Reclaiming the Future: Understanding Customer Forgiveness of Service Transgressions

Yelena Tsarenko, Yuliya Strizhakova, Cele C. Otnes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Service transgressions, and how customers respond to them, are of ongoing interest to researchers and practitioners. However, whether and how customers forgive such transgressions remains unexplored. Grounding our investigation in interdisciplinary research on forgiveness, and leveraging self-determination theory as an enabling theoretical foundation, we analyze 34 in-depth interviews with customers who experienced transgressions in the health-care, financial, and retailing sectors. We conceptualize customer forgiveness as a motivational process involving customers’ relinquishing of vengeful thoughts and feelings about transgressors. Four distinct pathways of forgiveness emerge as follows: forgiveness as transgressor’s atonement, as disillusionment, as self-healing, and as grace. Customers anchor their forgiveness pathways in motivations that are either self-focused (autonomous) or transgressor-focused (controlled). Each pathway reflects differences in customers’ internal reconciliations of the transgression. Further, we demonstrate the role of transgression circumstances, service recovery, and broader marketplace realities in customer forgiveness. We identify the key underlying moral premise of each pathway. Finally, we show how each forgiveness pathway impacts restoration of customer-service provider relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)139-155
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Service Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2019


  • customer forgiveness
  • failure
  • recovery
  • satisfaction
  • transformative services
  • well-being

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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