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Manufacturer responsiveness to consumer correspondence: an empirical investigation of consumer perceptions.

Although there is general agreement on the importance of the consumer

correspondence handling function, specific steps businesses can

take to satisfy consumers are relatively unexplored empirically. This

study examines 300 consumers' responses to actual manufacturers'

letters addressing complaints and compliments. The discussion

focuses on understanding the components of consumer satisfaction to

manufacturers' responses and provides suggestions to businesses to

increase that satisfaction level.

The landmark 1979 TARP study on consumer complaint handling in the United States provided both sensitivity to the issue of correspondence handling and the impetus for businesses to establish, monitor, and improve correspondence handling systems. That beginning proved very successful. Consumers wrote and businesses responded in ever increasing numbers. An update of the original TARP study found that almost one-half of the 643 private businesses surveyed handled 220 or more complaints a month compared to 100 or more reported in the earlier study, on average. The updated report concluded that businesses have increased the ". . . performance of both the operations and management functions . . . [and] the professionalism of their complaint handling units during the 1980s" (1986, 8).

This positive response implicitly recognizes that customer satisfaction is worth pursuing for a number of reasons. Among them are cost effectiveness of keeping existing customers rather than trying to win new ones (Uller 1989), increased product selling to current customers, new customer attraction (Gulledge 1990), less potential for negative word-of-mouth communication (Richins 1983), and the ability to listen to customers for new product ideas (Hunt and Cooke 1990) and marketing information (Rosenberg and Czepiel 1984). Apparently, as Gilly and Hansen (1985) suggested, businesses may be beginning to think of complaint handling as a strategic tool and approach it as an opportunity rather than simply a cost.

While most correspondence handling literature focused on complaint letters, a few studies addressed praise or compliment letters (Lewis 1983; Robinson and Berl 1980) and recognized the potential relationship building opportunities complimentary letters offer (Martin and Smart 1988). Effective correspondence handling allows a firm to be responsive to and strengthen its relationship with customers to ensure their continued business and also to cultivate a valuable source of information.

While the need to effectively correspond with consumers meets with little disagreement, the manner in which to fulfill that goal is less clear. Although normative guidelines are available such as replying with speed and showing a personalized interest in the consumer (Dulek 1984; Fenvessy 1970), making it easy for the consumer to correspond by having an address or toll-free number readily available (Andreasen and Best 1977), and replying with empathy, assistance, and diplomacy (Cosenza and Wilson 1982), the general nature of these suggestions falls short of providing specific benchmarks for firms to follow. Additionally, much of the information available is anecdotal although higher degrees of satisfaction have been reported with receiving a response (Pearson, Hoskins, and Gazda 1980), speedy responses (Gilly and Gelb 1982), and type of response (Pearson 1976; Pickle and Bruce 1972).

Specifically, how important are these variables and are there others that impact consumer satisfaction? What is the interaction among the variables and is it different for praise correspondence than complaint letters? To date, little effort has been given to systematically integrating multiple objectively measured dimensions of consumer correspondence handling with their impact on consumer satisfaction. In response to TARP's assessment that research was needed to, ". . . fill existing gaps in the literature includ[ing] . . . consumer expectations regarding key dimensions of the complaint handling process" (1986, 12), the study reported here was undertaken.

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES AND QUESTIONS

The present study sought to scrutinize more closely consumer perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness to consumer correspondence to determine which dimensions are most important for strengthening the business relationship with consumers. Specifically, the following four research questions were of interest.

(1) How do consumers rate manufacturer responsiveness to letters

received from other consumers and do the ratings vary depending

upon whether the letter is a praise or complaint letter?

(2) What reasons do consumers offer to explain their perceptions?

(3) To what extent do specifically and objectively determined

characteristics of manufacturers' responses relate to consumers'

global evaluations of manufacturer responsiveness?

(4) What suggestions do consumers offer manufacturers interested

in upgrading their correspondence handling efforts?

The answers to these questions may lead to the development of a viable model for predicting consumer perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness. This would enable manufacturers to improve further the relationship building potency of their correspondence handling efforts.

