Customer frustration in
Bernd Stauss, Maxie Schmidt and Andreas Schoeler
Department of Services Management,
Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Ingolstadt, Germany
Purpose – This article aims to examine the negative effects of loyalty programs from the perspective
of frustration theory. It seeks to develop a model of customer frustration on the basis of frustration
theory and an exploratory qualitative study.
Design/methodology/approach – First, frustration is deﬁned as a special form of dissatisfaction
and a general model of frustration in business relationships is developed by evaluating the literature
on frustration theory. Second, an explorative and qualitative focus group study among participants of
a loyalty program for frequent travelers is conducted. A multi-level iterative content analysis of the
participants’ statements reveals the existence of different categories of frustration incidents. Third, the
ﬁndings of the study are used to develop a system of propositions that generate a speciﬁc model of
customer frustration in loyalty programs.
Findings – Seven categories of frustration incidents that were triggered by the loyalty program and lead
to frustration sensation and subsequent frustration behavior, like protest or avoidance, could be identiﬁed.
With four categories of incidents – inaccessibility, worthlessness, qualiﬁcation barrier and redemption
costs – customers’ frustration sensation and behavior are directed on the program itself (program-related
frustration incidents). For the other three – discrimination, economization and defocusing – frustration
sensation and behavior also affect the perception of the relationship with the ﬁrm (relationship-related
Research limitations/implications – The exact differentiation of frustration from related constructs
should be the topic of further research. The ﬁndings of the empirical study are of limited generalizability
because the object of investigation was a single company’s loyalty program in a special industry sector.
Hence, the introduced propositions should be further speciﬁed and tested in a large-scale quantitative
study in different sectors and with a number of companies and programs. Further work is necessary to
allow deeper insights into the relationships between the elements in the customer frustration model.
Practical implications – Several implications for planning and implication arise from the results of
the study. Management has to make sure that program-related and relationship-related negative
effects are avoided. That calls for offering only those beneﬁts that represent genuine additional value
to customers and for ensuring that the beneﬁts can be claimed at any time and without any additional
effort by the customer. Furthermore, the perceived quality of the program should be monitored to
obtain prompt information about possible customer frustration and indications of protest (i.e.
customer complaints) should be viewed with particular attention.
Originality/value – This paper provides new insights into the so far highly neglected negative side
effects of loyalty programs. Also, innovative is the ﬁrst-time application of the frustration construct to
the analysis of customer behavior in the context of loyalty programs. The contribution is of high value
for all who research in the ﬁeld of customer relationship management and customer loyalty.
Keywords Customer loyalty, Customer relations
Paper type Research paper
The Emerald Research Register for this journal is available at The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The authors wish to thank the participating company and students involved in the empirical
research project for their assistance and support.
Received 14 September 2004
Revised 3 February 2005
Accepted 3 February 2005
International Journal of Service
Vol. 16 No. 3, 2005
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
Loyalty programs recently gained considerable practical and academic attention in the
context of customer retention and customer relationship management. The
fundamental managerial objective of these programs is to reward loyal customer
behavior with special services or rebates and thereby at the same time to promote this
loyal behavior in order to realize the economic beneﬁt of long-term business
relationships (Reichheld, 1993, p. 64; Sharp and Sharp, 1997, p. 474). The extent to
which loyalty programs actually achieve this objective has become increasingly the
subject of scientiﬁc study (Stauss et al., 2001; Bolton et al. (2000); Verhoef, 2003; Yi and
Jeon, 2003; Noordhoff et al., 2004). Usually, such studies have focused on the question of
how strong the supposed connection between participation in a loyalty program and
increased customer satisfaction and loyalty actually is.
Supplementation of this perspective appears to be necessary. Everyday observation
and media reports on problems that customers experience in loyalty programs suggest
that these programs may also cause negative emotional and/or cognitive effects. If
these effects do occur, it is possible that the loyalty programs are not only falling short
of their goal of increasing customer retention, but may even be leading to a reduction in
loyalty. In view of the considerable investment required to set up and maintain loyalty
programs, it appears especially relevant, both scientiﬁcally and practically, to examine
the type and extent of negative effects of loyalty programs.
This examination is conducted on the basis of the “frustration” construct.
Frustration involves a highly negative emotion that occurs when a potentially
rewarding act or sequence of behavior is blocked (Colman, 2001, p. 291). Loyalty
programs explicitly promise customers rewards for certain loyal behavior patterns.
This makes the relevance of the frustration concept in this context evident: if the
customer does not receive the promised reward or if the indicated beneﬁt proves
worthless to him, customer frustration may arise.
It is, therefore, the goal of the present study to examine the negative effects of
loyalty programs from the perspective of frustration theory. To this end, the main
features of loyalty programs are presented and initial indicators of negative effects
described. A basic model of frustration will subsequently be developed by evaluating
the literature on frustration theory. This model is then applied to loyalty programs by
using the ﬁndings of an explorative and qualitative study. The paper ends with a
summarizing conclusion, a discussion of limitations of the study and research
questions that remain to be answered, as well as managerial implications.
Loyalty programs are marketing efforts which reward and, therefore, encourage loyal
customer behavior in order to increase the proﬁtability of stable customer relationships
(Sharp and Sharp, 1997, p. 474). Firms aim at increasing customer-speciﬁc turnover
and proﬁt margins by intensifying customer dialog, developing customized service
packages and thereby stimulating repurchase and cross-buying behavior. At the same
time, they strive to increase the efﬁciency of marketing by carefully targeting customer
communication (Dowling and Uncles, 1997; Palmer et al., 2000; Rapp and Decker, 2003).
It is characteristic of all loyalty programs that they grant beneﬁts to customers,
depending upon the volume of sales that they generate. These beneﬁts can consist in
monetary or non-monetary incentives like rebates, bonuses or services. In practice,
loyalty programs differ with respect to the importance which they attach to the various
types of beneﬁts and whether they grant them exclusively their most valuable
customers (Rapp and Decker, 2003).
