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“Can I go or should I stay?” A theoretical framework of social lock-in during unsatisfactory service encounters

Maarten Volkers (Department of Service Management, University of Hagen, Hagen, Germany)

Journal of Service Theory and Practice

ISSN: 2055-6225

Article publication date: 13 April 2021

Issue publication date: 15 June 2021




This article demonstrates that the type of service setting and the first interaction with an employee influences the customers' intention to stay or leave during an unsatisfactory service encounter, and that these effects are mediated by social lock-in, which describes the perception of a customer that exiting a service encounter early violates social norms.


The hypotheses are tested with two scenario-based experiments using a collective (theater) and high-contact service (restaurant) (N = 1143; 1485).


The results suggest that social lock-in and the intention to stay are higher in a closed as opposed to an open setting and that the type of setting is, in fact, more important for the decision to stay than sunk costs. Moreover, customers are more likely to stay after an interaction with an employee.

Research limitations/implications

This article contributes to the research aimed at explaining customers' decisions to stay or leave during an unsatisfactory service encounter. In doing so, the study highlights the constraining power of social norms in service encounters, which contributes to the research on the relationship between the social context and customers' behavior.

Practical implications

This study suggests that service providers can manage servicescape cues and employee behavior to influence customers' social lock-in perceptions and their decision to stay on or to leave early.


This is the first study to provide quantitative evidence for social lock-in and its determinants in service encounters.



The author is very grateful to Sabine Fliess for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. In addition, the author wishes to thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback.


Volkers, M. (2021), "“Can I go or should I stay?” A theoretical framework of social lock-in during unsatisfactory service encounters", Journal of Service Theory and Practice, Vol. 31 No. 4, pp. 638-663.



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