METHODOLOGY

Data Collection

Figure 1 illustrates the five steps involved in the data collection process: (1) selection of 50 consumer packaged goods, (2) design and mailing of one consumer complaint letter and one praise letter to each manufacturer, (3) receipt or nonreceipt of manufacturers' responses, (4) evaluation of manufacturers' responses or nonresponses by 300 consumers, and (5) evaluation of objective characteristics of manufacturers' responses.

Step #1: Packaged-good selection

The research team first developed a list of nationally distributed consumer packaged goods, each of which at least one member of the research team could legitimately praise and one member legitimately criticize. This latter constraint ensured an element of realism in the letters and at the same time avoided obvious ethical concerns that might be associated with fabricated letters. This sensitivity to ethical considerations, however, necessarily limited the study's sample size.

Fifty brands, all products commonly sold in supermarkets, were ultimately selected for the study. These included 32 food products, 11 household cleaning products, and seven miscellaneous household products. In total, 48 separate companies were represented (in two instances, two brands shared the same parent company, but each of these brands was manufactured by a different division with a different address).

Step #2: Consumer letters

Next, the research team composed one praise letter and one complaint letter to be mailed to each manufacturer of the 50 brands. Each letter was individually written by the research team to coincide with a pre-established plan to maintain a degree of realism while also attempting to control as much extraneous variation as realistically possible in a field setting. Letters were written in a manner consistent with how "typical" consumers might be expected to write using a common writing style, a high school level vocabulary, and addressing each letter to the manufacturer's address as printed on the package. To ensure that each manufacturer's response was voluntary, none of the 100 letters demanded redress, made a specific request, or asked a question. Each consumer letter was personally signed by one of the researchers with one of two residential addresses included as a return address.

To further control extraneous variation, the letters were kept brief (mean body length = 66.6 words); all letters were typed and measured a mean of 7.6 on the Gunning Fog Index. All 100 letters were mailed on the same day. Finally, one randomly selected letter within each pair was typed with pica type and one with elite type, one was addressed to the president of the company and one to the CEO, one was mailed from a southwestern city and one from a midwestern city. These efforts to control extraneous variation provided a valid foundation for subsequent data collection efforts and exceeded those documented in studies evaluating consumer perceptions of business responsiveness.

Step #3: Manufacturers' responses

Manufacturers' written responses to 41 (82 percent) praise letters and 43 (86 percent) complaint letters were received within 90 days (median response time = 17 days).(1) Food product manufacturers responded to 81.2 percent (52 responses) of the letters, cleaning product manufacturers to 100 percent (22 responses), and miscellaneous household product manufacturers to 71.4 percent (ten responses). No significant differences in the response rates to praise and complaint letters were found. The word length of manufacturers' responses to complaint letters was significantly greater than for praise letters (means = 147.9 and 98.5 words, respectively; p = .001). More detailed discussion of the content of manufacturers' responses may be found in Martin and Smart (1988, 1989).

Step # 4. Consumers' evaluation

The fourth step in the data collection process involved solicitation of consumers' opinions and perceptions regarding manufacturer responsiveness. Three-hundred adult consumers from a medium-size southwestern city were surveyed primarily using door-to-door interviews, supplemented in the preliminary test phase of the research with a small number of mall intercept interviews.

The profile of the "typical" consumer respondent was found to approximate that of the general adult population. For example, the respondents' mean age was 37.1 years (std. dev. = 13.2), while the mean household size was 2.8 persons (std. dev. = 1.3). In addition, 63.1 percent were married and 38.3 percent either owned their own business or were employed in professional, technical, or managerial occupations. However, respondents were disproportionately female (61.0 percent), relatively better educated (mean = 16.4 years, std. dev. = 2.6), and had higher incomes (median = $38,462). Subsequent t-tests, correlation analyses, and one-way analyses of variance found no significant relationships between consumer perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness and any of the demographic variables. The representativeness of the sample was further verified by establishing that the majority of respondents (165; 55.4 percent) had previously written one or more consumer letters. Consequently, the selected sample was considered acceptable.