Research on loyalty programs has increased in the last years. The effect of loyalty
programs on loyalty and their critical success factors were investigated in the context
of various industry settings such as automotive industry (Stauss et al., 2001), packaged
goods (Roehm et al., 2002), ﬁnancial services (Bolton et al., 2000), airlines (Whyte, 2002),
retail stores (Noordhoff et al., 2004) or telecommunication (Gustafsson et al., 2004). The
results of an empirical study of Stauss et al. (2001) indicate that the membership in an
automotive customer club has a remarkable impact on the customer’s relationship
satisfaction and retention. Bolton et al. (2000) show that participants of a loyalty
program of a ﬁnancial service provider actually tend to realize increased revenues and
higher service usage levels and to overlook negative service experiences.
Several studies reveal the importance of a careful program design. Roehm et al.
(2002) demonstrate that the loyalty of customers of packaged goods brands increases
when the incentives are closely connected to the brand. The study of Hallberg (2004)
yields similar results. Another aspect of successful program design is elaborated by
Kivetz and Simonson (2003). They provide evidence that by heightening the level of
effort required to receive beneﬁts, the attractiveness of loyalty programs can be
Yi and Jeon (2003) investigate how different program rewards inﬂuence the
perceived value of a program and show that customer involvement has an important
moderating role on the program’s success. Noordhoff et al. (2004) ﬁnd out that a small
number of alternative loyalty programs in a market and only little familiarity of
customers with these programs positively affect the success of the program. This is in
accordance with the results of the study of Whyte (2002) who ﬁnds an especially high
level of spurious loyalty among members of frequent ﬂyer programs who are
participating in several different programs.
Indications of negative effects of loyalty programs
The aim of loyalty programs is to create a win-win situation for the initiating company
and its customers. The customers receive monetary and non-monetary beneﬁts for
proven loyalty, which is supposed to increase their satisfaction and their inclination to
engage in further loyal customer behavior (Sharp and Sharp, 1997). The providers
beneﬁt from positive effects on turnover and proﬁts of loyal business relationships.
These supposed beneﬁts for both market partners result only when customers ﬁnd
participation in the program to be rewarding and have no negative experiences.
There is, however, evidence to indicate that this is not always the case. An analysis
of CRM activities has already shown that the use of certain instruments of customer
retention may have quite a negative effect that weakens customers’ commitment
(Stauss and Seidel, 2002). Hansen (2000, p. 429) demonstrates that
customer-value-oriented differentiation in loyalty programs may be perceived by
customers as discriminatory and unfair. In a recent study Gustafsson et al. (2004)
provide some indications that operational problems in collecting promised incentives
for loyal behavior and complicated operational procedures of a telecom company’s
customer club are perceived negatively by customers.
Further evidence of negative effects is found in practice. Critical customer voices
about loyalty programs can be found in internet chat rooms. The American web site
eopinions.com, for instance, has established a separate category for customer opinions
regarding mileage programs or frequent ﬂyer programs; and in Germany, ciao.com
allows customers to share their experiences with loyalty programs in various
industries. The critical statements made by customers in these forums show that
participants in loyalty programs experience problems that evoke great emotional
annoyance. Customers complain, for example,
.that ﬁrms do not keep their promises because they do not provide a sufﬁcient
supply of the products advertised as rewards, so that customers are turned away
or put off;
.that the rewards can only be obtained with some difﬁculty or not at all because
the required number of loyalty points is very high, because rewards are
associated with a disproportionately high purchase volume or because
accumulated points expire after a certain period of time;
.that the promised rewards prove to be of little value; and
.that provisions for privacy protection are violated.
In view of these observations, it seems sensible to focus intensively on the negative
effects of loyalty programs. For this a frustration-theoretical perspective is adopted.
Reasons for choosing the frustration construct
In general, when negative affective and/or cognitive effects are discussed, one is faced
with the problem of the underlying construct for these effects. In accordance with
conventional research into customer behavior, it seems reasonable to choose the
dissatisfaction construct, since dissatisfaction is the result of a negative assessment of
a customer experience. Furthermore, it can be assumed that dissatisfaction leads to a
reduction of customer loyalty in terms of decreased willingness to engage in repeat
purchases and word-of-mouth recommendations. Consequently, it seems obvious to
analyze aspects of customer dissatisfaction with loyalty programs and its inﬂuence on
the reduction of customer loyalty.
However, both practical experiences and scientiﬁc empirical insights have raised
doubts about the legitimacy of the conceptual dominance of the satisfaction construct.
In particular, it turns out that the correlation between customer satisfaction and
customer retention on one hand, and between customer dissatisfaction and customer
defection on the other hand, is not always as close as is traditionally supposed (Stauss
and Neuhaus, 1997; Oliver, 1999; Anderson and Mittal, 2000). This leads to the
conclusion that the correlation between customer satisfaction and loyalty behavior
should be looked at in a more differentiated fashion. Among the results of such
analyses is the ﬁnding that, along with other factors, it is strong customer emotions in
particular that induce loyal customer behavior in positive cases and defections in
negative cases. With respect to positive emotions, this ﬁnding has resulted in the fact
that an independent construct in the form of “delight” has increasingly become the
focus of interest in practice and research (Oliver et al., 1997; Schneider and Bowen,
1999, p. 36; Rust and Oliver, 2000; Keiningham and Vavra, 2001).
With regard to highly negative emotions associated with pronounced customer
dissatisfaction, the above discussion has rarely had an equivalent. This is astonishing,
as it is speciﬁcally those customers with highly negative emotions that tend to defect
(Schneider and Bowen, 1999, p. 36). Among them a higher percentage of “terrorists”
(Heskett et al., 1997, p. 85) can be expected, who take advantage of every opportunity to
express their dissatisfaction within their social environment and thus can have a
particularly damaging effect on business.
Only rather few contributions discuss the relevance of speciﬁc negative emotions
like frustration, anger, fear, or rage for disloyal customer behavior. Nguyen and
McColl-Kennedy (2003), for instance, analyze the role of customer anger provoked by
service failures. So
¨derlund (2003) shows that the explanation of repatronage intentions
can be substantially improved by taking customer frustration into account. Mattsson
et al. (2004) investigate the inﬂuence of anger, sadness, and fear of complainants on
loyalty. All these contributions show that speciﬁc and highly negative emotions from
customer experiences may represent an alternative or special case of dissatisfaction
and possess a stronger predictive power with respect to the negative loyalty effect.
In the context of loyalty programs the construct of customer frustration seems to be
of particular relevance. Frustration involves a highly negative emotion that occurs
when a potentially rewarding act or sequence of behavior is blocked (Colman, 2001,
p. 291). Loyalty programs explicitly promise customers rewards for loyal behavior. If
the customers do not receive the promised reward or if the indicated beneﬁts prove
worthless to them, customer frustration may arise.
