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“If only…”: customer counterfactual thinking in failed recovery

Hai-Anh Tran (Aston University, Birmingham, UK)
Yuliya Strizhakova (School of Business – Camden, Rutgers University, Camden, New Jersey, USA)
Hongfei Liu (Southampton Business School, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK)
Ismail Golgeci (Department of Business Development and Technology, Aarhus Universitet, Herning, Denmark)

European Journal of Marketing

ISSN: 0309-0566

Article publication date: 6 October 2021

Issue publication date: 23 November 2021




This paper aims to examine counterfactual thinking as a key mediator of the effects of failed recovery (vs. failed delivery) on negative electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM). The authors further investigate the effectiveness of using recovery co-creation in minimizing customers’ counterfactual thinking.


This research includes textual analysis of online reviews (Study 1) and three scenario-based experiments (Studies 2, 3a and 3b). In addition to using item-response scales, the authors analyze negative online reviews and participants’ open-ended responses to capture their counterfactual thinking.


Failed recovery (vs failed delivery) increases counterfactual thinking, which, in turn, increases negative eWOM. These mediating effects of counterfactual thinking are consistent across textual analyses and experimental studies, as well as across different measures of counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking also impacts customer anger in experiments; however, anger alone does not explain the effects of failed recovery on negative eWOM. Counterfactual thinking can be minimized by co-created recovery, especially when it is used proactively.

Practical implications

The findings demonstrate the detrimental effects of counterfactual thinking and offer managerial insights into co-creation as a strategy to minimize customers’ counterfactual thinking. The authors also highlight the importance and ways of tracking counterfactual thinking in digital outlets.


The authors contribute to counterfactual thinking and service recovery research by demonstrating the effects of failed recovery on counterfactual thinking that, in turn, impacts negative eWOM and offering a novel way to measure its expression in online narratives. The authors provide guidance on how to use co-creation in the service recovery process to minimize counterfactual thinking.



Tran, H.-A., Strizhakova, Y., Liu, H. and Golgeci, I. (2021), "“If only…”: customer counterfactual thinking in failed recovery", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 55 No. 12, pp. 3221-3249.



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