Each of the 100 consumer letters and corresponding manufacturer responses was read independently by three individuals (i.e., three consumers, two types of letters--praise and complaint--50 brands; 3 X 2 X 50 = 300 total). Letters were randomly assigned to respondents.

Participants were then asked to complete one of two short questionnaires. The first questionnaire elicited their attitudes regarding the consumer letter and the manufacturer's response, while the second, slightly modified questionnaire, measured respondent's attitudes regarding the letter and the manufacturer's lack of response. In particular, both questionnaires operationalized perceived manufacturer responsiveness by asking: "Do you feel that this particular manufacturer values customers who write letters to them?" Five response alternatives included: "Very much values customers who write (coded 5) . . . Somewhat values customers who write . . . Uncertain . . . Probably does not value customers who write . . . Definitely does not value customers who write (coded 1)." Identical questions eliciting demographic data were also included on both questionnaires for classification and sample validation purposes.

Step #5: Objective assessment of manufacturers' response characteristics

Finally, the research team evaluated each manufacturer's response according to predetemined classification heuristics. Characteristics of the responses that were mentioned by surveyed consumers and could be objectively assessed were examined. These 19 variables are specified in Figure 2.

Data Analysis

Data analysis consisted of first compiling descriptive statistics and frequencies, especially with respect to the qualitative data solicited from consumer respondents. Next, measures of association were employed to assess relationships between the 19 characteristics of manufacturer responsiveness and the dependent variable, consumer perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness. These measures included Pearson's correlation and chi-squared analyses, with appropriate consideration given to each variable's respective level of measurement and distribution properties.

Finally, a number of multiple regression models were developed using an iterative process of adding and deleting several combinations of independent variables and selected transformations. Several "acceptable" models were considered from which the best was chosen on the basis of predictive potency, interpretability, parsimony, and practicality of usage.

FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION

Overview of Manufacturer Responsiveness

Respondents tended to favorably evaluate the responsiveness of most manufacturers (mean = 4.00, std. dev. = 1.2), with 74.9 percent reporting that manufacturers either "somewhat" or "very much" valued customers who write letters to them.

As expected, these perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness were strongly associated with other attitudes. For example, a measure of consumer satisfaction generated using Westbrook's (1980) D-T satisfaction scale was positively correlated with perceived manufacturer responsiveness (r = .76, p = .000), as was respondent's self-reported likelihood of purchasing or consuming the brand after receiving (or not receiving) the manufacturer's response (r = .62, p = .000). The strength of these relationships reinforces the value of an organization's commitment to the correspondence handling function.

Manufacturer Responsiveness to Praise Letters

Not surprisingly, respondents tended to evaluate manufacturers' responses to praise letters more favorably than those to complaint letters (4.17 versus 3.82, paired t-value = 1.81, p = .038), suggesting that it was probably easier for a manufacturer to reinforce the positive attitudes of a consumer already satisfied than to placate a dissatisfied consumer.

When asked to elaborate on their perceptions of manufacturers' responses to praise letters, respondents offered a number of comments (Table 1). Given that the majority of respondents, 80.3 percent, evaluated the responses favorably, understandably the majority of the comments were also positive. [TABULAR DATA 1 OMITTED]

Sending the consumer some sort of written response, or failing to do so, appears to have the most noticeable impact upon consumers' evaluations--with 80 respondents (53.3 percent) so commenting. In contrast, only 13 respondents (8.7 percent) indicated that a response was unnecessary. Apparent sincerity or insincerity of the response (34.7 percent), expressions of appreciation (12.7 percent), and presence or absence of small gifts/coupons (18.7 percent) were other considerations noted by several respondents.

Consumer recommendations

As a followup probe, 108 (72.0 percent) consumers who were not completely satisfied with the response were asked what the manufacturer could have said or done to make them feel more satisfied. Eighty-two consumers offered a total of 108 specific comments (Table 2). The most frequently mentioned suggestion offered by 17 respondents (20.7 percent) was for the manufacturer to have included coupons or gifts, additional coupons, or coupons of greater value [TABULAR DATA 2 OMITTED] with the response (note: 29 manufacturers did enclose coupons or small gifts with a median monetary value of $0.50).