Deﬁnition and theoretical foundation of frustration
Frustration is a concept from psychoanalysis in the Freudian tradition. Freud focuses
originally on explaining aggression, which he conceptualizes in his early works by the
occurrence of frustration. He uses the term “frustration” to describe unpleasant inner
conditions, which primarily emerge when expected rewards are lacking or targeted
goals are missed (Freud, 2000a,b). Later Freud gives up his early theories and puts
aggression in the context of his dualistic instinct theory (Freud, 1933; 2000c).
Building on Freud’s early works Dollard et al. (also known as the Yale Group) in
1939 published their monograph Frustration and Aggression to explain the origin and
consequences of human aggression and develop the frustration-aggression hypothesis,
identifying aggression as a consequence of frustration (Dollard et al., 1939, S. 1). They
relate to frustration as an external instigating condition and attribute it to the
“interference with the occurrence of an instigated goal-response at its proper time in
the behavior sequence” (Dollard et al., 1939, p. 7). In accordance with this
understanding, many authors deﬁne frustration as the “blocking or prevention of a
potentially rewarding or satisfying act or sequence of behaviour” (Colman, 2001, p. 291;
Britt and Janus, 1940, p. 455; Popplestone and McPherson, 1988, p. 137; Anderson and
Bushman, 2002, p. 37; Bessie
`re et al., 2004). Frustration sensation is thus triggered by
frustrating incidents which are the negative experiences of not achieving a goal aimed
at or to miss an expected and anticipated reward (Berkowitz, 1989, p. 60). This
frustration sensation leads to subsequent behavior such as aggressive protest or
avoidance designed to prevent the recurrence of the frustration.
Frustration as a special form of dissatisfaction
Facing the fact that frustration is deﬁned as a negative customer emotion following
from unfulﬁlled expectations, the question comes up where to draw the line between
frustration and the customer satisfaction construct, which mostly is deﬁned as
disconﬁrmation of expectations and, therefore, includes similar deﬁnition components.
The differentiation between the two constructs can be made considering the following
ﬁve aspects (Stauss, 2004):
(1) The satisfaction construct regards both positive and negative expectation
disconﬁrmations (satisfaction/dissatisfaction). In contrast to this, frustration is
exclusively the result of a negative expectation discrepancy.
(2) Dissatisfaction may refer to the whole spectrum of unaccomplished
expectations. But frustration only refers to the negative consumer events in
which the expected goal or reward is not reached.
(3) Frustration is deﬁned as a strongly negative emotion. In this respect there is a
difference to dissatisfaction, where the arousal can also be weak.
(4) Dissatisfaction may appear ex post, without the customers being aware of their
expectations before the consumption. In contrast, frustration postulates ex ante
an explicit goal, i.e. the customers have a deﬁnite idea about the aspired
situation or the expected rewards.
(5) A necessary precondition of frustration – but not of dissatisfaction – is that the
customers assume that they will reach the aspired goal because of their
previous experiences or explicit promises by the company.
Thus, frustration is the special case of a strongly felt dissatisfaction, which appears if
individuals do not reach goals that were thought as feasible or do not get rewards that
General frustration model
According to the deﬁnition above, the following three elements of frustration may be
differentiated (Britt and Janus, 1940, p. 453; Sta
¨cker, 1977, p. 7): frustration incident,
frustration sensation and frustration behavior.
A frustration incident is understood to be the withdrawal of a positive afﬁrmation
or a non-afﬁrmation following an afﬁrmation that occurred previously. Frustration
thus implies the expectation of a reward based on a preceding reward experience or at
least the antecedent promise of a reward (Sta
¨cker, 1977, p. 15; Smith and Ellsworth,
1985, p. 833). A number of frustration incidents have been differentiated in frustration
¨cker, 1977, p. 17). In business relationships primarily the following forms
of frustration are involved: refusal of reward, reduction of reward and postponement of
reward. In the case of a refusal of reward, the expected reward is completely withheld
from the person in question; in the case of a reduction of reward, a part of the reward is
withdrawn or withheld; and in the case of a postponement of reward, the reward is
made available later than promised before. In the frustration-aggression hypothesis it
was assumed that frustrating incidents lead directly to aggressive behavior. But as
Berkowitz (1989, p. 68) argues, frustration is an aversive event which does not
instantaneously lead to an (aggressive) behavior but in an intermediate step evokes
negative affect in the sense of a frustration sensation.
The frustration sensation triggered by frustration incidents is a negative
emotion and is described as “very unpleasant” (Smith and Ellsworth, 1985, p. 833).
This negative emotion is associated with a high degree of arousal and particular
attentiveness toward the causing incidents and the person who can be made
responsible (Janis, 1971, p. 152). This is conﬁrmed in the study by Smith and
Ellsworth (1985), who determine in their comparative empirical analysis of 15
different emotions that frustration was accompanied “by a stronger desire to
attend to the situation than for any other negative emotion” (Smith and Ellsworth,
1985, p. 833).
Frustration behavior involves the actions following the frustration sensation,
seeking to lessen or eliminate the negative feeling (Berkowitz, 1989, p. 68). These
subsequent actions may be basically classiﬁed as protest, intensiﬁcation of effort and
Protest is a form of aggressive behavior that has been the main topic of
psychological frustration research for a long time. Aggressions as the consequence of
frustration have attracted a great deal of attention, primarily in the context of the
frustration-aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al., 1939; Miller et al., 1941; Alcock, 1994).
According to this theory, an aggressive activity designed to remove or to break
through the frustrating barrier is carried out as the consequence of the aversive
emotion. Such activities include not only physical violence, but also thoughts of
revenge and verbal punishment and protests. Frustration behavior is primarily
directed against the person (or even thing) that is regarded as being responsible for the
fact that the target was missed (Harriman, 1961, p. 143). Alternatively, however, this
behavior may also be directed toward persons – or objects – that cannot be made
responsible for the problem at all (Anderson and Bushman, 2002, p. 37). Originally, it
was assumed that “the existence of frustration always leads to some form of
aggression” and “aggression is always a consequence of frustration” (Dollard et al.,
1939, S. 1). Based on empirical studies, however, this assumption was revised and
nowadays it is acknowledged that other behavioral reactions are possible (Miller et al.,
1941, p. 339; Berkowitz, 1989).
