Research examines the role of respect in marketspaces

Joelena Leader

Dr. Maureen Bourassa (PhD) is an Associate Professor of Marketing, Department Head of Management and Marketing, and Graduate Chair of the Master of Science (MSc) in Marketing program at the Edwards School of Business (Edwards). Through her research, she tries to understand what respect means to people, why it matters in marketplace contexts, and what exactly organizations can do to build and convey respect. Bourassa’s other research focuses on stakeholder engagement: how do socially responsible organizations successfully engage stakeholders, and how can the barriers of adversarial stakeholder engagement be overcome? Her work has been published in the European Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Science Communication, and others.

Engaging in respectful relationships

The big question that Bourassa is curious about is: In the marketplace, even when the issues are complicated or controversial, how can organizations and people—like employees, customers, and individuals from other companies or from the local community—have respectful interactions? And why should they bother trying? A recent paper published in the European Journal of Marketing, co-authored with Dr. Laurence Ashworth at Queen’s University entitled Inferred respect: a critical ingredient in customer satisfaction, specifically focuses on why and how respect matters to consumers when they buy products and services.

“The marketplace is pretty complex and figuring out how to have respectful engagement between customers and organizations is challenging,” said Bourassa. “The intention of this project was to elevate the importance of respect in the marketplace, especially for consumers.”

Companies frequently highlight respect as one of their key values in their mission statements, however it is not always clear what respect means for these organizations in their day-to-day interactions. According to Bourassa, respect is fundamentally about seeing and treating another person as valuable and worthwhile. But what exactly does treating someone as valuable look like, especially in the marketplace? Stories from study participants of purchase experiences revealed numerous examples of how company employees can convey respect to customers: treat them as houseguests, engage in conversation with them, care about their well-being, thank them, value their time, and understand their situation. Likewise, there are examples of how disrespect is conveyed: by ignoring customers, refusing to listen to them, dismissing their problems, or being annoyed.

Whether respect matters in customer relationships or plays a role in customer satisfaction is a question that we don’t yet have all the answers to. Bourassa’s research examines how much respect matters, specifically by measuring to what extent respect is related to customer satisfaction.

Respect matters: Improving customer satisfaction

Respect is a powerful tool for predicting customer satisfaction and should not be overlooked. Surveys conducted by Bourassa and Ashworth with over 3,000 consumers revealed the importance of respect in building meaningful relationships that can improve customer satisfaction.

“We found that respect predicted customer satisfaction in significant ways above and beyond other predictors of satisfaction, such as the price or how well the product works or whether the customer service generally met expectations. Those are the things we usually think about when we are trying to improve customer satisfaction,” explained Bourassa. “But, we learned that if customers felt respected when they were buying products or services, that also played a big role in explaining their satisfaction.”

Bourassa and her team used a modified version of critical incidents technique, a method used to drill down into the different things that lead to customers feeling satisfied or dissatisfied during particular purchase experiences. “When people told us their stories about satisfactory purchase experiences, respect emerged quite clearly in those stories. And, when they told us their stories about purchase experiences where they were dissatisfied, there were obvious elements of disrespect in those too,” she explained.

Bourassa stressed that customer satisfaction impacts profits – according to other research, the companies that do better financially are those that have higher customer satisfaction ratings. So, companies that really show customers they respect them can improve customer satisfaction ratings, and that in turn means doing better.

Engaging with stakeholders respectfully on complex topics

In collaboration with Dr. Laurel Steinfield from Bentley University, Bourassa is also examining the challenges and factors for success when companies and marketers engage with community stakeholders around complex topics, like local economic development projects.

“I am interested in understanding how stakeholder engagement works best, especially when there are different kinds of people from companies, communities, and governments who come together to figure out how to address a controversial topic,” shared Bourassa. “The foundation of that is respect. How do we create respectful engagement between all stakeholders?”

Bourassa’s research on this topic has uncovered interesting findings that have prompted her to ask new questions. “What has become evident from dozens of interviews with community stakeholders is that when there's lack of respect, that's when things break down.”

