Higher Education and Retail

Religious affiliation can act as a buffer for companies

GVSU study finds customers were more forgiving of a service failure.

August 15, 2014
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Consumers are likely to cut some slack for companies with a religious affiliation, according to a study led by a West Michigan professor.

Grand Valley State University in Allendale announced that a study led by one of its professors was published in the Journal of Services Marketing. The study examined the relationship of a company’s religious association and customer reaction during a “service failure.”

The research paper, “Religious Affiliation: Buffering Negative Reactions to Service Failures,” was led by Kelly Cowart, assistant professor of marketing at GVSU, and co-authored by Edward Ramirez, assistant professor of marketing at University of Texas at El Paso, and Michael K. Brady, chair of the marketing department at Florida State University.

The study uses two scenarios to identify the correlation between a company’s religious affiliation and how it affects a customer’s perception of that firm during a service failure. The situations incorporated both religious and non-religious reasons for the service failure, defined as limited hours of operation or a temporary store closing, according to the press release.

“I am from the South and there is a company called Chick-fil-A, and they are known for their religious affiliation — they even have it posted on their wall,” said Cowart. “What does that mean to the people that come there? What does that mean for the employees? What does that mean when a company has a religious affiliation? Nothing had really been done looking at that effect.”

Starting in 2012, the team looked at customer responses when service didn’t go as planned and settled on a restaurant setting for the scenarios. People were asked to assume the role of customers with six different conditions and were asked questions based on their perception of the company after finding out the restaurant was closed for an annual religious holiday.

Not only did the findings indicate religious affiliation may serve as a buffer against negative feedback from customers, but also the consumers did not penalize firms as heavily as those without a religious association, according to Cowart.

“When a company had a religious affiliation, the customers were more forgiving that they were closed, even though they weren’t happy,” said Cowart.

Another aspect of the study’s findings was that customers’ personal religious associations, or lack thereof, didn’t impact their perception when the company held a different affiliation, whether it was Judaism, Islam or Christianity.

“The fact that I can have a religious affiliation at a firm and have that appreciated by my customer … is really telling,” said Cowart.

Noting an annual holiday closure may garner different results than scheduled weekly closings, Cowart said another scenario looked at closing on Fridays for religious observance in comparison to closing on Sundays to see if customers were just as forgiving.

“It might be one thing if I go every week and this place was closed. Would that make a difference?” said Cowart. “It was just as positive; it didn’t make a difference on Friday or Sunday. … (It) didn’t make a difference what my religion was.”

Cowart said the study is relevant to the current atmosphere with organizations such as Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A receiving negative attention.

Despite the intuitive reaction of companies losing customers based on public association with a religion, the study actually showed customers were more likely to be understanding, even when the belief isn’t the dominant religion in society, according to Cowart.

The study noted further research would be helpful to test the strength of the correlation of religious affiliation on temporary service interruptions due to technology failures or rude treatment by employees, rather than an observance of a religious holiday or celebration.

Originally published in 1987, the Journal of Services Marketing is part of the U.K.-based Emerald Group Publishing portfolio. It highlights service-related issues in different industries for marketing scholars and professionals.

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