The Role of Customer Gratitude in Relationship Marketing

Robert W. Palmatier, Cheryl Burke Jarvis, Jennifer R. Bechkoff, & Frank R. Kardes
Journal of Marketing
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Executive Summary
A large body of research in both business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) markets has empirically established that relationship marketing (RM) investments enhance both customer trust and commitment, and these relational mediators in turn influence customer response, leading to superior seller performance. This well-supported commitment–trust theory of RM has served as the default model for most relationship research in the past decade. However, a recent meta-analysis not only confirms prior research by providing support for the roles of trust and commitment but also suggests that the extant RM model is missing one or more important mediating mechanisms that researchers need to understand to appreciate the impact of RM on performance more fully.

The authors propose and empirically demonstrate that gratitude is an important missing mediator in the extant RM model, one that influences performance outcomes beyond the contributions of trust and commitment. A laboratory experiment focused on a B2C context demonstrates that RM investments generate feelings of gratitude (affective aspect), which have a strong influence on customers’ short-term purchase intentions. A second study uses a dyadic sample from a B2B context to link customer reports of gratitude-based reciprocal behaviors (behavioral aspect) to seller-reported objective performance data (i.e., sales revenue) and longitudinal sales growth. Moreover, the research demonstrates managerially important factors that leverage the impact of RM investments on gratitude and ultimately on seller outcomes. For example, if the customer perceives that the benefit was provided at the discretion of the seller, with a benevolent motive, or with some risk to the seller, the customer feels more grateful and is more likely to reciprocate.

Overall, this research shows that gratitude appears to enhance RM performance in three main ways: (1) Customers engage in positive gratitude-based behaviors to satisfy their feelings of obligation in response to RM-induced feelings of gratitude; (2) increased levels of customer trust due to gratitude increase customer commitment and thus enhance relational performance; and (3) gratitude promotes the development of relationships by initiating reciprocation cycles, which may have long-term positive effects on customer behaviors.

Robert W. Palmatier is John C. Narver Endowed Chair in Business Administration and Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Washington. He holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology, an MBA from Georgia State University, and a PhD from the University of Missouri. Before academia, he held numerous positions in industry, including president and chief operating officer of C&K Components, as well as European general manager and sales and marketing manager at Tyco-Raychem Corporation. He has also served as a lieutenant onboard nuclear submarines in the United States Navy. His research interest is focused on relationship marketing and business strategy. His research has appeared in Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Marketing Science, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, and International Journal of Research in Marketing. His research has received the Harold H. Maynard award for significant contribution to marketing theory and thought in Journal of Marketing in 2008.

Cheryl Burke Jarvis is Associate Professor of Marketing at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale and a research faculty member of the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University. She has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Texas A&M University and a PhD in Marketing from Indiana University, in addition to more than ten years professional experience in advertising, publishing, and marketing management. She has also served on the faculty of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Her research interests focus on improving the understanding of customer relationships and relationship failure and on improving analytical methodologies used in marketing research. Her work has been published in journals including Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Applied Psychology, and International Journal of Research in Marketing.

Jennifer R. Bechkoff is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the College of Business at San Jose State University. She received her BS and MBA from California State University, Fresno, and her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. Her primary research interests are in the area of judgment and decision making with a particular focus on the truth effect and omission neglect.

Frank R. Kardes is Donald E. Weston Professor of Marketing at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Kardes has published four books (Consumer Behavior and Managerial Decision Making, Handbook of Consumer Psychology, Applying Social Cognition to Consumer-Focused Strategy, and Advances in Consumer Research [Vol. 22]) and numerous journal articles and book chapters. He is frequently invited to present his research at leading universities throughout the world and currently serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, International Journal of Research in Marketing, and Marketing Letters. Dr. Kardes is a former president of the Society for Consumer Psychology and a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the Society for Consumer Psychology, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. He is also a recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the Society for Consumer Psychology.

Journal of Marketing, Volume 73, Number 5, September 2009
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Author Bio:

Robert W. Palmatier, Cheryl Burke Jarvis, Jennifer R. Bechkoff, & Frank R. Kardes
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