Journal of Consumer Behavior Essay

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Consumer complaints and recovery through guaranteeing self-service technology NICHOLA ROBERTSON1*, LISA MCQUILKEN1 and JAY KANDAMPULLY2 1 Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria 3125, Australia 2 Ohio State University, 266 Campbell Hall, 1787 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210, USA ABSTRACT Self-service technologies are shaping the future of consumer behaviour, yet consumers often experience service failure in this context. This conceptual paper focuses on self-service technology failure and recovery. A consumer perspective is taken. Recovering from self-service technology failure is fraught with difficulty, mainly because of the absence of service personnel. The aim of this paper is to present a theoretical framework and associated research propositions in respect to the positive role that service guarantees can play in the context of self-service technology failure and recovery.

It contributes to the consumer behaviour domain by unifying the theory pertaining to consumer complaint behaviour, service recovery, specifically consumers perceptions of justice, and service guarantees, which are set in a distinctive self-service technology context. It is advanced that service guarantees, specifically multiple attribute-specific guarantees, are associated with consumer voice complaints following self-service technology failure, which is contingent on the attribution of blame in the light of consumers production role.

Service guarantees are argued to be associated with consumers perceptions of just recovery in the selfservice technology context when they promise to fix the problem, compensate only when the problem cannot be remedied, offer a choice of compensation that is contingent on failure severity, afford ease of invocation and collection, and provide a personalised response to failures. Previous classifications of SSTs are used to highlight the applicability of guarantees for different types of SSTs. Managerial implications based on the theoretical framework are presented, along with future research directions. Copyright 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


The growing application of technology in services has transformed the way that organisations interact with consumers (Liljander et al., 2006). Self-service technologies (SSTs) are technological interfaces that enable consumers to generate benefits for themselves, without the presence of the organisations personnel (Meuter et al., 2000). They enable consumers to take an active role in the production of their service experience. As SSTs are a major force shaping consumer behaviour (Beatson et al., 2006), the implications for both consumers and organisations need to be considered. The failure of SSTs is commonplace (Forbes, 2008; Robertson and Shaw, 2009).

SST failure, or consumers perception that one or more aspects of SST delivery have not met their expectations, is attributed to poor service and failing technology (Meuter et al., 2000). Failures are inevitable with all services, especially SSTs that introduce new types of failures, such as consumer failures (Forbes, 2008; Meuter et al., 2000). However, SST recovery, e.g., fixing the problem and providing compensation, is generally reported to be poor (Forbes, 2008).

While consumers demand a superior response to SST failure, complaints are largely ineffectively handled in this context (Collier and Bienstock, 2006). This is despite the fact that SST failure intensifies the need for recovery because consumers are often remote from service personnel (Collier and Bienstock, 2006). SST providers have ignored consumers, denied responsibility for failure, blamed consumers for the problem, *Correspondence to: Nichola Robertson, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria 3125, Australia. E-mail: [email protected] and provided a generic complaint response (Forbes, 2008; Holloway and Beatty, 2003). Unsurprisingly, consumers might not bother voicing because they believe that it will be useless (Holloway and Beatty, 2003; Snellman and Vihtkari, 2003). If consumers are dissatisfied with an SST encounter and service recovery is perceived to be inept, they will switch and/or spread negative word of mouth and/or mouse (Collier and Bienstock, 2006; Dong et al., 2008; Harris et al., 2006a).

In the interpersonal service context, it has been argued, albeit rarely, that service guarantees, or explicit promises made by organisations to deliver a certain level of service to satisfy consumers and to remunerate them if the service fails (Hogreve and Gremler, 2009), are an effective recovery tool (Bj¶rlin-Lidn and Sk¥ln, 2003; Kashyap, 2001; McColl et al., 2005). In a recovery encounter, service guarantees have been found to provide benefits, such as reducing consumer dissatisfaction, negative word of mouth, and switching (Wirtz, 1998). We argue that in the context of SST failure, service guarantees could act as a surrogate for service personnel who, in the interpersonal service context, encourage consumer complaints and facilitate recovery.

Following our extensive review of service guarantees employed in the SST context, it was revealed that guarantees are uncommon in practice for non-Internet SSTs, such as kiosks and interactive voice response (IVR). However, in the Internet context, they appear to be more widespread. For example, guarantees are often used in the context of online banking, where online security, in particular, is guaranteed. They are also prevalent in the hotel context, typically in the form of online price matching guarantees. Therefore, the real-life examples of SST guarantees provided throughout this paper are skewed toward Internet SSTs. However, in N. Robertson et al. guarantees also have the ability to enhance consumers perceptions of fairness following failure. SST guarantees indicate justice in a context that is mostly devoid of interpersonal and other external cues, thereby encouraging consumer voice, facilitating service recovery, and, ultimately, retaining the organisations reputation and its consumers.

