The CEO took the stage as the first PowerPoint slide appeared on the giant screen. "I am happy to tell you we just received the quarterly results of our customer satisfaction survey," he announced. "This quarter, 91.2 % of our customers reported they were satisfied with their experience with our company." The audience applauded loudly. Little did any of them know the CEO had failed to report good news.
Research shows that 75% of customers who leave a company to go with a competitor rate their experience with the company they abandoned as "satisfied" or "completely satisfied.” So, why do too many leaders continue to focus on customer satisfaction as a valuable metric?
If you look up the definition of "satisfactory" in Webster's Really Big Dictionary, it says "good enough to fulfill a need or requirement." The verb "to satisfy" comes from the Latin
word "satisfacere," which means "enough." It also means "adequate" or "sufficient." When customers buy products, they purchase them with a need in mind and are less than satisfied if that product fails to work as it was supposed to. But the customer experience is entirely different. Here is why.
We Judge Products Differently Than We Judge Experiences
Customers do not generally have emotional feelings about the objects they purchase. There are obviously lovers of Harleys, baseball cards, stamps, and Cabbage Patch dolls who would differ. But these aberrations have more in the mix than an infatuation with form. Harley owners say, "It's not the bike; it's the Harley experience." Likewise, people who plop down four bucks for a "triple venti latté" at Starbucks might not so quickly put sixteen quarters in a vending machine in the break area for the exact same beverage. There is more to the product than the product.
Market research departments in product-making companies prefer the sufficiency test in gauging customers' satisfaction with their company's products. So look at the next customer survey you receive. Bet you a dollar it will have a scale with "completely unsatisfied" on one end and "completely satisfied" on the other. Measuring a customer's assessment of a physical object in the same manner one assesses the customer's evaluation of an emotional experience is like trying to drive a nail with a B flat.
Think of a situation when your emotions were very high—one of those five-star experiences like a great dining experience. Maybe it was your honeymoon. Let's assume a market researcher sought to gauge your evaluation of one of those momentous experiences. Pulling out her handy dandy survey, she asks: "On a 1 to 10 scale, with one being 'completely unsatisfied' and ten being 'completely satisfied,' what would be your overall evaluation of your honeymoon?"
Recalling the full moon on the water, the soft breeze on the balcony, the sweet taste of champagne, or the ecstasy of the late-night extra curricula activities, you would likely be struck by how much "completely satisfied" fell short of capturing your actual evaluation of that memorable experience. "Is 'awesome' one of the choices?" you query the interviewer. "No," the surveyor responds. "Completely satisfied is our highest rating. We are scientists, not touchy-feely counselors!"
A surface view might spot an easy route around this grading dilemma. Why not make the top end of the scale "more than satisfied?" However, the challenge with this path is that "more than" is a different paradigm altogether. Satisfaction is about sufficiency, and "more than sufficient" is like saying, "I bought this trash compacter to crunch up my garbage, but if you want to hook my loyalty as a consumer, make it do something it is not intended to do?" Satisfaction is a state of completeness—either it is, or it is not. If satisfaction were a bucket to be filled, the best you could get would be "completely satisfied"—as in, "to the top."
Your rational side might now be countered with something like, "Customer service is not like a honeymoon." But let's examine it more closely. The word "service" is derived from the Latin word "servire," meaning "to act as a servant," and connotes meeting a customer's need or requirement, just like a product. What is different is that it is done for a specific customer (e.g., the mechanic you never see), or it occurs in a way that physically involves the customer. Imagine what it would be like if a consumer, needing a trash compactor, showed up at the factory to help the manufacturer produce the trash compactor that the consumer was ultimately planning to purchase. Sound ludicrous? This is how service happens every time.
How to Emotionalize the Yardstick
If an experience makes a service a service, what does that imply for measuring service? Simply shifting from a satisfaction paradigm to one that more closely matches how humans judge an experience is only a part of the solution. And the market research quest for reliability cannot be sacrificed even if what is being measured is unequivocally more subjective.
A doctor can reliably read the number on a blood pressure instrument. And all physicians derive the same conclusion from a reading of 140/90. But the doctor must rely on the patient's vague language when asking the "How bad does it hurt?" question. And, variably in " thresholds of pain" among patients make a particular patient's "really bad" answer open to broad interpretation.
It is important to remember that service quality is not determined by the service provider but by the service receiver. Therefore, if "awesome" is what the customer uses to describe their service experience, then "awesome" is what it should be. The key to the evaluation process is to favor the customer's language, not the researchers. That means finding a way to get a comparative evaluation for all surveyed so ratings can be reliably compared. Yet, we all know that customer-derived language is very slippery.
One way around this dilemma might be to begin the data collection process by asking respondents to recall their best service experience and state the word or phrase that best characterizes that experience. "Okay,' the interviewer might say, "let's use your word as the upper end for all the questions I will be asking you." Repeating that process for the lower end provides the semantic differentials in the customer's language. This enables customer A's "excellent" (A's highest rating) to be reliably compared to customer B's "outstanding" (B's highest rating).
Challenges Beyond the Scorecard
The implications of relying on a product paradigm for an emotional experience go beyond how survey questions are crafted. For example, when leaders of manufacturing organizations are told that eighty-five percent of their customers are completely satisfied with their new trash compactors, it is accurately portrayed as a marketing victory. Remember that "completely satisfied" was like a customer giving you an "A" on her product report card. However, if that same customer gave a "completely satisfied" rating to her prior restaurant experience, it would likely signal a grade of "C," meaning "you passed; you fulfilled all my 'dining at a restaurant' requirements."
The product paradigm applied to an emotional experience also could invite a focus on "compliance with specifications." Of course, products must be uniform—all Model 1266W trash compactors alike. However, applying that logic to the service paradigm can create a short path to the mechanical "Thank you for shopping at J-Mart, next!" that customers abhor. Service standards are necessary to promote consistency. But consistency should only be present in those parts of the service experience where the customer views consistency as a virtue.
The product paradigm greatly emphasizes the exactness of design, the preciseness of production planning, and the perpetual elimination of variance and waste. On the other hand, while honoring efficiency and frugalness, the service paradigm recognizes the human dimension's importance and thus focuses on empowered employees able to adjust, adapt, and custom-fit service experiences to match customers' unique requirements.
Customers of services bring a different requirement than consumers of products. As leaders more thoroughly appreciate the differences between object-making and memory-making, new opportunities will be unearthed to be mined and managed for rich returns. Satisfaction should not be the goal when assessing experiences, be they customer encounters or employee commitment. Should you go forward with that employee satisfaction survey, or do you need to rethink that paradigm as well?