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Marketing Intelligence & Planning

Relationship marketing defined? An examination of current relationship marketing definitions


Michael John Harker

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Michael John Harker, (1999),"Relationship marketing defined? An examination of current relationship marketing definitions",
Marketing Intelligence & Planning, Vol. 17 Iss 1 pp. 13 - 20
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(2004),"The relationship marketing process: communication, interaction, dialogue, value", Journal of Business &
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(1996),"The value concept and relationship marketing", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 30 Iss 2 pp. 19-30 http://
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(1996),"Relationship marketing: strategic and tactical implications", Management Decision, Vol. 34 Iss 3 pp. 5-14 http://
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Relationship marketing defined? An examination of


current relationship marketing definitions

Michael John Harker


Research Student, Department of Strategic Management and Marketing,
Nottingham Business School, Nottingham, UK
Keywords
Marketing concept,
Marketing research,
Marketing theory,
Relationship marketing

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Abstract
Attempts to define relationship
marketing have been varied and
many, neatly reflecting the diverse
academic and socio-political
backgrounds of RM scholars. This
paper lists 26 such definitions,
collected as a by-product of a
literature review. Presented
alongside this resource are the
results of applying a contentanalysis-based methodology to
these definitions. These results
suggest that seven RM constructs enjoy general support. In
a discussion of this, it is concluded that any integration of
disparate RM theories implied by
these findings is at best superficial and at worst misleading. It is
further suggested that true and
complete integration of RM theory
must wait until a coherent understanding of these fundamental
concepts has been developed.
From the 26 definitions listed, one
is judged as being more comprehensive and generally acceptable,
and a new definition is presented
as an inducement to further
discussion.

Marketing Intelligence &


Planning
17/1 [1999] 1320
MCB University Press
[ISSN 0263-4503]

Introduction
A review of current relationship marketing
(RM) literature reveals a great many attempts
by a pantheon of authors to define relationship marketing in terms of what they perceive as its key conceptualisations. Needless
to say, different authors have differing opinions about what should and should not be at
the core of what constitutes relationship
marketing. The reasons for these differences
are twofold:
First, as an emergent perspective, RM has
had only a relatively short lifetime in which
to develop into a fully-formed paradigm.
Second, contributors to the development of
RM theory are extremely varied, both in
terms of socio-political heritage and
academic background.
It is an almost inevitable result of this lack of
established common ground that conflict
should arise over something as fundamental
as the basic meaning of relationship
marketing. We have no lingua franca.
That a general definition of relationship
marketing would be beneficial can be argued
fourfold:
First, it would promote shared understanding between separate streams of research.
Second, it would begin the process of
integrating these streams into a whole.
Third, a definition represents the essence
of an idea, containing its key concepts and
critical abstractions.
Finally, a definition would help in communicating the answer to the fundamental
question, What is relationship marketing?.
This paper presents the results of an attempt
to bring a formal research methodology to
bear on RM literature in the hope that it will
begin to establish areas of conceptual agreement and to construct such a general
definition of RM. This paper is divided into
two sections. The first section outlines, criticises and discusses the results of the research
methodology. The latter section consists of
two appendices, the first of which reprints the
collected definitions for use as a general
resource and the second of which tabulates

the definitions through a categorisation of


substantive terms (Zaltman et al., 1982).

Methodology
This methodology content analysis has
produced useful results many times in
marketing research already (for example,
Kolbe and Burnett, 1991; Resnik and Stern,
1977; Stone et al., 1966).
There is no room here to provide an indepth critique of content analysis as a
general, qualitative data research methodology. The specific research process used here
is briefly outlined and criticised according to
the five key criteria suggested by Kassarjian
(1977) and endorsed by Kolbe and Burnett
(1991). These are: sampling, objectivity, reliability, systemisation and quantification. For
more in-depth information on the topic of
content analysis, readers are referred to the
two papers mentioned above and to
Kassarjian and Robertson (1991) and Holsti
(1969).
The underlying theory behind this research
process is that, within RM literature,
attempts to define RM are attempts to stipulate what concepts should form the essence of
relationship marketing. Within these definitions, keywords represent critical abstractions. From the literature it is possible to
extract attempts at defining relationship
marketing. From the collated definitions it
may be possible to cull these key ideas and
attempt to place them on some form of perceptual/conceptual map, at which point content analysis can be used to generate categorisations of similar clusters.
According to Kolbe and Burnett (1991),
content analysis is valuable in collecting
data about communications when there are
no theoretical underpinnings. Such atheoretical contents analyses are useful in fostering
future research and theory-building efforts
because they collect information about a
communication form.
In this case, the communications
universe (Kassarjian, 1977) is specified as
RM literature, the sample selected being 117
sources read in preparation for a literature

