Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Unpacking the Black Box of Multifocused Customer Loyalty

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Unpacking the Black Box of Multifocused Customer Loyalty

Article excerpt

The influence of loyal customers can create a loyalty ripple effect of returns to the firm beyond repeat purchases (Gremler & Brown, 1999). Therefore, marketing researchers have long focused on cultivating customer loyalty. Although the salient role of contact employees has been recognized (Reynolds & Arnold, 2000), the customers' concurrent relationship with contact employees and the firm inevitably gives rise to multifocused loyalty, that is, loyalty toward different targets or referents, such as an individual employee, the firm or store, or brand (Palmatier, Houston, Dant, & Grewal, 2013). Although researchers have adopted a multilevel perspective to investigate multifocused loyalty, little is known about the psychological bases and dynamics of customers' multifocused loyalty transfer (Ahearne, Bhattacharya, & Gruen, 2005). To date, researchers have largely overlooked the underlying mechanisms of the positive association between customers' personal and firm loyalty. Customer-contact staff members constitute a critical link between customers and firms (Schneider & Bowen, 1985), and we believe it is important to understand this link. A better understanding of multifocused customer loyalty will aid firms in developing strategies to utilize customers' personal loyalty.

In this study, we aimed to unpack the black box of customers' multifocused loyalty transfer using as a basis Oliver's (1999) framework of true customer loyalty, in which a cognition-affect-conation pattern is explained, and social judgment theory. We also proposed that four psychological mechanisms would mediate the loyalty transfer process: Affect transfer relates to the customer's positive feelings toward the firm, which are brought about by the customer's fondness for the salesperson. Social influence refers to the extent to which the customer cares about the salesperson's opinion of the firm. Behavioral sensemaking reflects behaviors that are aligned with benefits to both the salesperson and the firm. (Sluss, Ployhart, Cobb, & Ashforth, 2012). Perceived entitativity is a customer's perception of ingroup entitativity, which may lead to perceiving the group as a real entity with the capacity for planned action (Sacchi, Castano, & Brauer, 2009).

Theoretical Framework and Hypotheses Development

Personal Loyalty and Firm-Level Loyalty: Transfer and Convergence

In business settings, customers can be simultaneously loyal to diverse targets (see e.g., Sirdeshmukh, Singh, & Sabol, 2002). Individual employees depend on the firm's resources (e.g., brand) and support (e.g., promotion) to deliver products and services (Yim, Tse, & Chan, 2008). The firm is, in a sense, the stage where salespersons put on a show for the customers (i.e., the audience). Customer-contact employees may play two roles when interacting with customers: a service provider (economic exchange) and a friend (social exchange). Therefore, customers are likely to attribute employees' demeanor and behavior to firm/brand factors (Bitner, Booms, & Tetreault, 1990).

This logic is supported in the applied psychology literature, in particular in relation to the principle of generalization, which occurs when attitudes toward two similar referents tend to mutually spill over (Till & Priluck, 2000). The basis for generalization is, thus, resemblance. Personal and firm loyalty share the bases of economic exchanges and entities, implying that a higher level of personal loyalty will be positively associated with firm loyalty. Palmatier, Scheer, Houston, Evans, and Gopalakrishna (2007) provided empirical evidence that personal loyalty is positively related to firm loyalty. Thus, we proposed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: A customer's loyalty to the salesperson will be positively correlated with the customer's loyalty to the firm.

Loyalty Transfer: The Mediating Mechanisms

True customer loyalty, as distinct from spurious loyalty (Bove & Johnson, 2006), is a composite concept, consisting of affective, behavioral, and cognitive aspects, that are focused on the customer-employee dyad. …

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