Frustration behavior may also involve actions that can be interpreted as
constructive in the sense of an intensiﬁcation of effort toward coping with the problem.
As a result of the emotional activation, energy is produced that is then used to
overcome the frustrating barrier. In this case, the failure in the expected performance
leads to compensatory reactions that make achievement of the goal seem possible
¨cker, 1977, p. 67).
Avoidance is a collective term for various forms of withdrawal behavior.
Individuals display avoidance tendencies in order to evade situations that lead to
frustration incidents and hence to frustration. This avoidance behavior may have a
passive character in the form of evasion, withdrawal and refusal (Sta
p. 69) and, therefore, be of a resigned type. However, active avoidance is also
conceivable. In this case, individuals develop a strategy in order to achieve their
goal, preferably while eliminating or reducing the frustrating conditions.
Figure 1 shows an overview of the general frustration model.
Relationships of model elements
The relationships between the model elements – that is, the relationships between
frustration incidents and frustration sensation on one hand, and between frustration
sensation and frustration behavior on the other hand – will be examined more closely
in the following section.
The relationship between frustration incidents and frustration sensation is
primarily a matter of which types of frustration incidents lead to a stronger or weaker
frustration sensation. Frustration research has chieﬂy emphasized four aspects:
(1) the extent of the (withheld) reward;
(2) the time of the withdrawal;
(3) the perceived deliberateness or arbitrariness of the reward withdrawal; and
(4) the expectation of the reward withdrawal (Sta
Extent of the reward withdrawal. The intensity of the negative arousal – that is, the
intensity of the frustration sensation – tends to be greater, the larger the anticipated
(and then withheld) reward (Alcock, 1994, p. 42).
Time of the reward withdrawal. The time of the reward withdrawal also plays a
major role. Empirical frustration research shows that the intensity of the frustration
sensation grows when the withdrawal happens at a time shortly before realization is to
occur – that is, shortly before the goal is achieved. The sensation is less intense, on the
other hand, when the withdrawal occurs long before the intended goal is to be
achieved. The later the frustration incident occurs, therefore, the longer the aversive
feeling can be expected to last (Sta
Perceived deliberateness or arbitrariness of the reward withdrawal. The perceived
deliberateness or arbitrariness of the reward withdrawal is also of fundamental
importance in determining the intensity of the frustration sensation. Stronger arousal
can be expected if the withdrawal is perceived to be deliberate/arbitrary (Janis, 1971,
p. 156; Berkowitz, 1989). This perception inﬂuences the frustration behavior in such a
way that protest behavior becomes more likely and intensiﬁcation of efforts, in terms
of a constructive search for solutions, decreases. It is also likely that there is a direct
effect on frustration behavior – that is to say, aggressive behavior is encouraged by
perceived deliberateness or arbitrariness (Sta
¨cker, 1977, p. 53).
Expectation of the reward withdrawal. The intensity of frustration also depends on
whether individuals expect that they will be frustrated when trying to achieve their
goals. Insofar as frustration incidents have already been anticipated, the situation
becomes less unpleasant, the arousal is less intense when the frustrating incident
occurs, and a change in the frustration behavior takes place (Berkowitz, 1989). If
General frustration model
individuals assume, based on their experiences, that their expectations will be
frustrated and that protests will change nothing about the situation, a high tendency
toward avoidance can be expected as these individuals attempt to evade situations that
lead to frustrating incidents and thus to frustration sensation (Sta
¨cker, 1977, p. 58).
As far as the relationship between frustration sensation and frustration behavior is
concerned, there are established ﬁndings that the intensity of activation/arousal
determines the frustration behavior. In general, this means that greater arousal leads to
an intensiﬁcation of the subsequent behavior. As Berkowitz states: “It is not the exact
nature of the aversive incident that is important but how intense the resulting negative
affect is” (Berkowitz, 1989, S. 68). The type of the frustration behavior is further
determined by a number of inﬂuencing factors (such as situational conditions) (Sta
1977, p. 60). Some general statements are, however, possible. The probability of
aggressive behavior increases as the arousal intensiﬁes. The greater the arousal, the
more likely is protest behavior. Accordingly, efforts toward ﬁnding constructive
solutions decrease when large rewards are withdrawn from individuals or when the
deliberateness/arbitrariness of the reward withdrawal leads to greater arousal.
In considering the relationships between the model elements, frustration tolerance
should be considered the primary moderating variable. The assessment and
processing of frustration incidents are dependent upon the personality
characteristics and the conditioning of the individual, which are reﬂected in the
frustration tolerance (Rosenzweig, 1938). Frustration tolerance is the ability of an
individual to tolerate a frustrating situation for a longer period of time without
distorting the objective factors of the situation (Rosenzweig, 1938, p. 153; Rutishauser,
1994, p. 36), “without making efforts either to resolve the tensions indirectly or to
satisfy the motive directly” (Harriman, 1961, p. 144) or “without disruption or
disordering of one’s behaviour” (English and English, 1974, p. 217). The more
pronounced the frustration tolerance, the fewer aggressive forms of behavior are found.
Individuals with high frustration tolerance will thus tend to exhibit either a
constructive intensiﬁcation of efforts or avoidance behavior.
Figure 2 shows the detailed general frustration model with its relationships, which
will form the basis of the following examination of frustration in loyalty programs.
Research questions and methodological approach
In order to analyze the extent to which frustration incidents that lead to customer
frustration and frustration behavior occur in loyalty programs, an exploratory
qualitative study was conducted among participants of a loyalty program. The
empirical study had a two-fold purpose. First, the existence and type of customer
frustration in the speciﬁc loyalty program was examined from a descriptive
perspective. To that effect the following research questions were deﬁned:
.Do customers experience frustration incidents?
.What types of frustration incidents can be observed?
.What subsequent effects do the triggered frustration sensations have with
respect to the behavior of customers?
Second, the ﬁndings of the exploratory study were used to develop a system of
propositions that generate a speciﬁc model of customer frustration.
The research object was a loyalty program for frequent travelers of a transportation
service provider. The program has a clear emphasis on status components aiming to
identify, get to know and bind valuable customers to the ﬁrm. For each trip,
participants in the program are credited a certain number of points, depending on the
price of the ticket. Accumulated points expire one year after they are earned. If a
certain number of points is exceeded during this year, the travelers are awarded a
special status that remains in effect for at least 24 months and is associated with
various exclusive services that are either not available for customers without this
status or only upon payment of a fee.