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Michael John Harker


Relationship marketing
defined? An examination of
current relationship
marketing definitions

Downloaded by Northumbria University At 04:37 02 August 2016 (PT)

Marketing Intelligence &


Planning
17/1 [1999] 1320

[ 14 ]

review of current RM thinking. Three


sampling issues need to be addressed here:
1 randomisation;
2 manageability; and
3 generisability (Kassarjian, 1977; Kolbe and
Burnett, 1991).
This sample must be considered convenient
rather than random. Time and resource limitations permitted 117 different sources. Given
these factors, are results obtained from this
sample sufficiently general to transfer to the
population as a whole? With the dynamism of
the field, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, at
this point in time the results are probably
valid for RM literature produced to date. No,
in the future new directions and concepts not
highlighted by this process may gain strength
and the seven concepts derived may lose
favour or evolve new emphases.
The primary content unit was that of
themed paragraphs an attempt, whether
explicit or implicit, to define RM in terms of
its underlying conceptualisations.
Adopting these criteria, 26 definitions of
RM were collected. These are reprinted in
Appendix 1.
Once this initial separation of wheat from
chaff was complete the unit of analysis
shifted to individual word-concepts, providing a much sharper focus on the problem at
hand. Examining each definition in turn,
three judges[1] separately and independently
underlined words that in their opinion represented RM conceptualisations. Zaltman et al.
(1982) describe these as substantive terms
and define them as the basis of conceptual
meaning.
Each judge then compiled a list of the
selected words. There was a remarkable
degree of consistency between the three lists,
with a correlation of 92 per cent. Holsti (1969)
suggests an inter-judge agreement level of
85 per cent or better as the threshold for categorical data to be considered acceptable.
Kolbe and Burnett (1991) refer to this as one
of several types of reliability index. Negotiation between the judges produced a standardised list of 132 terms. Each of these
terms is italicized in Appendix 1.
Working independently once again, each
judge used this list to group these words
into conceptual clusters on a perceptual
map.
Again, results between judges were remarkably similar. Negotiation developed a final
version, consisting of seven conceptual categories. These groups are outlined in Table I,
and fully tabulated in Appendix 2, together
with the words used by each author that fall
within each classification.

Table I
Seven conceptual categories of relationship
marketing
Primary
construct

(Other common constructs)

Creation
Development
Maintenance
Interactive
Long term
Emotional content
Output

Attracting, establish, getting


Enhancing, strengthening, enhance
Sustaining, stable, keeping
Exchange, mutually, co-operative
Lasting, permanent, retaining
Commitment, trust, promises
Profitable, rewarding, efficiency

Systemisation means that the inclusion and


exclusion of communications content or
analysis categories is done according to consistently applied rules (Holsti, 1969). The
primary researcher started the research
process from a nave position. Hopefully,
this will have precluded any bias for or
against certain sources.
The use of multiple, independently working
judges working to specified rules for the latter
half of the process should, according to
Kassarjian (1977), help to improve the level of
objectivity by averaging out individual
subjectivity.
Content analysis is distinguished from
ordinary critical reading by the extent to
which derived results can be subjected to
statistical analysis. Kasserjian (1977) refers
to this as quantification. Given certain
characteristics of the sample, (Grnrooss
imbalancing effect and its relatively
small size for example) the results obtained
here are not suitable for sophisticated statistical analysis. Some (Kassarjian and
Robertson, 1991; Kracauer, 1952; Miles, 1979)
feel that it is sufficient if quantitative
phrases can be applied (for example: more,
always, never) to categorical results. This is
certainly possible.

