Explanations: if, when, and how they aid
School of Applied Psychology, Grifﬁth University, Gold Coast, Australia, and
Department of Tourism, Leisure, Hotel and Sport Management, Grifﬁth University, Gold Coast, Australia
Purpose – This study aims to investigate if, when, and how the use of four different types of explanations affect customer satisfaction after a service
Design/methodology/approach – The study used written scenarios of a hypothetical service failure to manipulate explanation type, failure
magnitude and compensation offered. Participants were randomly assigned to read and respond to one version of the scenario, whilst imagining they
were the customer experiencing the service failure.
Findings – The paper ﬁnds that explanation type, explanation quality, failure magnitude and compensation each had signiﬁcant effects on customer
evaluations. Explanation type and explanation quality interactively affected the extent to which customers were satisﬁed with service recovery:
Apologies and excuses yielded higher satisfaction levels than did justiﬁcations and referential accounts but only when the explanations were perceived
to be of high (vs low) quality. Speciﬁc types of attributions and forms of justice were shown to mediate the effects of three of the explanation types.
Practical implications – The study shows that customer evaluations following service failure vary with the type of explanation provided. Service ﬁrms
need to provide an explanation in such circumstances, preferably a high quality excuse or apology, and need to understand the “process variables” that
determine whether the explanation will satisfy aggrieved customers.
Originality/value – This is one of very few studies that have compared the efﬁcacy of different types of explanations in service situations. The research
sheds light not only on what types of explanations work best, but also on how they have their effect.
Keywords Explanations, Service recovery, Justice, Attributions, Customer satisfaction, Australia, Service failures
Paper type Research paper
An executive summary for managers and executive
readers can be found at the end of this article.
Who hasn’t experienced a service failure at some time?
Whether it be a rude waiter, an overbooked ﬂight, or a hotel
room not ready on check-in, as consumers we experience
dissatisfying service events with alarming frequency.
Following such failures, customers report strong desires to
receive an explanation of what went wrong (McColl-Kennedy
and Sparks, 2003). But what kind of explanation should
service employees and managers give? Should they apologize,
claim innocence, downplay the problem, or resolutely defend
their actions? Are some of these types of explanations more
effective than others? If so, under what conditions, and
through what processes, do these effects occur? The current
study sought answers to these questions.
Using explanations to recover from service failure
Drawing on the work of Bies (1987) and Folgerand Cropanzano
(1998), four types of explanations can be distinguished:
1 excuses, i.e., those that invoke mitigating circumstances in
order to absolve the service organization of responsibility
for the adverse outcome;
2 justiﬁcations, i.e., those that involve admission of
responsibility, but which legitimize the service
organization’s actions on the basis of shared needs and/
or higher goals;
3 referential (or reframing) accounts, i.e., those that seek to
minimize the perceived unfavorability of the failure by
invoking downward comparisons (e.g., with those who are
worse off following the service failure); and
4 apologies, i.e., those involving an admission of failure and
an expression of remorse.
As Folger and Cropanzano (1998, p. 143) have noted, there is
currently “no complete theory of when and why some
explanations produce beneﬁcial effects”. Research comparing
different explanation types has yielded inconsistent results
(Bobocel and Zdaniuk, 2005). For example, Shaw et al.’s
(2003) meta-analysis of 36 studies – most of which were
conducted in organizational contexts – concluded that
excuses are more effective than justiﬁcations. Several studies
investigating service failures have, however, cast doubt on the
generalizability of this conclusion. In particular, surveys of
aggrieved customers (e.g., Tax et al., 1998) typically ﬁnd that
excuses are viewed negatively. Similarly, Conlon and Murray
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Journal of Services Marketing
26/1 (2012) 41– 50
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited [ISSN 0887-6045]
This research was funded by the Service Industry Research Centre,
Grifﬁth University, Australia.