There is a highly explorative character to the research problem, since up to this
point neither proposals for the operationalization of the frustration construct nor
extensive knowledge about customer frustration in loyalty programs exist. For this
reason, a qualitative research approach was selected (Flick, 1998). In order to obtain the
most comprehensive and precise insight into the frustration experience of customers in
their roles as participants in loyalty programs, the focus group method was adopted.
Particularly for the exploration of so far unknown customer evaluations the focus
group method has considerable advantages (Morgan, 1988; Frey and Fontana, 1991;
Krueger, 1994; Flick, 1998; Fontana and Frey, 1998). The method allows participants to
depict their experiences with the program in the content and language of their choice
and to reﬂect and analyze these experiences in the course of their conversation with the
other participants (Krueger, 1994, p. 24; Fontana and Frey, 1998, p. 53). The
communication situation largely corresponds to everyday discourse, which makes it
possible to record opinions and attitudes as they would be expressed in private
discussions. On one hand, this process prevents research-led directing of the test
subjects. On the other hand, the moderator can ensure that participants precisely depict
their experiences, their impressions and the resulting actions (Fontana and Frey, 1998,
p. 53; Chrzanowska, 2002, p. 19; Imms and Ereault, 2002, p. 78). Deep insights could
thus be expected in terms of which speciﬁc incidents triggered frustration, how strong
the frustration sensation was in each case and which behavioral steps frustrated
Since it was to be expected that the potential frustrating incidents would differ for
varying customer groups, depending upon whether the customers had already
qualiﬁed for the exclusive status or were still in the qualiﬁcation phase of reaching the
required point total, the customers were divided into groups. This division is based on
the assumption that members of the groups differ in their expectations and
experiences, especially with regard to the experienced frustrating incidents. Therefore,
they might feel a different amount of frustration sensation or display different
frustration behavior. The division into groups fulﬁlls the methodological requirement
to establish reasonably homogeneous focus groups whose members share particular
and similar experiences (Imms and Ereault, 2002, p. 77).
For dividing the customers into groups, ﬁrst, customers who had already reached
exclusive status as a result of having reached the required number of points
(“Qualiﬁed”) were differentiated from those who were accumulating points but were
not yet among the status customers because their point total was still too low
(“Non-Qualiﬁed”). Second, the group of “Non-Qualiﬁed” was further divided into the
sub-groups “Just Missed” and “Bound to Fail”, in terms of their chances of reaching
“Qualiﬁed” status. The “Just Missed” group included all customers who traveled
frequently and consequently were able to accumulate a large number of points, but fell
short of the point limit, as they only had 50-99 percent of the necessary points.
Customers in the “Bound to Fail” group also accumulated points, but had or have no
real chance of ever reaching the status level, since their point accounts showed less
than 50 percent of the necessary number of points.
The “Qualiﬁed” group of customers and the two sub-segments of “Non-Qualiﬁed”
(“Just Missed” and “Bound to Fail”) were examined separately. For each of the three
sub-groups, two focus group discussions were conducted, in which on average six
customers participated. The potential participants were selected from the program
provider’s customer database based on their membership in the respective customer
segments. The customers were contacted by telephone and the ﬁnal 36 participants
were acquired after a total of 418 telephone contacts had been made. All group
discussions were recorded on video and subsequently fully transcribed as a necessary
base for a thorough qualitative analysis (King, 1995, p. 25). Afterwards, a qualitative
content analysis of the discussions was conducted (Krueger, 1994). The goal of this
qualitative content analysis was to ﬁnd out to what extent the members of the loyalty
program experienced frustrating incidents, perceived a feeling of frustration and
showed frustration behavior. Therefore, as a ﬁrst step, during a multi-level iterative
content analysis customers’ statements in the different groups were analyzed for
negative customer emotions that could be interpreted as frustration sensation. That
was the case when the incidents causing the emotions could be interpreted as refusal,
reduction or postponement of a reward. Then, in a second step, the frustration
incidents were assigned to categories (Strauss and Corbin, 1998, p. 113). Afterwards,
the results of the different customer groups were compared with respect to kinds and
frequencies of the perceived frustration incidents and the occurrence of frustration
A total of 169 participants’ statements contained depictions of experiences that were
associated with negative customer emotions related to loyalty programs. Of these, 123
incidents were judged to be frustration incidents and a total of seven categories of
frustration incidents could be identiﬁed. Furthermore, for each customer depiction of a
frustration event, it was analyzed how pronounced the frustration sensation was (low
– medium – high) and what type of frustration behavior resulted from it. The results
of the content analysis are presented below in the context of developing the speciﬁc
model of customer frustration in loyalty programs.
Developing a model of customer frustration in loyalty programs
The customer depictions of frustration incidents could be classiﬁed into seven
categories. During the analysis it turned out that the customers’ statements differed
regarding their point of reference. Some were directed mainly at the loyalty program
while some were directed at the company itself. A total of 86 out of 123 customer
statements related directly to the loyalty program and could be assigned to four
categories. “Directly related” means that the frustration sensation in these 86 cases was
not only triggered by experiences connected with the loyalty program but also that
both the frustration sensation and the subsequent behavior of customers were directed
towards the program. The four program-related categories are “Inaccessibility”,
“Worthlessness”, “Redemption Costs” and “Qualiﬁcation Barrier”. The remaining 37
frustration incidents were also directly triggered by participation in the loyalty
program; however, participants’ frustration sensation and frustration behavior were
not focused simply on the program itself, but rather affected their perception of the
relationship with the ﬁrm as well. These relationship-related frustration incidents can
be assigned to the categories of “Discrimination”, “Defocusing” and “Economization”.
The following presentation ﬁrst refers exclusively to the program-related categories of
frustration incidents, after which the relationship-related categories will be addressed
in detail in a separate section.
Program-related frustration incidents
The four categories derived from the content analysis can be characterized as follows:
Qualiﬁcation Barrier. Frustration incidents that belong in the category
“Qualiﬁcation Barrier” are related to circumstances in which the reward is tied to
conditions that are difﬁcult or impossible to fulﬁll. Non-qualiﬁed program participants
complain about the amount of required points that has been set, because they view it as
an insurmountable barrier (example: “... for me as a private customer it is simply
impossible to collect the necessary number of points in 12 months – that is something
for the business customers”; “... it can be pretty difﬁcult to collect the points and it is
usually quite an effort”).