Limitations
It is likely that definitions within the sample
literature may have been missed or
discarded. Definitions from sources outside
the sample almost certainly exist but will not
have been assessed[2]. These faults are an
inherent symptom of the high level of subjectivity involved in any qualitative methodology. An individual researcher being responsible for the first half of the research process
will have unavoidably compounded this subjectivity. Mea culpa.

Michael John Harker


Relationship marketing
defined? An examination of
current relationship
marketing definitions

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Marketing Intelligence &


Planning
17/1 [1999] 1320

Discussion
In the short to medium term, the objective of
RM theory building becomes clear. Relationship marketing as a paradigm will remain
undeveloped until its key conceptualisations
have been identified and understood. This
cannot occur until the constituent abstractions that combine to form each concept have
in turn been recognised and a shared understanding of them developed. In turn, this will
give impetus to the necessary process of
integrating the various RM theories proposed
by the Nordic, IMP, Network and
Channel Theory schools of relationship
marketing.
On a superficial level, the results presented
in Appendix 1 seem to suggest some level of
consensus on the key conceptualisations. A
closer inspection, allied with simple logic,
suggests otherwise. The argument that RM is
defined by its key conceptualisations only
holds if these concepts are in turn defined by
a clear and shared understanding of their
fundamental meaning. Currently, the level of
shared understanding between RM schools is
low, reflecting the diverse origins of these
theories.
Commitment and trust are two substantive terms classified in Appendix 1 under
the Emotional content conceptual category
that neatly illustrates this point. Whilst only
currently explicitly used by Bennett (1996) to
define RM, the importance of these abstractions has been highlighted by Morgan and
Hunt (1994) who convincingly argue that
relational trust and commitment are
critical in relationship development.
OMalley and Tynan (1997) develop this and
tighten the level of focus by presenting 15
distinct definitions of trust and nine of
commitment. Each of these definitions has
its origin in any of several underpinning
theories (social psychology, organisational
theory, interaction theory etc.) and enters the
realm of relationship marketing theory building through contributions to one of the existing RM schools. Each of these definitions of
trust and commitment possess their own
substantive terms which require analysis and
understanding.
An acceptance of these results implies that
one or more of these definitions could be
selected as being both broad enough and
general enough to be acceptable to all.
Some authors have presented definitions
that specifically highlight certain conceptual
aspects of RM rather than the whole.
Examples of a narrow rather than broad
focus include Berry (1983) who emphasises
the beginnings of marketing relationships,

Christopher et al. (1991), who stress the


importance of RMs customer keeping
orientation, and Paravatiyar (1996), who highlights the potential benefits of an RM strategy.
Other single-issue definitions include
Grnroos (1990), Gummesson (1994; 1997) and
Sheth (1994).
While certainly valid, these definitions
cannot be considered as serious candidates
for a general RM definition. A conceptually
complete definition would embody all
seven conceptual categories derived here. No
definition listed in Appendix 1A achieves
this.
Several authors present definitions which
score six from a possible seven. Bennett
(1996) achieves this twice (A+B), although
interestingly his most explicit attempt to
define RM (C) dwells on its emotional
component, rather than being a general
definition. Grnroos has sole authorship of
two subtly different definitions and a third
in partnership with Ravald (compare Grnroos 1989; 1990; 1994; 1997; and Ravald and
Grnroos, 1996). The last of the half-dozen
near-perfect definitions collected here is
from OMalley et al. (1997).
No attempt is made here to establish any
form of hierarchy for the conceptual constructs derived. No single one is invariably
omitted from these six definitions, and three
abstractions are consistently present
(interaction, maintenance and emotional content). Given these limitations, is
it possible to distinguish between these six
definitions in terms of their relative
strengths and weaknesses as general RM
definitions? Those from Bennett (1996),
while certainly being as broad as any of the
others, must be considered descriptive
rather than as explicit. Of those involving
Grnroos, the version attributed to him by
Mattsson (1997) seems superior to Grnroos
(1989; 1990; 1994; 1997) and Ravald and Grnroos (1996) because of its developed awareness of the potential necessity for relationship termination.
The substantive terms culled from
OMalley et al. (1997) and Grnroos (1994;
1995) are very similar, with identical terms in
four categories and the same category omitted from both (temporal).
Of the two, the definition presented explicitly by Grnroos (1994; 1995) seems both more
elegant and more succinct.