“The big lesson is that a lot of people need to not only feel like they are being treated fairly by the companies that operate in their communities, but they also need to feel respected—they need to believe that they are heard and recognized and cared for—to be convinced that it’s worth working together. It’s not enough for a local mining company, for example, to just build a community skating rink or a soccer field to win a community’s support. There has to be authentic respect in all the interactions too.”

Future research examines experiential learning and simulated experience

This research, which keeps revealing just how much respect matters, has led Bourassa to delve deeper into examining and categorizing respectful behaviours. Specifically, her future research aims to identify and rank specific behaviours that convey respect—and disrespect—in the marketplace; ideally, companies could use this information in training customer service employees to convey respect. She also plans to study how experiential learning and simulated experience can potentially be used as tools within organizations to increase respect at the individual level.

She shared: “If we have people participate in more experiential learning, either before or during the process of engaging with each other around complex topics, those simulated experiences or experiential learnings about the perspective of others bring us closer to each other. This can make us more empathetic, and I believe that it will deepen the level of respect and recognition that can be achieved.”

Specifically, this new direction would explore the behaviours that lead people to perceive a respectful relationship exists and to better understand how to convey respect as an organization. “Now that I've established respect matters and has measurable outcomes, this would be the next step,” she said.

Simulated experience can deepen people’s understanding of each other, and of other groups, in a variety of contexts. “One of my planned collaborative projects is around poverty reduction in Saskatoon and understanding what might motivate local businesses to do more work within their own companies towards reducing poverty,” Bourassa explained. “For those who don't have lived experience of poverty, the more intimately they can understand what it means to have a lived experience of poverty—even if it is only simulated—might allow for more respectful engagement to take place.”

Bourassa’s early experience as a teenager and young adult working for The Student’s Commission, a national nonprofit that focuses on youth engagement in policy, and later for the Austrian Youth Red Cross has sparked her interest in her current work. “From that work experience very early on I was interested in how all voices become part of the process in meaningful ways, not just lip service,” she said.

“I think that would be my success story – everything that I do in some way connects back to those early experiences” Bourassa shared. “When I look back and realize there's these common threads that weave through so many past projects and experiences, I think that feels like success.”

Collaborations surrounding stakeholder engagement and respect

Bourassa has been collaborating with faculty and community-based partners in Saskatchewan and beyond. Her work surrounding poverty reduction and simulated experience has been with Colleen Christopherson-Coté, long-term colleague and Coordinator of the Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership in Saskatoon. She is also collaborating with Dr. Laurel Steinfield from Bentley University on research surrounding recognition and respect in stakeholder engagement, and with Dr. Laurence Ashworth from Queen’s University on customer satisfaction and respect in the marketplace. She was recently awarded a SSHRC Explore grant with Dr. Megan Walsh from the Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour department at Edwards and Dr. Erica Carleton from the University of Regina exploring gender issues in marketing as they relate to leadership and respect.

Bourassa has collaborated with and mentored numerous graduate students in the Master of Science (MSc) in Marketing program at Edwards surrounding topics of respect and stakeholder engagement. Her enthusiasm for student engagement and mentorship in research is one of her proudest moments.

“I think for me, the best parts are about mentorship. My research leads into teaching marketing research and academic research, and when students either feel like they have gained knowledge or skills, or have been inspired by the research process itself, or if it’s had spinoff effects, it’s a big deal,” she shared. “The ability to synthesize and integrate, the ability to question and critique and write in a way that's compelling and persuasive. There is so much tied up into it. That is an important part of what drives me.”

Funding Acknowledgment: This research has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation.

To learn more about Maureen Bourassa’s work, check out her profile page!



Ashworth, L. and Bourassa, M.A. (2020). Inferred respect: a critical ingredient in customer Satisfaction. European Journal of Marketing, 54(10): 2447-2476.

Bourassa, M., Cunningham, P., Ashworth, L., & Handelman, J. (2018). Respect in Buyer/Seller Relationships. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 35 (2): 198-213.

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