Although not completely satisfied with the response, 16 consumers (19.5 percent) commented that the manufacturer did everything expected and that no additional actions or gestures would have enhanced their perceptions. The same number of consumers recommended that the manufacturer should have been more sincere in responding to consumer praise letters. Many of the comments suggested that personalization such as using the consumer's name more frequently and avoiding "canned" form letters was one way to increase apparent sincerity.

Similar to the recommendation to be sincere, 13 respondents (15.9 percent) suggested that the response letter should have been more specific. Again, several consumers suspected that the manufacturer's reply was a standard form letter that made very general and vague comments--failing to precisely address the consumer's comments.

Eleven consumers (13.4 percent) recommended that the manufacturer express or stress appreciation that the consumer took the time to write a complimentary letter, while six consumers (7.3 percent) suggested that manufacturers should have thanked the customer for purchasing the brand. The former group of comments is particularly revealing given that all 41 responding manufacturers did thank the customer for writing. Apparently, the manufacturers' appreciation was sometimes obscured within lengthy paragraphs that addressed numerous issues.

A final recommendation warranting elaboration was offered by four respondents (4.9 percent) who suggested that the manufacturer should have promised that a specific action had been or would be taken. Apparently, this group had a strong desire to believe that consumer letters do make a difference and would have appreciated hearing that manufacturers' commitment to quality and consumer satisfaction was rejuvenated by positive consumer comments. To these consumers, it was not sufficient that a manufacturer's representative simply read and acknowledged praise letters.

Empirical investigation

To further understand the factors that shape consumer perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness, the relationship between these perceptions and 19 characteristics of manufacturers' responses to praise letters were systematically investigated with correlation and chi-squared analyses. The top portions of Table 3 and Table 4 summarize these findings. [TABULAR DATA 3 AND 4 OMITTED]

Two characteristics were found to be significantly related at the p [is less than or equal to] .05 level to consumer perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness. Manufacturers that sent consumers written responses (p = .00, Cramer's V = .48) and recommended additional uses of the brand p = .04, Cramer's V = .19) were more likely to be perceived as valuing customers who praised their brand.

MANUFACTURER RESPONSIVENESS TO COMPLAINT LETTERS

Despite the findings that consumer respondents generally rated manufacturers' responses to praise letters more favorably than responses to complaint letters, the majority of responses to complaint letters received positive consumer evaluations. For example, 103 respondents (69.6 percent) believed that respective manufacturers either "very much" or "somewhat" valued customers who corresponded with them.

As summarized in Table 5, respondents offered a number of comments to justify their ratings of manufacturers, with positive comments outnumbering negative comments 156 to 93. The most frequently mentioned positive comment (30 consumers, 20.0 percent) regarded the favorable impression created by the manufacturer's enclosure of discount coupons, refund checks, and small gifts. Almost as many consumers (27, 18.0 percent) commented that the mere presence of manufacturer's response enhanced their perception of the manufacturer, while fewer than one-half as many consumers (13, 8.7 percent) noted that the manufacturer's response was unnecessary. [TABULAR DATA 5 OMITTED]

In contrast, the absence of many of these response characteristics was reported by dissatisfied respondents in defense of their perceptions. For example, 22 unimpressed consumers (14.7 percent) noted that the manufacturer did not specifically address the problem raised by the consumer, 18 (12.0 percent) negatively reacted to the manufacturer's failure to respond at all, 12 (8.0 percent) believed the response was insincere, and eight (5.3 percent) apparently believed the complaint was being paid only lip service as evidenced by the manufacturers' failure to outline specific corrective actions taken to remedy the problem.

Perhaps surprising was that only three consumers (2.0 percent) reported that the manufacturer "should have" included a refund or discount coupon. This finding would seem to imply that most consumers may not necessarily expect to be monetarily compensated, but as indicated by the previously discussed positive comments, are favorably impressed when the manufacturer had included such items with the response.