Conclusions
This process derived from the RM literature
seven conceptual categories fundamental

[ 15 ]

Michael John Harker


Relationship marketing
defined? An examination of
current relationship
marketing definitions
Marketing Intelligence &
Planning
17/1 [1999] 1320

to defining relationship marketing, these


being:
1 birth;
2 develop;
3 maintain;
4 temporal;
5 interaction;
6 outputs; and
7 emotional content.

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If the validity of the research methodology is


accepted, of all the definitions collated it can
be argued that the definition presented by
Grnroos (1994; 1995) is the best in terms of
its coverage of the underlying conceptualisations of relationship marketing and its
acceptability throughout the RM
community:
Relationship marketing is to identify and
establish, maintain and enhance and when
necessary also to terminate relationships
with customers and other stakeholders, at a
profit, so that the objectives of all parties are
met, and that this is done by a mutual
exchange and fulfilment of promises
(Grnroos, 1994).

The melting-pot of RM draws on a great


variety of theories and schools of thought. In
the long term this may well prove to be its
biggest strength. In the short term, theory
building is impeded by the lack of a shared
understanding of key constructs. The problem is one of fractal concepts. Every
increase in the level of focus reveals a further
layer of abstractions to be defined in terms of
their key concepts.
This research methodology reduced RM
literature to its key conceptualisations.
Purely as a spur to promote further academic
discussion, it is possible to use the results to
build a new definition of relationship
marketing:
An organisation engaged in proactively
creating, developing and maintaining committed, interactive and profitable
exchanges with selected customers [partners] overtime is engaged in relationship
marketing.

Notes
1 The author is indebted to his fellow judges,
Professor Paul Whysall and Angela Vickerstaffe, and also to Professor Caroline Tynan
and other members of the NBS marketing
writers group for their help and assistance in
the preparation of this paper.
2 For example, Buttle, 1996; Evans and Laskin,
1997.

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[ 16 ]

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Michael John Harker


Relationship marketing
defined? An examination of
current relationship
marketing definitions

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Planning
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[ 17 ]

Michael John Harker


Relationship marketing
defined? An examination of
current relationship
marketing definitions
Marketing Intelligence &
Planning
17/1 [1999] 1320

Appendix 1: Twenty-six definitions of


relationship marketing
RM is an emergent disciplinary framework
for creating, developing and sustaining
exchanges of value between the parties
involved, whereby exchange relationships
evolve to provide continuous and stable links
in the supply chain, (Ballantyne, 1997 in

Mattsson, 1997).
... attracting, maintaining and in multiservice organisations enhancing customer
relationships (Berry, 1983 in Payne and
Rickard, 1993; Robicheaux and Coleman,
1994; Hunt, 1997; Mattsson, 1997; Payne and
Frow, 1997).
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RM concerns attracting, developing, and


retaining customer relations (Berry and
Parasuraman, 1991 in Hunt, 1997).
Consumer RM seeks to establish long-term,
committed, trusting and co-operative relationships with customers, characterised by
openness, genuine concern for the delivery
of high-quality goods and services, responsiveness to customer suggestions, fair dealing, and (crucially) the willingness to
sacrifice short-term advantage for longterm gain. Suppliers attempt to create and
strengthen lasting bonds with their customers; they shift from attempting to
maximise profits on each individual transaction towards the establishment of solid,
dependable and, above all, permanent
relationships with the people they serve
(Bennett, 1996 A).
Consumer RM is the organisational development and maintenance of mutually rewarding relationships with customers achieved
via the total integration of information and
quality management systems, service support, business strategy and organisational
mission in order to delight the customer and
secure profitable lasting business (Bennett,
1996 B).
fundamentally, RM involves the total
fulfilment of all the promises given by the
supplying organisation, the development of
commitment and trust and the establishment (where possible) of personal contacts
and bonds between the customer and the
firms representatives; the eventual
emergence of feelings within each party of
mutual obligation, of having common goals,
and of involvement with and empathy for the
other side (Bennett, 1996 C).
Relationship marketing has as its concern
the dual focus of getting and keeping
customers (Christopher et al., 1991 in
Daskou, 1997).