Inaccessibility. A different category of frustration incidents exists when customers in
fact do overcome the qualiﬁcation barrier, but cannot access the expected reward in the
form of program beneﬁts – e.g. because the provided capacity is insufﬁcient, or
because employees are poorly trained and hence do not or cannot perform the promised
service (example: “... when I wanted to actually use the preferred support, I found out
that in my hometown there just is no such exclusive counter”).
Worthlessness. Frustration incidents fall into the category “Worthlessness” when
customers do not see the program beneﬁt they receive as being a reward because they
ﬁnd the additional value to be too low (i.e. worthless). Participants report their
disappointment about the fact that the beneﬁts either prove not to be exclusive or that
the value of the beneﬁts bears no relationship to the volume of sales the customer must
generate in order to receive them (example: “... there are no real advantages because
the beneﬁts are totally irrelevant to me ...”).
Redemption Costs. It is also frustrating to customers when they can only access the
reward by investing additional material or mental costs. With respect to the loyalty
program investigated, qualiﬁed participants of the program reported situations that
overtaxed them because they had to make their demands during the presence or even
at the expense of the “Non-Qualiﬁed” participants, which partly deterred the qualiﬁed
from claiming the beneﬁts at all (example: “The system is designed in a way that I have
to overcome certain inhibitions to come to my right. It was really embarrassing that I
had to ask other customers to leave their seat and make room for me, so I waived my
All customer depictions included in the analysis are rightly designated frustration
incidents, since each represents a form of reward refusal, reward reduction and/or
reward postponement, and since each triggered strong negative emotions. Clearly,
inaccessibility is to be classiﬁed as reward refusal. A qualiﬁcation barrier can also be
interpreted as a reward refusal, provided that the reward proves to be unattainable, in
spite of loyal behavior. Should the required number of points and, therefore, the reward
be actually acquired, but later than expected, this incident can be classiﬁed as
postponement of reward. Worthlessness and redemption costs represent reductions in
the expected amount of the reward from the customers’ perspective.
Based on these results, we may make the following proposition:
P1. Program-related frustration incidents do occur in loyalty programs.
A comparison of the various customer segments (“Qualiﬁed”, “Just Missed” and
“Bound to Fail”) showed that the different categories of frustration incidents occur with
differing frequencies. In the group of qualiﬁed customers, most of the frustration
incidents are attributed to a perceived worthlessness of the program. Next are the
perceived redemption costs and the inaccessibility. Worthlessness also clearly
dominates among non-qualiﬁed customers. In view of the fact that they are not yet able
to claim the beneﬁts, however, this perceived worthlessness may also be regarded, at
least to some extent, as the result of a dissonance reduction, in that the services that
cannot be or have not been procured are devalued. For non-qualiﬁed customers,
frustration about the height of the qualiﬁcation barrier ranks second. In light of this
division between the two groups, the following proposition may be formulated:
P2. Different frustration incidents occur, depending upon the possibility of
claiming the reward.
Program-related frustration sensation
Considerations in frustration theory have indicated that the level of the frustration
sensation is dependent upon the extent of the reward withdrawal, upon the time of the
reward withdrawal, upon the perceived deliberateness/arbitrariness and upon the
expectation of the onset of frustration.
Participants of the “Qualiﬁed” group primarily displayed highly negative emotions
in the case of frustration incidents of the “Inaccessibility” and “Redemption Costs”
categories. With reference to the theoretically ascertained determinants of the
frustration sensation, this result would appear to be quite plausible. When the
promised beneﬁt is refused or high material or mental costs must unexpectedly be paid
by the customer in order to claim the reward, then the extent of the reward withdrawal
is judged to be high. Moreover, the withdrawal occurs only after what is sometimes a
long qualiﬁcation phase and when the actual claim is made; that means the time of the
reward withdrawal is late. In addition, the results from the “Inaccessibility” and
“Redemption Costs” categories cannot be interpreted as random or temporary
occurrences from the customer point of view, but rather as the intentional results of a
concept that was planned by the provider. Furthermore, occurrence of inaccessibility or
redemption costs was not anticipated, meaning that no reduction of the frustration
sensation could occur for this reason.
Also in the case of the numerous frustration incidents in the “Worthlessness”
category, many program participants experienced a strong frustration sensation,
because they viewed the reward withdrawal as serious in view of the great effort they
had expended in accumulating points, because the reward withdrawal occurred late
and because the incident was clearly the result of a purposeful decision on the part of
the company. The frustration sensation was, however, less clearly pronounced in the
case of some participants, since these participants had already scrutinized the
promised reward before making their claim, had determined its value to be low and
thus had also expected the onset of frustration (Table I).
The following proposition can thus be phrased:
P3A. The frustration sensation of participants in loyalty programs is greater, the
more intensely they experience the extent of the reward withdrawal, the later
the reward is withdrawn and the more the reward withdrawal is seen as
deliberate or arbitrary.
In terms of the “Qualiﬁcation Barrier” category, the empirical ﬁndings for the
“Non-Qualiﬁed” group are especially insightful in illustrating the reducing inﬂuence of
expecting the frustration on the frustration sensation, as is implied in proposition P3B
(see below). The ﬁndings provide clear indications that the problem of falling short of
the high number of points required led to a high frustration sensation among the
members of the “Just Missed” segment, whereas this was not the case to the same
extent among the “Bound to Fail” group. This result appears to be likely when taking
into consideration the determinants of the frustration sensation. For the “Just Missed”
group, the reward withdrawal occurs late – that is, shortly before the minimum
number of points is reached – and the frustration is unexpected, as long as overcoming
the barrier is still seen as a possibility. The reward withdrawal for those “Bound to
Fail”, by contrast, is recognized early on, and the frustration is thus to be expected and
therefore frustration sensation is lower.
On the basis of these ﬁndings, the following proposition may be formulated:
P3B. The frustration sensation of participants in loyalty programs is lower when
the participants expect that they will be frustrated.
Program-related frustration behavior
Findings in frustration theory suggest that differing types of frustration incidents or
varying degrees of the intensity of frustration sensation also lead to varying
expressions of frustration behavior (protest, intensiﬁcation of efforts or avoidance).
