Communication Richness: Why Some Guest Complaints Go Right to the Top--and Others Do Notby A. M. Susskind

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DOI: 10.1177/1938965514560161


When a service encounter fails in some way, guests and service providers alike attempt to understand what went wrong, what can be done to fix it, and what could be done to prevent it from happening again. The starting point for this investigation is often a complaint lodged by the guest. Most restaurateurs (and operators of other service-based organizations) solicit guest comments and complaints as a means of ensuring customer satisfaction and a reduction of error. For the guest, a complaint is a way to inform the service provider of a problem. For operators, complaints act as a gauge of their performance and offer an avenue to improve their performance.

Despite the importance of guest complaints, we still do not have a firm indication of why guests choose a particular channel for their complaint. In this article, I examine guest complaints in connection with media richness theory to gain a greater understanding of guest preferences with regard to complaint channels. Based on the consumer-frustration hypothesis (Berkowitz 1989; Susskind 2004) and guests’ perceptions of the complaint process (Day 1984;

Kowalski 1996; Susskind 2002, 2005), I present elements of media richness theory (Daft and Lengel 1984, 1986) as a framework to demonstrate the objective decisions guests make when they make a complaint due to dissatisfaction with a service experience.

I will begin with a discussion of media richness theory and show how it relates to complaint communication. Next,

I will describe complaints and complaint management in general, and outline three variables—propensity to complain, information inadequacy, and consumer frustration— that underlie how guests process service failures and their subsequent decisions to complain. Finally, I will present, test, and discuss the findings for three research questions in connection with those three variables.

Media Richness Theory

Media richness theory is a way to classify messages that vary in complexity and meaning, in this case, service-based complaints. The idea behind this theory is that individuals continually exchange information (Daft, Lengel, and

Trevino 1987; Robert and Dennis 2005), but each exchange entails varying levels of certainty (lack of information) and equivocality (ambiguity). Uncertainty is normally reduced by receiving more data, while equivocality is normally reduced by discussion and debate. In general, to reduce equivocality, one uses richer communication channels, such 560161 CQXXXX10.1177/1938965514560161Cornell Hospitality QuarterlySusskind research-article2014 1Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

Corresponding Author:

Alex M. Susskind, School of Hotel Administration, Cornell University, 350 Statler Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


Communication Richness: Why Some Guest

Complaints Go Right to the Top—and

Others Do Not

Alex M. Susskind1


Despite everyone’s best efforts, restaurant service falls short at times. In those situations, guests perceive a service failure, and many complain. This study of 513 guests in three U.S. markets examines the guest characteristics that seem to drive the channel used for those complaints. Using a framework of media richness theory, the study found that guests who are more educated, more likely to complain, more frustrated, and in need of greater information about the service failure will typically take their complaint directly to management, either face-to-face or via written communication. On the other hand, those who are less educated or less frustrated will instead complain to line staff or use corporate guest-comment cards. Some of these findings appear not to support media richness theory, as face-to-face complaints are the richest channel (whether to line staff or management). However, it appears that for this sample of restaurant guests, the idea of taking it to the top (both in person or in writing) is important, particularly for frustrated, educated guests.

Keywords food and food service; operations; multi-unit restaurant management; complaint communication, customer satisfaction;

Media Richness Theory. at University of Sussex Library on September 19, 2015cqx.sagepub.comDownloaded from 2 Cornell Hospitality Quarterly as personal contact, while uncertainty, in contrast, can be reduced with less-rich communication channels, such as writing (Daft, Lengel, and Trevino 1987). Richer communication channels have been shown to facilitate social perceptions of others and enhance the ability to evaluate interpersonal communication elements such as expertise, deception, agreement, acceptance, and persuasion. Leaner communication channels, on the other hand, have been shown to facilitate communication clarity when task-relevant knowledge is low (Kahai and Cooper 2003). In addition, with richer communication channels, the sender must have the receiver’s attention to effectively deliver the message (Robert and Dennis 2005). This is based on the premise that richer communication will require more effort but will then hopefully lead to a more desirable result and facilitate better understanding on the part of both the sender and receiver (Robert and Dennis 2005).

Media richness has been studied in several domains, notably in the use and adoption of technology, computermediated communication (Daft, Lengel, and Trevino 1987;

Dennis and Kinney 1998; Kahai and Cooper 1999, 2003;

Schmitz and Fulk 1991), and task performance and decision making (Dennis, Kinney, and Hung 1999; Kahai and Copper 1999, 2003; Robert and Dennis 2005). These studies have demonstrated the contrasting value of leaner and richer communication channels. Richer communication channels, for instance, result in better decision making, greater socioemotional communication, and greater task-oriented communication (Kahai and Cooper 2003). In addition, the use of richer communication leads to greater agreement with and acceptance of decisions (Kahai and Cooper 1999). On the other hand, Dennis, Kinney, and Hung (1999) found that the use of leaner communication channels resulted in lower performance because it took more time to reach a decision, but leaner communication channels did not affect decision quality or performance itself.