Consumer recommendations

Those consumers, not completely impressed with manufacturer responsiveness, were asked what manufacturers might have said or done to make the response to the complaint letter more appropriate. Of these 136 respondents, 112 offered a total of 160 specific recommendations (Table 6). The most common recommendation was that manufacturers should have promised to take action to remedy complaints. Apparently, to these 33 consumer respondents (29.5 percent), a responsive manufacturer was one that was not only committed to corresponding with consumers who complained, but was also committed to embracing complaints in order to improve the organization's operational effectiveness. Summarizing the action steps the manufacturer had taken or planned to take served to communicate this deeper degree of commitment. Not surprisingly, 16 consumers (14.3 percent) also recommended that the manufacturer not answering the complaint should have done so--thus complaining consumers could have avoided the anxiety associated with being ignored or wondering if manufacturers received and read the complaint. [TABULAR DATA 6 OMITTED]

Empirical investigation

The next stage in the research process entailed a more conclusive examination of the relationship between consumer perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness to complaint letters and the 19 response characteristics. The lower portions of Table 3 and Table 7 summarize these associations. A total of six response characteristics were found to be significantly related (p [is less than or equal to] .05), while another two relationships were significant at the .10 level. Insufficient data dispersion prevented the adequate testing of two other relationships. [TABULAR DATA 7 OMITTED]

Not surprisingly, manufacturers that replied in writing to complainants were more likely to be perceived favorably than those that failed to respond at all (p = .00, Cramer's V = .33). However, written responses, per se, clearly did not guarantee favorable consumer perceptions. Several specific aspects of the manufacturers' responses and their contents were also relevant. For example, a manufacturer whose representative attempted to reinforce positive consumer feelings about the brand (p = .00, Cramer's V = .28), recommended additional brands in the product line (p = .01, Cramer's V = .23), referred the consumer's letter to other individuals or departments in the company (p = .07, Cramer's V = .16), responded quickly (r = .17, p = .06), and included discount coupons or refunds (r = .21, p = .02) tended to receive higher ratings than other manufacturers. Lengthier responses tended to elicit more favorable perceptions r = .32, p = 00)--possibly because longer responses were more likely to include an explanation of the consumer's dilemma and were more apt to convey a sincere, caring attitude.

Next, the empirical investigation was extended by developing a multiple regression model that was used to better understand the interrelationships between the response characteristics and to facilitate more accurate predictions of consumer perceptions from an existing knowledge of these characteristics. Of several alternative regression models developed, Table 8 summarizes the model ultimately selected on the basis of its predictive potency, interpretability, parsimony, and practicality of usage. Four independent variables included in the model--Response Presence, Response Sentence Length, Reinforcement, and Monetary Value of Enclosures--accounted for 69.1 percent of the variance in consumers' perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness, with a standard error of 0.576. Two of these four variables, Response Sentence Length and Monetary Value of Enclosures, were transformed in the model (by incorporating their square roots) to minimize the impact of excessively high values, thereby improving the predictive performance of the model. [TABULAR DATA 8 OMITTED]

CORRESPONDENCE HANDLING IMPLICATIONS FOR BUSINESS

Findings of this study demonstrate the importance of an organization's commitment to the correspondence handling function. Not only did respondents feel that companies that respond to consumers' letters valued that customer, but respondents also indicated a willingness to continue buying their products. While expectations for receiving responses to complaint letters are higher than for praise letters, responses to each are important. As more companies have understood the relationship building value of responding to consumers' letters, record numbers have implemented correspondence handling operations. Obviously, this commitment to providing a timely response is critical. However, now that so many companies have taken this step, the process of refining procedures can be undertaken.

Consequently, what actions can companies take to maximize the positive effect of their correspondence opportunities with consumers? To begin, manufacturers interested in upgrading their correspondence handling functions might first audit their response letters previously written to consumers. Such audits might be conducted on a routine basis by manufacturers as one approach to monitoring and ensuring the quality of responses, and/or to train and develop their correspondents. Those complaint letters found to have characteristics yielding predictions of lower responsiveness ratings (using the previously discussed multiple regression model) could be restructured to enhance their likelihood of being well received by consumers.