According to the general frustration model, protest behavior can particularly be
expected, when the reward withdrawal is perceived to be deliberate/arbitrary and
when the frustration sensation is intense, whereas avoidance behavior tends to occur
when the onset of frustration is expected.
A corresponding relationship can also be observed in the exploratory study. Those
“Qualiﬁed” participants, that were especially frustrated by incidents in the categories
of “Inaccessibility”, “Redemption Costs” and “Worthlessness” respond with protest
behavior – that is to say, complaints against employees of the ﬁrm or intense negative
word-of-mouth in their social environment.
Concerning the frustration behavior of the “Non-Qualiﬁed”, a clear distinction can
be observed between the “Bound to Fail” and “Just Missed” groups. For customers in
the “Just Missed” group, barely falling short of the required number of points is
especially frustrating. Therefore, those customers who still believed that they could
reach the required number of points responded with an intensiﬁcation of their efforts –
that is, an increased accumulation intensity – whereas the others were disappointed
and exhibited protest behavior. Participants in the “Bound to Fail” group indeed
Extent of the reward
Time of the reward
of the reward withdrawal
Expectation of the onset
High, as the beneﬁt was
Late, as only occurred
when beneﬁt was
Low, as event not
foreseeable beforehand High
High, as the beneﬁt has
already been “payed for”
Late, as only occurred
when beneﬁt was
High, as the responsibility
for the result can be clearly
Low, as event not
foreseeable beforehand High
Medium to high,
Late, as only occurred
when beneﬁt was
Medium to high,
Characteristics of the
frustration sensation of
experienced the deliberateness/arbitrariness of the reward postponement in an intense
way, but they had been expecting the onset of this frustration for a long time.
Consequently, they exhibited heightened avoidance behavior by abandoning further
attempts to accumulate points.
Therefore, we can formulate the following propositions:
P4A. Highly frustrating frustration incidents tend to lead to protest behavior
among qualiﬁed participants of loyalty programs, less frustrating frustration
incidents to avoidance behavior.
P4B. Highly frustrating frustration incidents lead to an intensiﬁcation of efforts
among non-qualiﬁed participants of loyalty programs, provided that they
expect to overcome the qualiﬁcation barrier; otherwise, such incidents lead to
P4C. Non-qualiﬁed participants with no prospect of overcoming the qualiﬁcation
barrier respond with avoidance behavior.
Relationship-related frustration incidents
The results of the focus-group discussions led to the conclusion that frustration
incidents occurred that differed from the program-related incidents in their relevance to
the customer relationship. Indeed, these frustration incidents also stemmed from the
loyalty program, but the frustration sensation was not primarily focused on the
program itself, but rather on the ﬁrm and the customer’s perceived relationship with
this ﬁrm. These frustration incidents will be referred to here as relationship-related
From the focus-group participants’ statements 37 could be attributed to three
categories of relationship-related frustration incidents whose reference point is the
company or the overall customer relationship. Those categories are “Discrimination”,
“Defocusing” and “Economization”.
Discrimination. Frustration incidents in this category occur when less valuable
customers are disadvantaged by the company treating the valuable status customers
favorably. The customers that are less valuable from the ﬁrm’s perspective may still
demonstrate a strong commitment to the ﬁrm and perceive themselves to be valuable
customers. As “Non-Qualiﬁed” customers, they see the denial of equal treatment as
discrimination. Interestingly, participants in the “Qualiﬁed” group, who were not
affected by the discrimination themselves, also criticized other customers’ unfavorable
treatment as being discriminatory (example: “I don’t like superior treatment of certain
groups. They can’t do that” (Non-Qualiﬁed), “Everybody should be treated equally,
nobody should feel discriminated” (Qualiﬁed), “How unimportant must I be for the
company that I do not even get this advantage” (Non-Qualiﬁed)).
Defocusing. Many customers rate the core service of the provider as only somewhat
satisfactory. This impression leads to a perception that the ﬁrm has wrongly focused
its priorities on the loyalty program instead of on the core service. The participants in
the focus groups thus see the program as a reduction of the possible value, in terms of
service quality that the ﬁrm could in fact offer to them, provided that the ﬁrm would
have directed the resources used for the loyalty program toward measures designed to
improve the core service (example: “What do I need points for when I arrive
unpunctually or receive wrong information. In the ﬁrst place they should improve the
Economization. Loyalty programs move the economic character of the relationship
to the forefront of customers’ consciousness. For some customers who had strong
emotional ties to the ﬁrm, this development led to a re-evaluation of the business
relationship, as there was no reciprocity on the part of the ﬁrm for the customer’s
emotional commitment (example: “For every point I receive I have to spend one Euro,
making me realize how much I really spend for the company to become a valued
These three categories of relationship-related customer statements are frustration
incidents because each of them was a form of reward refusal or reward reduction and
because they triggered highly negative emotions. The discrimination is a willful
refusal of a possible reward. The defocusing can be understood as a reward reduction
because the service received in return for the price paid by the customer is diminished
by supposedly incorrect corporate investments in the loyalty program. Economization
may also be taken as a reward reduction, as the emotional reward for the customer’s
emotional ties is withdrawn.
In the case of these relationship-related incidents participants cannot intensify their
efforts as a possible reaction to the strong frustration sensation. Thus, the affected
customers chose either protest or avoidance as alternative actions. For instance, they
complained to the ﬁrm about the discrimination they experienced or decided to use the
core service less often in the future.
Accordingly, propositions P5A and P5B are as follows:
P5A. In loyalty programs frustration incidents occur that have negative effects on
the customer’s perception of the relationship with the ﬁrm.
P5B. Highly frustrating relationship-related frustration incidents lead to protest or
avoidance behavior with respect to the loyalty program and/or the core
More and more companies are implementing loyalty programs in order to enhance
their knowledge of their customers, to identify the valuable customers, to differentiate
and give personal attention to these valuable customers and especially to raise proﬁts
by increasing customer retention and by a more efﬁcient use of marketing tools. Few
ﬁrms, however, systematically verify whether the programs they implement actually
achieve these goals. An even more neglected question is whether customers as
participants of loyalty programs have negative experiences that frustrate them. The
consequence could be that the programs do not achieve the retention effect aimed at, or
even that the overall relationship with the ﬁrm is weakened.
