Relationships Take Two: Customer Attachment Styles’ Influence on Consumers’ Desire for Close Relationships and Loyalty to the Firm

Martin Mende, Ruth N. Bolton, and Mary Jo Bitner, 2009, 09-112

Although firms in many industries invest heavily in customer relationship management (CRM) to create close customer–firm bonds, not all consumers welcome close relationships. Surprisingly, marketing research knows little about customers’ relational preferences. In parallel, marketers need a theory-derived framework of customer relational profiles to help predict why consumers differentially prefer (not) to build close relationships with a firm and how they will respond to closeness-enhancing CRM activities.

Mende, Bolton, and Bitner develop a managerially actionable conceptualization of customers’ desire for closeness, defined as a consumer’s systematic preference for frequent, diverse, and mutually influential interactions with a firm. Building on attachment theory, they develop a framework that links customers’ attachment styles with consumers’ desire for closeness, repurchase intentions, and word-of-mouth intentions. They test this framework using cross-sectional data from 932 insurance customers. This business-to-consumer insurance context also allowed the authors to account for multilevel service relationships by measuring customers’ attachment styles separately toward the insurance company and its agents.

This research reveals that customer attachment styles function as major opposing forces when it comes to closeness in service relationships. Customer attachment anxiety (toward firm and employee) is linked to consumers’ desire for closeness. In contrast, customer attachment avoidance (toward firm and employee) is associated with a strong preference not to engage in a close relationship. Customers with low levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance indicate the highest loyalty potential, whereas customers with high attachment avoidance signal the lowest loyalty to the firm.

The results provide managers with novel customer segmentation criteria and actionable guidelines that help improve the firm’s ability to tailor relationship marketing activities and more effectively allocate CRM resources. For instance, managers can focus sales/cross-selling efforts on customers of low attachment anxiety and avoidance to leverage higher repurchase intentions. Or an attachment-informed relationship manager might use high levels of attachment avoidance as early indicators for loyalty-averse customers.

Martin Mende is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Gatton College of Business and Economics, University of Kentucky. Ruth N. Bolton is 2009–2011 Executive Director of the Marketing Science Institute. Mary Jo Bitner is PetSmart Chair in Services Leadership, W. P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University.

Related links

Too Close for Comfort? A New Look at Customer-Firm Relationships (2010) [Article]

When are Customer-Firm Relationships Too Close for Comfort?
Ruth N. Bolton, Marketing Science Institute, and Robert Martin, The Co-operators (2009) [Conference presentation]


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