More specifically, this study indicates three main areas as most pivotal in helping ensure a positive consumer reaction. Fortunately, while each may require some minor modifications in current business procedures, none should be difficult to implement.

The first area is telling consumers that their input, regardless of whether it is in the form of complaint or praise, is appreciated. This includes three aspects: appreciation for taking the time to write, appreciation for having purchased the brand, and appreciation for continuing purchasing the brand. Even though most companies say "thank you" to the writer at some point in their response, sometimes that appreciation is overlooked. Thanking the consumer multiple times and not burying that thanks in the middle of a paragraph would help lessen the chances of the reader missing the appreciative words. Ending the letter with a final, free-standing sentence such as "Again, we thank you for taking the time to write to us and for your interest in our company and our product XYZ" would help ensure that the recipient sees that important point.

Second, write a sincere, specific response. Consumers prefer letters that are not identified as form letters. "Canned" correspondence does not leave as positive a feeling with consumers as a response that addresses the person by name, refers to the specific point of the original letter, and even going a step further, tells what particular action has been or will be taken as a result of the input. Acknowledging the receipt of the communication is the starting point, but respondents also seem to want evidence that management is paying ample attention to the specific points raised. This specificity may necessitate a longer response than most companies currently provide. As length of the manufacturers' responses was shown to be related to consumer perceptions of manufacturer responsiveness, longer responses have a positive effect and typically should be encouraged.

Finally, enclose a small gift, token, or refund check with the letter. Even though consumers may not expect such treatment, it does help make a positive impression. And, as one might expect, the higher the enclosure's perceived value, the more positive the impression. Perceived value can be enhanced in several ways not necessarily entailing vastly increasing the actual monetary value of the enclosure. This can be done by printing a coupon which states that it is used only for extra special customers, sending multiple small value coupons, or sending a token sales promotion item such as a recipe book, magnet, or potholder.

Although responding to consumers with appreciation, sincerity, specificity, and an enclosure appears relatively easy to institute, it would be advisable for a company, if they have not already done so, to experiment with various combinations to see which configuration represents the optimum tradeoff among the probability of satisfying the customer, the cost of responding, and other pragmatic considerations under the most commonly received correspondence conditions. From the consumer's perspective, however, the manufacturer's attention to detail could be the difference between feeling generally satisfied with a company's response and feeling that the company has gone that extra step and really does value consumers and their continued business.

CONSUMER IMPLICATIONS

Consumer concern over actually receiving or not receiving a response to a letter written to a manufacturer should decrease as response rates continue to climb. However, there still may be some randomness in correspondence handling systems caused by dealing with large numbers of letters, human error, not to mention the possibility that the letter was never delivered. For these reasons occasionally a letter may not be answered. If a response is not forthcoming after 30 days, consumers may want to give the manufacturer the benefit of the doubt and mail another letter. A copy of the original letter with a note attached that a response was not received should alert the company to the problem and to the consumer's continued interest in hearing from them.

Given that most letters are acknowledged, the next focus may be the level of satisfaction received from the response, and, as this study indicates, consumers have definite opinions about the appropriateness of the response. To help manufacturers find the acceptable response level, consumers might facilitate the process by specifying what is expected. If the letter involves a complaint, is reimbursement for the cost of the product expected or is more than that desired to compensate for inconvenience? If cost is involved, the consumer should specify the exact amount as prices may vary by location.

A specific request may also require a more personalized response, thus removing the response from the "form letter" category. Another approach would be to ask a series of questions so that the "usual" response to a single question is no longer appropriate and a special answer is more likely to be tailored to the letter.

As noted, sincerity in answering the letter and appreciation of the input are important aspects of satisfaction. Although it is difficult to ask for sincerity or appreciation, the consumer can increase the likelihood of getting such treatment by writing in a similar manner. It stands to reason that the company will be more likely to respond in kind if the letter writer is also sincere and appreciative of the company taking time to listen and respond.

LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH SUGGESTIONS

Limitations of the present research should be noted. These limitations may, however, be the basis for future research considerations.

