Customer captivity

October 10, 2023 •

4 min reading

Understanding Customer Captivity: When Clients Want to Leave but Can't


Have you ever wanted to switch service providers but felt like you had no choice? If this sounds familiar, you’ve experienced customer captivity.

This feeling of captivity can significantly influence how customers perceive the quality of a service and voice their dissatisfaction. However, we know little about it. How does the feeling of captivity manifest? To what extent can it harm a service provider’s business? What coping strategies do captive customers adopt? And why does this often lead to negative word-of-mouth behavior? Furrer, Yu Kerguignas, and Landry’s (2021) study delves into these questions, providing invaluable insights and clarity.

We stayed in this hotel for business purposes. Perhaps my hopes were high due to the brand attached with the property, however I got pathetic service and there was no proper resolution. One of my worst hotel experiences. There was no care for guests, and nobody even seemed to even care. However, as there are no other hotels nearby in the area, I had to finish my stay in this hotel. I felt in a way captive at the hotel – in a bad way.


- posted by a hotel guest on TripAdvisor

Customer captivity and its manifestations

Certain marketplace configurations can intentionally or unintentionally limit customers’ choices, leading them to feel “at the mercy” of the service provider. According to the authors, customer captivity is “customers’ feelings of not having the possibility to choose or leave a service relationship, due to a perceived need for the service and a lack of alternatives” (p. 757). In other words, captive customers stay with a service provider because they have to, not because they want to. Through a comprehensive study1 involving over a thousand customers, the authors identified two manifestations of customer captivity: captivity emotions and perceptions of unfair pricing. Captivity emotions are the negative emotions and feelings linked to customer captivity, which can include feeling resigned, angry, depressed or hopeless. The perceptions of unfair pricing emerge with captivity situations: customers detecting a power imbalance might suspect that powerful, self-interested service providers aim to exploit their dependence and vulnerability. For example, customers who find themselves ‘held hostage’ might see their service providers raising prices for equivalent or subpar quality to inflate their profits. This practice, perceived as unjust, can lead to dissatisfaction among these customers.

The research revealed that captivity emotions directly affect customers’ perceived service quality, satisfaction, and negative word-of-mouth behavior, whereas price unfairness perceptions moderate the relationships between the given variables.


How do customers respond to captivity feelings?

Captive customers respond to their feeling of entrapment in various ways. They may voice complaints, distance themselves from the provider, or express dissatisfaction openly. However, the study’s findings indicated that captive customers often perceive these responses as ineffective. This perception stems from the feeling that their concerns go unheard: “I expressed my frustration, but it felt like my concerns fell on deaf ears, as I never received a response” stated a transport service user. Consequently, captive customers’ emotional state remains negative, as highlighted in this quote: “I contacted customer service multiple times, and while they acknowledged my situation, they claimed their hands were tied. My frustration didn’t subside” said a mail service customer.

EHL Research  Collaborate with our Researchers  Opportunities for collaborative research range from dedicated applied research  projects by selected faculty members to sponsorship of a long-term research  institute at EHL.  Contact us


Unraveling negative word-of-mouth behavior

The findings of the study Shed light on why captive customers often resort to negative word-of-mouth behavior. For captive customers, this behavior, rather than aiming to punish or retaliate against the service provider, serves as a means for emotional relief. Sharing negative experiences allows captive customers to strengthen social connections with fellow customers and regain control. Moreover, it offers a means to vent their frustrations, leading to improved emotional well-being: “I was frustrated and found the situation deeply unsettling. Sharing my experience allowed me to find solace in talking about it, so that others could empathize with my situation” replied a phone company customer.


Easing captivity feelings

Understanding that captive customers resort to negative word-of-mouth to seek emotional support, the authors proposed several solutions for service providers to alleviate feelings of captivity. These solutions can positively impact customers’ word-of-mouth expressions, mitigating potential negative effects on a service company.

  • Empowering Customers, for example, by introducing additional service options to allow customers more control over when and how they receive the service or by refusing perceptions of unfair pricing by enhancing transparency and disclosing comprehensive information about pricing practices.
  • Channeling Customer Emotions, for example, by creating controlled company channels for customers to vent their negative emotions and seek emotional support.

By implementing these solutions, service providers can foster well-being among captive customers while curbing the negative impact of word-of-mouth on their business.

For more detailed information about customer captivity, you can download this paper by Furrer, Yu Kerguignas and Landry.


  • 1This research project was financed by the Fondation Service Lab and the University of Fribourg.
  • Furrer, O., Yu Kerguignas, J., & Landry, M. (2021). Customer captivity, negative word of mouth and well-being: a mixed-methods study. Journal of Services Marketing, 35(6), 755-773.
Written by

Assistant Professor at EHL Hospitality Business School

Martha Sandoval Alvarado
Written by
Martha Sandoval Alvarado

Research Assistant at EHL Hospitlaity Business School

Olivier Furrer
Written by
Olivier Furrer

Professor of Marketing, Department of Management, University of Fribourg

Mikèle Landry
Written by
Mikèle Landry

Research Assistant, Department of Management, University of Fribourg