[ 18 ]

... relates marketing to the development of


long-term relationships with customers and
other parties (Grnroos, 1990).
... establishing a relationship involves giving
promises, maintaining a relationship is
based on fulfilment of promises; and, finally,
enhancing a relationship means that a new
set of promises is given with the fulfilment
of earlier promises as a prerequisite
(Grnroos, 1990).
Relationship marketing is to establish,
nurture and enhance ... relationships with
customers and other partners, at a profit, so
that the objective of the partners involved
are met. This is achieved by a mutual
exchange and fulfilment of promises
(Grnroos, 1996).
Marketing is to establish, maintain and
enhance relationships with customers and
other parties at a profit so that the objectives of the parties involved are met. This is
done by a mutual exchange and fulfilment
of promises (Bennett, 1996; Brodie et al.,
1997; Grnroos, 1989; 1990; 1994; 1997 in
Ravald and Grnroos, 1996; Gummesson,
1994; Hunt, 1997; Robicheaux and Coleman,
1994; Storbacka, 1997; Takala and Uusitalo,
1996).
RM is to identify and establish, maintain
and enhance and when necessary also to
terminate relationships with customers and
other stakeholders, at a profit, so that the
objectives of all parties are met, and that
this is done by a mutual exchange and fulfilment of promises (Grnroos, 1994; in Mattsson, 1997, Please note that while Mattsson
refers to the 1994 paper by Grnroos, that
paper does not contain this definition, but the
one more commonly cited Grnroos (19891997). While the origins of this definition are
not certain, it is most likely to originate from
Grnroos (1995).
marketing can be viewed as the building,
maintenance, and liquidation of networks
and interactive relationships between the
supplier and the customer, often with longterm implications. As a consequence marketing becomes first and foremost relationship marketing (Gummesson, 1990).
RM emphasises a long-term interactive
relationship between the provider and the
customer, and long-term profitability
(Gummesson, 1994).
Relationship marketing is marketing
seen as relationships, networks and interaction (Gummesson, 1994; 1997 in Mattsson,
1997).

Michael John Harker


Relationship marketing
defined? An examination of
current relationship
marketing definitions

... all activities by the firm to build, maintain and develop customer relations
(Hammarkvist et al., 1982 in Gummesson,
1987).

Marketing Intelligence &


Planning
17/1 [1999] 1320

... they want to build and maintain lasting


and profitable-relationships with their customers (Jackson, 1985).

Downloaded by Northumbria University At 04:37 02 August 2016 (PT)

... is not directly aimed at immediate transactions but is based on building, supporting
and extending customer relationships
(Matthyssens and Van den Bulte, 1994 in
Christy et al., 1996).
Relationship marketing refers to all marketing activities directed towards establishing,
developing and maintaining successful
relational exchanges (Bennett, 1996 in
Morgan and Hunt, 1994 Christy et al., 1996;
Hunt, 1997; Mattsson, 1997).
RM involves the identification, specification,
initiation, maintenance and (where appropriate) dissolution of long-term relationships
with key customers and other parties,
through mutual exchange, fulfilment of
promises and adherence to relationship
norms in order to satisfy the objectives and
enhance the experience of the parties concerned (OMalley et al., 1997).
RM is the process of co-operating with customers to improve marketing productivity
through efficiency and effectiveness (Paravatiyar, 1996 in Mattsson, 1997).
the process whereby the seller and the buyer
join in a strong personal, professional, and
mutually profitable relationship over time
(Pathmarajah, 1993 in Chan and McDermott,
1995).
The core of RM is relations, a maintenance
of relations between the company and the
actors in its micro-environment The
idea is first and foremost to create cus-