A major issue is the external validity or generalizability of the study. Because letter writing is highly personal, having respondents evaluate others' letters removes that involvement dimension. The specific problem or praise respondents were asked to judge may or may not have been particularly relevant to them. Nor were respondents' psychographic characteristics and general attitudes toward voicing their complaints and compliments to business necessarily consistent with those of the letter writers. The alternative, which would ensure greater external validity but lessen internal validity, is to have individuals write their own letters and then judge the manufacturers' responses. This approach, which has been used with student letter writers (see Pearson, Hoskins, and Gazda 1980), lacks a high degee of standardization or control over the content of the letters. For example, with respondent written letters, the length, level of intensity, matching of praise and complaint letters, and demands for response would be difficult to control.

To somewhat compensate for the respondent not having written the letter, products selected for inclusion in the study were frequently purchased household products with which most people should have had general familiarity (56.9 percent of the consumer respondents reported having purchased or used the specific product mentioned in the consumer letter within the past month). Also, some evidence suggests that most consumers are not difficult to satisfy (Cosenza and Wilson 1982) so, particularly in the area of frequently purchased consumer goods, where cost is relatively low and the product's life short, there may be less intense emotion involved in letter writing than with shopping or specialty goods.

While one cannot assume that consumer respondents viewing others' letters would necessarily react in exactly the same way as those who wrote the letters, differences found at this low involvement level could be viewed as a baseline or starting point for further investigation. Because some of the variables proved significant under a low involvement condition, the next step would be to explore these relationships under a higher involvement or more personal letter writing situation. Many other aspects of letter writing also could be explored including handwritten, typed, and word-processed letters, letters that demand specific action and those that make no demands, letters that are obviously written by an angry consumer and those that are less emotional, letters written by men and women, and very long, detailed letters and those that are shorter and less specific.

Finally, this is the ideal beginning for trying to mesh consumers' ideas about acceptable manufacturer responsiveness to correspondence and what companies are actually doing. Policy makers, both in specific industries and at broad consumer organization levels, should consider providing appropriate correspondence handling norms. Publishing generally accepted standards would have a twofold benefit. First, consumers would have a baseline for expectations, and second, businesses would have guidance for setting their own standards and ultimately improving consumer satisfaction.

FIGURE 2

Characteristics of Manufacturers' Responses * Response presence: did manufacturer respond to consumer letter? * Speed of response: number of days between mailing consumer letter and receiving manufacturer's

response. * Response word length: number of words in the body of manufacturer's response letter. * Response sentence length: number of sentences in body of manufacturer's response letter. * Response readability: readability of letter as measured by the Gunning Fog Index--computed

as a weighted function of each letter's average sentence length and word complexity

(Gunning 1952). * Monetary value of enclosures: summed dollar value of all coupons, gifts, or refund checks

enclosed. * Managerial response: was manufacturer's response letter signed by (a) president, CEO, or

an apparent manager or supervisor, or by (b) an apparent nonmanagement employee?

Gender: if letter was signed by an apparent male or female. * Department: if response originated from a unit whose primary responsibility apparently is

to respond to consumer letters (e.g., Consumer Relations, Customer Service, etc. , or from

another department whose primary responsibilities lie elsewhere (e.g., Quality Control,

Advertising, etc. . * Letter referral: did response indicate that the consumer letter would be routed to others in

the organization? * Personalization: did response address the consumer by name? * Specificity: did response address the specific issues raised by the consumer letter? * Reinforcement: did manufacturer promote positive consumer feelings about product by

stressing its quality ingredients, careful inspection procedures, and/or highly skilled and

quality-conscious personnel? * Appreciation for writing: did response thank consumer for writing a letter? * Appreciation for purchase: did the response thank the consumer for purchasing the brand? * Other uses: did manufacturer attempt to strengthen customer relations by suggesting other

uses or applications of the brand? * Cross-selling: did manufacturer attempt to extend the relationship by recommending other

items in the line?

Brochures: did response include a brochure, catalogue, or information booklet? * Future writing encouragement: did response encourage consumer to share future comments

by writing to manufacturer again? (1) Two additional letters were received in response to the consumer complaint letters, but were excluded from the analysis. In one, a regional distributor wrote to follow up the manufacturer's original response. In another case, the manufacturer wrote a second, followup letter to notify the consumer that the brand had been reformulated in response to the complaint.

