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

Many scholars and managers have raised concerns that customers' personal loyalty to a salesperson may be a risk to their loyalty to the firm. We tested our theoretical model, which was based on the theories of psychology and organizational behavior, in the context of the direct selling industry, using a sample of 900 salesperson-customer dyads from Amway in China. It was found that customers' personal loyalty toward individuals can work positively and cooperatively toward loyalty to the firm. Specifically, we identified and examined 4 concurrent underlying mechanisms: affect transfer, social influence, behavioral sensemaking, and perceived entitativity. Our findings enrich the marketing literature on customer loyalty and we offer suggestions for managerial strategies and practice.

Keywords: customer loyalty, firm loyalty, loyalty transfer, affect transfer, social influence, perceived entitativity, behavioral sensemaking.

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). …

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