Our paper contributes to the consumer behaviour domain by adding to the underdeveloped literature on consumer complaints, consumer recovery perceptions, and service guarantees in the SST context, in addition to bringing these independent streams of literature together. As SST recovery in practice is reported to be deficient from the consumer perspective, further exploration of this topic is warranted. The remainder of this paper justifies a conceptual framework that describes how guarantees applied to different types of SSTs can encourage consumers to voice following failure and enable organisations to provide just recovery for consumers. We close with theoretical contributions, managerial implications, and an agenda for future research.

developing our propositions, we apply the SST classification schemes developed by Dabholkar (1994) and Meuter et al. (2000) in respect to technology type, purpose, and location. These schemes will be used to highlight the SST contexts that best fit the application of guarantees, which is beyond Internet SSTs. There are two key types of guarantees commonly offered in interpersonal services, unconditional and attributespecific, that also appear to be relevant in the SST setting. An unconditional guarantee covers the core service offering, and consumers are free to invoke it whenever they are dissatisfied (Wirtz et al., 2000). The attribute-specific guarantee is narrower in breadth, covering either a single or multiple service attributes (Van Looy et al., 2003). It is directed to areas within an organisation where consumers perceive that the guarantee adds value (Hart et al., 1992). The attribute-specific guarantee is the type most common in interpersonal services (Van Looy et al., 2003).

Our review revealed that this also applies to SSTs. For example, Hertz car rental offers its consumers online check-in for rentals. It guarantees that online check-in enables consumers to pick up a rental vehicle within 10 minutes or less. If it fails to fulfil this specific promise, consumers are credited $50. In another example,, an online dating service, guarantees via its Make Love Happen Guarantee, that if consumers do not find someone special in six months of using its site, it will provide them with six months free service. In the interpersonal service context, consumers have been found to prefer attribute-specific guarantees when they consider invoking the guarantee, . . . probably for their clarity and manifest nature (McDougall et al., 1998: 289). We further argue that in the SST context, generally devoid of service personnel and, therefore, with reduced opportunities for consumer monitoring, the clarity of an attribute-specific guarantee is less likely to attract consumer abuse (McCollough and Gremler, 2004).

Therefore, we advocate and assume for the remainder of this paper an attribute-specific guarantee. This can cover multiple SST attributes, which is referred to as a multiple attribute-specific guarantee. For example,, an online printing service, guarantees both the quality of its product and on-time delivery. This type of guarantee provides consumers with the opportunity to complain about several SST problems via guarantee invocation (Bj¶rlin-Lidn and Sk¥ln, 2003). In the context of service recovery, the examination of service guarantees has been scarce, and the use of service guarantees in the SST context has not been examined before. This is confirmed by Hogreve and Gremler (2009) in their review of the past 20years of service guarantee research.

To begin to address these gaps, our paper conceptualises the role of service guarantees in the SST failure and recovery context from the consumer perspective. We consider different types of SSTs in developing our propositions. We argue that SST guarantees encourage consumers to voice their complaints via guarantee invocation in the absence of service personnel. In line with the call for research examining the justice dimensions (i.e., distributive, procedural, and interactional justice) of service recovery in the SST context (Forbes et al., 2005), we propose that SST Copyright 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


The conceptual framework proposed (see Figure 1) is grounded in the theory pertaining to service guarantees, consumer voice, attribution theory, and justice theory. In justifying the framework, the distinctive characteristics of the SST context were considered, including the requirement of consumer co-production that is independent of service personnel, a lack of interpersonal interaction with service personnel, and consumers being obliged to interface and interact with technology (Robertson and Shaw, 2009). When studying SSTs, it is important to distinguish meaningfully between their types (Meuter et al., 2000). In terms of categorising SSTs, two key classification schemes can be drawn. The most cited classification scheme is that proposed by Dabholkar (1994).

Her classification scheme considers the following variables: (i) who delivers the service (degree and level of consumer participation); (ii) where the service is delivered (location of the SST, i.e. remote, such as IVR or onsite, such as kiosks); and (iii) how the service is delivered (technology type, i.e. Internet and non-Internet, such as kiosks and IVR). More recently, Meuter et al. (2000) proposed a similar classification of SSTs. As per Dabholkars (1994) scheme, they included the different types of technologies that organisations use to interface with consumers (i.e., Internet and non-Internet) and the purpose of the technology from the viewpoint of consumers, that is, what consumers accomplish from using the technology (i.e., transactions and/or customer service).

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