REFERENCES

Andreasen, Alan R. and Arthur Best (1977), "Consumers Complain--Does Business Respond?" Harvard Business Review, 55(July-August): 93-101. Cosenza, Robert M. and Jerry W. Wilson (1982), "Managing Consumer Dissatisfaction: The Effective Use of the Corporate Written Response to Complaints," Public Relations Quarterly, 27(Spring): 17-19. Dulek, Ronald (1984), "Making Personal Letters Personal," Supervisory Management, 29(May): 37-42. Fenvessy, Stanley J. (1970), "Customer Mail: How To Keep Friends," Administrative Management, 31(July): 44 46. Gilly, Mary C. and Betsy D. Gelb (1982), "Post Purchase Consumer Process and the Complaining Consumer," Journal of Consumer Research, 9(December): 323-328. Gilly, Mary C. and Richard W. Hansen (1985), "Consumer Complaint Handling as a Strategic Marketing Tool," The Journal of Consumer Marketing, 2(Fall): 5-16. Gulledge, Larry G. (1990), "Simplify Complexity of Satisfying Customers," Marketing News, 24(January 8): 6-7. Gunning, Robert (1952), The Technique of Clear Writing, New York: McGraw-Hill. Hunt, Sharyn and Ernest F. Cooke (1990), "It's Basic But Necessary: Listen to the Customer," Marketing News, 24(March 5): 22-23. Lewis, Robert C. (1983), "When Guests Complain," The Cornell H.R.A. Quarterly, 24 (August): 23-32. Martin, Charles L. and Denise T. Smart (1988), "Relationship Correspondence: Similarities and Differences in Business Response to Complimentary versus Complaining Consumers, Journal of Business Research, 17(September): 155-173. Martin, Charles L. and Denise T. Smart (1989), "Consumer Correspondence: An Exploratory Investigation of Consistency Between Business Policy and Practice," The Journal of Consumer Affairs, 23(2, Winter): 364-382. Pearson, Michael M. (1976), "A Note on Business Replies to Consumer Letters of Praise and Complaint," Journal of Business Research, 4(February): 61-68. Pearson, Michael M., William R. Hoskins, and Gregory M. Gazda (1980), "The Use of Student Letters of Praise and Complaint as an Introduction to Marketing Activity," Journal of Marketing Education (Spring): 18-24. Pickle, Hal B. and Roy Bruce (1972), "Consumerism, Product Satisfaction-Dissatisfaction: An Empirical Investigation," The Southern Journal of Business, 7(November): 87-100. Richins, Marsha L. (1983), "Negative Word-of-Mouth by Dissatisfied Consumers: A Pilot Study," Journal of Marketing, 47(Winter): 68-78. Robinson, Larry M. and Robert L. Berl (1980), "What About Compliments: A Follow-up Study on Customer Complaints and Compliments," in Refining Concepts and Measures of Consumer Satisfaction and Complaining Behavior, H. Keith Hunt and Ralph L. Day (eds.), Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press: 144-148. Rosenberg, Larry J. and John A. Czepiel (1984), "A Marketing Approach to Customer Retention," The Journal of Consumer Marketing, 1(2): 45-51. TARP, Technical Assistance Research Programs (1979), Consumer Complaint Handling in America. Summary of Findings and Recommendations, Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. TARP, Technical Assistance Research Programs (1986), Consumer Complaint Handling in America. An Update Study, Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. Uller, Frank (1989), "Follow-up Surveys Assess Customer Satisfaction," Marketing News, 23(January 2): 14, 16. Westbrook, Robert A. (1980), "A Rating Scale for Measuring Product/Service Satisfaction," Journal of Marketing, 44(Fall): 68-72.

Denise T. Smart is Visiting Assistant Professor, Marketing Department, College of Business Administration, Texas A&M University, College Station; and Charles L. Martin is Associate Professor, Department of Marketing and Small Business, W. Frank Barton School of Business Administration, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS.
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Date:Jun 22, 1992
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