My twitter feed is reminding me that, today, North America celebrates Thanksgiving. It is a festival of religious origins encouraging people to be thankful for the good things and the opportunities in their lives – more information is available here. I thought this would be just the right excuse to tell you about some research I read about, not long ago, on the role of gratitude in relationship marketing.
The paper was authored by Robert Palmatier, Cheryl B Jarvis, Jennifer Bechkoff and Frank Kardes, and can be accessed here (paywall).
The research team was interested in how relationship marketing initiatives lead on to enhanced business performance – i.e., profit. Previous research established that relationship marketing initiatives lead to enhanced trust and commitment between the parties, which translate to more sales in the long term. However, the authors wanted to explore the role of other mediating mechanisms (over and above trust and commitment) – specifically, gratitude.
The role of gratitude in society
Gratitude is a very important driver of human behaviour. If I am grateful for something that person A did, I want to reciprocate and cooperate with person A. This is part of an ingrained psychological process – so much so that individuals that do not display it are deemed to have a personality disorder. This gratitude-reciprocation effect is multiplied within the group, creating a series of reciprocal behaviours.
That is, there are two dimensions to gratitude:
- an affective dimension – how it makes you feel
- a behavioural dimension – the act of giving something in return, as a result of those feelings
The authors wanted to investigate whether / how this mechanism influenced consumer behaviour.
Palmatier and colleagues found that the affective and behavioural aspects of gratitude also applied to marketing interactions – for instance, buying a shirt from shop A.
Relationship Marketing initiatives such as providing extra service or helping customers get exactly what they want made customers feel grateful towards shop A (over and above the satisfaction of getting the shirt). That feeling, in turn, motivated customers to reciprocate, generating a cycle of gratitude and reciprocating behaviours between the customer and the company. Gratitude also increased the levels of trust, a factor known to lead to loyalty towards company A.
What is particularly interesting is that the gratitude-retribution effect occurred even when the initiative (extra service, helping the customer…) led customers to buy from a competitor. One of the scenarios considered was that shop A did not stock the shirt and, in their effort to help you get exactly what you wanted, the seller directed you to company B – a competitor. The customer may buy the shirt from B, in the short term, but the feelings of gratitude (and subsequent reciprocating behaviour) are directed towards firm A, not B.
Moreover, gratitude increases when the customer feels that the initiative came from the employees themselves, as opposed to company’s policy – e.g., a loyalty programme with generous but pre-defined rewards. However, gratitude decreases when the customer understands that the employee is on a commission – in which case the initiative is seen as self-serving. One example? Service in settings where a large part of the employees’ income comes from tips.
I found these findings very interesting. And you?