Purpose – This paper aims to, building on the concept of relational benefits, relationship marketing investments, gratitude, satisfaction and favorable reciprocal behaviors, examine the mechanism of cultivating relationships with valued customers at an upscale restaurant.
Design/methodology/approach – To capture the traits of the population (upscale restaurant customers who perceive relationship marketing investments by experiencing relational benefits), upscale restaurant customers with membership cards were contacted in the survey. Structural equation modeling was used to test measurement and structural models.
Findings – Empirical findings indicated that confidence and social benefits positively contributed to relationship marketing investments, whereas special treatment benefits were not significantly related to relationship marketing investments. In turn, relationship marketing investments positively affected both gratitude and satisfaction; relationship marketing investments were also more associated with gratitude than satisfaction. Gratitude positively evoked favorable reciprocal behaviors; however, satisfaction did not trigger favorable reciprocal behaviors.
Originality/value – The integration of relationship marketing investments and gratitude into the conceptual model would allow the current findings to generate rich theoretical and practical implications that the extant hospitality literature has not elucidated.
Relationship marketing is a marketing paradigm (Beetles and Harris, 2010; Grönroos, 1994) in which the significance of developing and sustaining long-lasting customer relationships has become a norm in the marketing literature (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2002). Relationship marketing refers to the process by which a firm develops and maintains enduring customer relationships (Morgan and Hunt, 1994) to retain profitable customers via continuing relational exchanges (Sheth, 1996). The concept of relationship marketing implicitly represents ongoing reciprocity with selected valued customers. The reciprocity principle focuses on returning favors to individuals who give us benefits (Morales, 2005). With regard to selective customers, this principle involves treating valued customers preferentially. Relationship marketing stems from the view that a service provider cultivates relationships with regular customers by offering customized and differential benefits (Vargo and Lusch, 2004), which drives sustainable marketing relationships (Lacey et al., 2007).
Relationship marketing is closely associated with the domain of service marketing in which customized offerings are designed to cater to the differing and dynamic service needs of selected customers to maintain relationships (Beetles and Harris, 2010; Vargo and Lusch, 2004). In the hospitality literature, relationship marketing has been explored using the concepts of relationship quality (Kim and Cha, 2002; Kim et al., 2006), relational benefits (Kim and Ok, 2009) and customer relationship management (Wu and Lu, 2012). The abovementioned research examines the predictors and outcomes of relationship quality, the effects of relational benefits on favorable inequity and affective commitment and the impact of customer relationship management on relationship marketing and business performance, manifesting the importance of relationship marketing in the hospitality literature. To further develop the hospitality literature on relationship marketing, the present study incorporates the constructs of relational benefits, relationship marketing investments, gratitude, satisfaction and favorable reciprocal behaviors into a conceptual model (Figure 1) that underlies the reciprocity with regular customers in the context of an upscale restaurant.
The objective of the current research is twofold. First, this study aims to identify the associations of three types of relationship benefits (i.e. confidence, social and special treatment benefits) with relationship marketing investments and to investigate whether the three relational benefits have differential effects on customer perception of relationship marketing investments by upscale restaurants. Restaurant operators may have misperceptions of the relational benefits that are deemed critical by customers in maintaining continuing relationships. The findings are expected to provide hospitality managers with meaningful implications on the relational benefit that is the most (or least) effective in cultivating relationships with valued customers.
The second aim is to explore the role of gratitude in maintaining reciprocity with profitable customers. Specifically, the role of gratitude is examined within the conceptual model by:
• the differential effects of relationship marketing investments on gratitude and satisfaction;
• the mediating effects of gratitude and satisfaction on the relationship between relationship marketing investments and favorable reciprocal behaviors; and
• the differing effects of gratitude and satisfaction on favorable reciprocal behaviors.
Gratitude is adopted in this study on the following grounds. First, gratitude is conceptualized as the positive emotion evoked by one party when the other party provides extra favors or benefits (McCullough et al., 2001; McCullough and Tsang, 2004). This concept connotes that relationship marketing investments (e.g. when customers recognize relationship marketing investments through relational benefits) evoke the emotion of gratitude (Gouldner, 1960; Palmatier et al., 2009). Gratitude is also a critical construct in explaining reciprocity with regular customers. Gratitude acts as:
• a crucial medium of relational exchanges that is emotionally central to reciprocal transactions (Palmatier et al., 2009);
• a motivating force that prompts people to sustain reciprocal obligations (Gouldner, 1960); and
• a momentum that solidifies the loop of reciprocity (Simmel, 1950).
Therefore, the affective construct of gratitude critically explains the reciprocal transactions within customer relationship across various disciplines (Bartlett and Desteno, 2006) and acts as a critical mediator in relationship marketing (Morgan and Hunt, 1994; Palmatier et al., 2009). According to the aforementioned literature, this study advocates that customers feel grateful to a service provider for its relationship marketing investments in extra favors (e.g. relational benefits such as special treatment or personal recognition) and return the favors by patronizing the provider, thereby supporting the mediating effect of gratitude on the relationship between relationship marketing investments and favorable reciprocal behaviors as seen in Figure 1.
Second, gratitude is acknowledged as a significant missing mediator in the literature of relationship marketing (Morgan and Hunt, 1994; Palmatier et al., 2007; Palmatier et al., 2009).
Nevertheless, the mediator of gratitude is rarely adopted in the hospitality literature, whereas the mediating role of satisfaction is extensively discussed in the domains of consumer behavior and relationship marketing, given that “the key to customer retention is customer satisfaction” (Kotler, 1994, p. 20). Although satisfaction is a key construct in the literature of relationship marketing, some studies point out its limitation in predicting reciprocity (Hennig-Thurau and Klee, 1997; Jones and Sasser, 1995; Stewart, 1997). For instance, Reichheld (1993, p. 71) maintains that “between 65 per cent and 85 per cent of customers who defect say they were satisfied or very satisfied with their former supplier”. This study includes gratitude, parallel to satisfaction, in the conceptual model to examine which one is more powerful mediator in sustaining reciprocity with customers. Gratitude is therefore included in a proposed conceptual model to understand its role, relative to satisfaction. The integration of relationship marketing investments and gratitude into the conceptual model would allow the current findings to generate rich theoretical and practical implications that the extant hospitality literature has not elucidated.