When service failure is not service failure: An exploration of the forms and motives of "illegitimate" customer complaining

Kate L. Reynolds, Lloyd C. Harris

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Purpose - Proposes responding to earlier calls for further research into "fraudulent" or "feigned" customer complaints, and providing insights which explore and describe the motivations and forms of such deliberate "illegitimate" customer complaints. Design/methodology/approach - Critical incident technique was utilized in analyzing 104 interviews with customers who had knowingly made an illegitimate complaint within the six months prior to the interview. Data collection stopped at the point of theoretical saturation and was subsequently analyzed according to the coding procedures advocated by Strauss and Corbin (open, axial and selective coding). Findings - Two key insights emerged from data analysis. First, coding procedures revealed four distinct forms of customer complainants. These are labeled; "one-off complainants", "opportunistic complainants", "conditioned complainants", and "professional complainants". Second, six main motives for articulating fraudulent complaints were uncovered during data analysis. These are termed; "freeloaders", "fraudulent returners", "fault transferors", "solitary ego gains", "peer-induced esteem seekers", and " disruptive gains". Research limitations/implications - The study is constrained by its exploratory design and qualitative methods employed. Subsequently, future studies could employ survey methods to improve empirical generalizability. Future studies could adopt a more inclusive approach and incorporate insights from employees, managers, and other relevant actors within service encounters. Practical implications - Practical implications highlighted by the study include a need for businesses to examine and, in many cases, reevaluate their personnel training, customer complaint and service recovery procedures. Furthermore, managers may wish to enforce mechanisms wherein customer complaints are monitored and tracked in a manner that assists in the identification and challenging of re-offending fraudulent complainers. Originality/value - The study constitutes the first systematic attempt to explore and describe illegitimate customer complaining behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)321-335
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Services Marketing
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2005


  • Complaints
  • Consumer behaviour
  • Critical incident technique
  • Fraud
  • Service failures


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