Discussions in internet forums provide initial indications that participating
customers are annoyed with loyalty programs. The present exploratory study ﬁrmly
supports this impression. Customers do in fact experience a number of different
incidents that greatly frustrate them. Chief among frustration incidents directly related
to the loyalty program are difﬁculty of access (qualiﬁcation barrier), impossibility of
claiming the reward (inaccessibility), low value of the reward (worthlessness) and
being required to invest additional material and mental costs in order to enjoy the
beneﬁts (redemption costs). In addition, customers experience frustrating incidents
that directly affect their relationship with the ﬁrm. They feel disadvantaged by the
favorable treatment of other customers (discrimination), believe that the ﬁrm has
wrongly focused its priorities on the loyalty program, in light of a perceived deﬁciency
in the core service (defocusing) and are offended by the exclusive focus on the economic
aspects of the relationship (economization).
The frustration incidents lead to highly negative emotions – the frustration
sensation – that leads to frustration behavior in the form of an intensiﬁcation of
efforts, protest behavior or avoidance behavior. It is in the interest of the ﬁrm if
customers intensify their efforts in order to be able to enjoy the beneﬁts offered in the
loyalty program. This effect only sets in, however, if customers actually achieve their
goal and are not left with negative emotions. Protest behavior as a sign of intense
customer frustration must certainly be taken seriously by the ﬁrm as evidence of
undesirable developments in the program. The most problematic situation arises when
the participants choose avoidance behavior without providing feedback, particularly
when the behavior is directed not only to the use of the loyalty program, but also
extends to the use of the actual core service or to the assessment of the overall
Limitations and research implications
This research contributes to theory by revealing new research perspectives in two
regards. First, the general frustration-theoretical model presented offers an important
starting point for further research. Second, the study on frustration effects in loyalty
programs directs the attention toward the previously highly neglected area of
unintended negative side effects associated with customer-retention and
customer-relationship management measures.
So far, very few articles address the construct of customer frustration (So
2003; Stauss, 2004). This paper moves beyond the existing discussion by developing a
general frustration model and examining its adequacy for explaining the speciﬁc
behavior of frustrated customers. As this succeeds, it seems reasonable to expand the
thought and, for example, to reﬂect the suitability of using the frustration construct to
explain the behavior of customers who experience other frustrating situations. Among
cases to be considered in this context would be, when customers complain
unsuccessfully or when customers have to encounter breach of companies’ guarantees.
However, the limitations of the theoretical perspective have to be considered. The
discussion as to the exact differentiation of frustration from related constructs (such as
dissatisfaction) is by no means concluded. Above all, further work is necessary that
would allow deeper insights into the relationships between the model elements: the
relationship between frustration incident and frustration sensation, the relationship
between frustration sensation and frustration behavior and the inﬂuence of frustration
Concerning the possible negative effects of loyalty programs, the qualitative
empirical study shows that participants of such programs in fact get considerable
negative impressions that unfavorably affect the success of the program or even the
relationship with the ﬁrm. This is a remarkable result. Nevertheless, the limitations of
the empirical study need to be taken into account. The object of the investigation was a
single company’s loyalty program in a special industry sector, which limits the
generalizability of the results. Furthermore, the ﬁndings were derived from a
qualitative, exploratory study, which underlines their preliminary character. Of
research interest is thus the further speciﬁcation of the propositions and their
formulation as hypotheses that can be tested in a large-scale quantitative study in
different sectors and with a number of companies and programs. In this context, there
are a number of individual questions that are yet to be clariﬁed, such as how the
different relationship types can be differentiated from one another in an exact and
practical manner, and how the intensity of the frustration sensation or the forms of
frustration behavior can be operationalized and measured. Only based on such a larger
study will more exact information about the effects of frustration incidents in loyalty
programs on customer loyalty become available, which will also provide important
details as to the proﬁtability of these instruments for practice.
Speciﬁc implications for the planning and implementation of loyalty programs arise
from the results of the study.
In the strategic planning of loyalty programs particular relevance should be given
to the question of target-group orientation (Rapp and Decker, 2003, p. 211). In doing so,
the extent to which frustration incidents and sensation differ according to target
groups should be a primary focus of analysis. Here, differentiating customers as
relational and transactional according to their type of relationship may be important
¨nroos, 2000, p. 35). It is to be expected that relational customers—that is, those
more interested in a “real” relationship – may be more sensitive to discrimination and
economization. Loyalty programs with a strong economic focus and distinct
customer-value differentiation would only appear to be appropriate when there is a
high percentage of transactional customers – for whom the search for an acceptably
priced solution, not an emotional connection with the provider, is the primary focus.
In addition, when planning the implementation of loyalty programs it is imperative
to keep in mind that customers need to perceive the core service as satisfactory. If,
however, dissatisfaction with the core service is prevailing, the ﬁrm’s concentration on
loyalty programs may be largely seen as defocusing and produce intense frustration
As far as operative program planning is concerned, what is important is to
preventively ensure that program-related frustration effects are avoided to the greatest
extent possible. This calls for:
.using customer-based marketing research to establish a level of points required
for qualiﬁcation that is regarded as appropriate by the majority of the concerned
target group in order to avoid frustration resulting from a qualiﬁcation barrier;
.offering only those service beneﬁts that represent genuine additional value to
customers so as to avoid perceived worthlessness;
.making sure that the rewards can be claimed by customers at any time and in
any place in order to avoid inaccessibility; and
.making sure that customers are not overburdened by being required to invest
additional material or mental costs in order to claim beneﬁts so as to avoid
If loyalty programs have already been implemented, it is important that the quality of
the program perceived by the customer is constantly monitored on a customer
segment-speciﬁc basis, thus allowing the ﬁrm to obtain prompt information about
possible customer frustration. Furthermore, the behavior customers exhibit when
accumulating points and claiming beneﬁts should also be monitored continuously, so
that the ﬁrm can recognize the ﬁrst signs of avoidance behavior by customers in a
timely manner. Moreover, indications of protest – such as customer complaints –
should be viewed with particular attention. In this regard, not only must employees
having contact with customers be empowered to answer these complaints and to
conduct a dialog with the complainants, but also to forward the complaints, so that the
critical aspects and proposals contained in customers’ protests are also used to improve
the program on an ongoing basis.
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