinions supplier, while the buyer spreads negative WOM to acquaintances at
about products and services for business consumption. Thus, users other rms. Future research should explore the interactive effects of the
and inuencers may exhibit more lateral inuence by complaining role in the buying center and inuences of response behavior, such as
(i.e., voicing) and spreading negative WOM within the rm. Users type of purchase.
may not always possess the authority to make decisions on purchases, Additional inuences of response behavior should be conceptualized
but they use the purchases and can judge quality through experience. and tested. The level of relationalism could inuence the dissatisfaction
They can complain about poor quality, hoping to get the dissatisfac- response behavior relationship. Although we proposition that the
tory product or service rectied, or they can share bad experiences number of years in the relationship inuences response behavior,
that may be considered for future purchases. The role of the inuencer customers who are highly invested in the relationship with the supplier
is to evaluate and communicate assessments of purchases. In (i.e., not just those who have ongoing discrete transactions with the
dissatisfactory situations, inuencers may choose to complain (i.e., supplier) may have emotional, social, or idiosyncratic investments that
voice) to other members of the buying center in hopes that the could elicit different effects on response behavior (Williamson, 1975).
situation will be resolved, or to spread negative assessments (i.e., Customers who are more emotionally involved in the transaction
negative WOM) about the situation, which in turn may inuence relationship may respond differently from customers who are not
future purchase decisions. emotionally involved. Additionally, customer value, which Anderson
Users may also tend to complain directly to the supplier when and Narus (1998) brought to research attention, may inuence response
their usage experiences are dissatisfactory, and may also share their behavior. Liu (2006) and Liu, Leach, and Bernhardt (2005) found that
126 J. L. Ferguson, W. J. Johnston / Industrial Marketing Management 40 (2011) 118127

customer value can impact customers' perceptions of switching costs moderators of the dissatisfactionresponse behavior relationship.
and ultimately repurchase and exit behaviors. First, if the number of alternative suppliers brings about more exiting
The dynamic between the response behaviors should be more fully and spreading of negative WOM, then the supplier should strive to
developed for the business-to-business context. Blois (2008) and position itself as a superior supplier to alternatives, thereby lessening
Hirschman (1970) suggested that in activating one response behavior, the appeal of switching to another supplier. Second, suppliers can
a customer may also be more likely to partake in another response control their response to customer complaints in efforts to encourage
behavior. For example, loyalty may cause more voicing (Blois, 2008). more voicing and less exit and negative WOM. Implementing an
Therefore, within a business-to-business context, the response aggressive response plan to customer complaints, such as faster
behaviors may be related to each other. Also, as Trawick and Swan turnaround, could inuence a dissatised customer's decision to issue
(1981) suggested, the supplier's response to complaining may future complaints, knowing that the supplier handled previous
determine satisfaction. Similarly, the response behaviors (i.e., exiting complaints satisfactorily. Also, if length of the relationship can reduce
the relationship) may lead to (dis)satisfaction. For example, if Bob exit and negative WOM, suppliers should entice customers to reorder
Buyer exits the relationship with Suzie Supplier and contracts with and sign extended purchase agreements to increase the time a
Sammy Supplier, Bob may feel satised with his decision if the customer transacts with the supplier. The supplier may entice the
transition goes smoothly. But if Sammy surprises Bob with unexpect- customer by offering discount prices for future purchases and
ed set-up costs, he may feel dissatised with his decision to exit. These providing services to lessen customer burdens. Finally, suppliers can
reciprocal relationships should be further explored. reduce the inuence of type of purchase on response behavior,
Empirical studies are necessary to better understand customer thereby reducing exit and negative WOM by modifying the customer's
selection of who will be on the receiving end of voicing and negative perception of the type of purchase. For example, if the purchase is a
WOM. The nature of the buying center produces interesting prospects novelty, the supplier could provide the customer with plenty of
as to how inter-rm complaining occurs. Also, the impact of negative information designed to thoroughly explain the purchase procedure
WOM within the buying rm, within and between buying centers, and for that product or service. If the purchase is highly important, the
to third parties needs to be further examined. The impact of negative supplier could provide satised customer testimonials to demonstrate
WOM may be far more intense and detrimental to the supplier than successful completion of purchases of similar magnitude. If the
we conceptualize. Future research to explore the reach of negative purchase is highly complex, the supplier could provide easy-to-
WOM, perhaps using communication-tracking software such as email understand information and personally assist customers as they
or blogs, could further our understanding of these important response specify their orders.
behaviors. Dissatisfactory experiences in business purchase situations are an
unwanted but undeniable facet of business-to-business transactions.
7. Managerial implications By understanding and attempting to manipulate the inuences of
dissatisfaction response behaviors, managers can strive to reduce
When selling products or conducting services in the business-to- unwanted response behaviors such as exit and negative WOM and
business segment, suppliers must be prepared to handle situations encourage desired response behaviors such as voicing (e.g., friendly
when customers are dissatised. Suppliers should have follow-up complaining) and loyalty.
services and procedures for dealing with complaints. They must be
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Jodie L. Ferguson is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the School of Business,
attractiveness and exit intention in a marketing channel? Journal of the Academy of
Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Professor Ferguson's
Marketing Science, 22(4), 364371.
research interests include customer and consumer response to rms' decisions in
Ping, R., Jr. (1997). Voice in business-to-business relationships: Cost-of-exit and
the marketplace.
demographic antecedents. Journal of Retailing, 73(2), 261281.
Richins, M. (1983). Negative word-of-mouth by dissatised consumers: A pilot study.
Journal of Marketing, 47, 2431 (Winter). Wesley J. Johnston is the CBIM RoundTable Professor of Marketing and director of the
Robey, D., & Johnston, W. (1977). Lateral inuences and vertical authority in Center for Business and Industrial Marketing in the Robinson College of Business at the
organizational buying. Industrial Marketing Management, 6, 451462. Georgia State University. He is currently the editor of the Journal of Business and
Schellhase, R., Hardock, P., & Ohlwein, M. (1999). Customer satisfaction in business-to- Industrial Marketing. Professor Johnston's research interests include application of the
business marketing: the case of retail organizations and their suppliers. Journal of behavioral sciences to marketing in the areas of business-to-business marketing and
Business and Industrial Marketing, 14(5/6), 416. customer relationship management. His research has been published in the Journal of
Sharma, A. (2006). Success factors in key accounts. Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing, the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of International Business Studies
Marketing, 21(3), 141150. and numerous other publications.