tomer loyalty so that a stable, mutually


profitable and long-term relationship is
enhanced (Ravald and Grnroos, 1996).
the understanding, explanation and
management of the ongoing collaborative
business relationship between suppliers and
customers (Cravens and Piercy, 1994; Sheth,
1994 in Gummesson, 1994; Hunt, 1997).
establishing, strengthening, and developing
customer relations was stressed. The focus
was on the profitable commercialisation of
customer relationships, and the pursuit of
individual and organisational objectives. In
particular, long-term and enduring relationships with customers were stressed (Takala
and Uusitalo, 1996).
RM is the process of planning, developing
and nurturing a Relationship climate that
will promote a dialogue between a firm and
its customers which aims to imbue an
understanding, confidence and respect of
each others capabilities and concerns when
enacting their role in the market place and
in society (Tzokas and Saren, 1996 in
Daskou, 1997).
The two definitions below were discovered at a point too late to be included in
the research, and are included in order to
improve the value of this appendix as a
resource to others.
Relationship marketing is concerned with
the development and maintenance of mutually beneficial relationships with strategically significant markets (Buttle, 1996).
...the process whereby a firm builds long
term alliances with both prospective and
current customers so that both buyer and
seller work towards a common set of specified goals (Evans and Laskin, 1994).

[ 19 ]

[ 20 ]

19

14

Column totals

Maintain
Maintain
Supporting

Build, develop
Build
Build, support,
extend
Develop
Enhance

17

Nurturing

Maintain

Maintain
Maintain

Maintain
Maintain
Maintain

Maintain

Keeping

Maintain

Retaining
Solid

Maintenance
Sustaining,
continuous, stable
Maintain

Enhance
Enhance
Building

Development
Nurture, enhance
Enhance

Strengthen, develop
Develop, nurturing

Establish
Initiation

Establish
Establish

Establish
Establishing

Getting

Development
Development

Pathmarajah, 1993
Ravald and
Grnroos, 1996
Create
Sheth, 1994
Takala and
Uusitalo, 1996
Establish
Tzokas and Saren, 1996

Morgan and Hunt, 1994


OMalley et al., 1997
Paravatiyar, 1996

Christopher et al., 1991


Grnroos, 1991
Grnroos, 1996b
Grnroos, 1990
Grnroos, 1989, 1990
1994, 1997
Grnroos, 1994, 1995
Gummesson, 1990
Gummesson, 1994
Gummesson, 1994, 1997
Hammarkvist et al., 1982
Jackson, 1985
Matthyssens et al., 1994

Establish

Developing
Strengthen

Attracting
Establish,
create

Bennett, 1996, B
Bennett, 1996, C

Enchancing

Attracting

Berry, 1983
Berry and
Parasuraman, 1991
Bennett, 1996, A

Developing
Developing

Birth
Creating

13

Long-term, enduring

Long-term
Ongoing

Over-time

Lasting
Extend

Long-term
Long-term

Long-term

Retaining
Long-term,
permanent,
lasting
Lasting

Temporal
Continuous

19

Dialogue

Mutually
Collaborative

Mutually

Exchange
Exchange
Co-operating

Exchange
Exchange
Interactive
Interactive
Network interaction
Relations

Exchange

Mutually
Involvement

Relations
Co-operative,
fair-dealing

Interaction
Exchange

12

Profit, commercialisation

Profit

Dissolution
Productivity, efficiency,
effectiveness
Profit

Profit

Profit
Profit, terminate
Liquidation
Profit

Profit

Rewarding, profit

Outputs

Understanding,
confidence, respect
10

Loyalty

Promises

Promises
Promises

Promises
Promises

Commitment,
trust, openness,
sacrifice
Total integration,
Commitment, trust,
promises, bonds,
obligation

Emotional content

Marketing Intelligence &


Planning
17/1 [1999] 1320

Author
Ballantyne, 1994

Table AI
Seven conceptual categories of relationship marketing with words used by authors that fall within each classification

Downloaded by Northumbria University At 04:37 02 August 2016 (PT)

4
4

6
2

4
6
2

6
6
5
3
1
3
4
3

2
2
5
4

6
4

5
6

Row total
5

Michael John Harker


Relationship marketing
defined? An examination of
current relationship
marketing definitions

Appendix 2

Downloaded by Northumbria University At 04:37 02 August 2016 (PT)

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