What Drives Customer Satisfaction?

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©2001 by Dr. James G. Barnes, Bristol Group

More than anything else, customer satisfaction will determine the future of your business. Whether you manufacture a tangible product or provide a service (and we are all in the service business!), once you’ve got your proverbial widget-maker up and running, customer satisfaction will ultimately enable you to out-distance your competition. It’s what marketing and the long-term success of a company is all about. When it comes right down to it, creating and sustaining long-term customer satisfaction is the prerequisite for success.

There are five critical elements of customer satisfaction. Each of these elements represents a level of the offer or the value proposition that your business can deliver to its customers. Picture a cone. This cone represents a model of the “drivers” of customer satisfaction. At the lowest level of the cone is your core product or service. This is the essence of your offer to your customers; it is what your business does. It represents the basic product or service that your business provides. In a competitive marketplace, you have to get the core right; if you do not, the customer relationship will never get started. It you are marketing a defective core product or if you are constantly plagues with service failure, you can forget about generating long-term satisfaction amongst your customers. Remember, you can’t sell a bad product twice.

The next and slightly larger level of the cone represents your support services and systems. This level of our cone representing the “drivers” of customer satisfaction includes the peripheral and support services that enhance the provision of the core product or service and enable its delivery to your customers. They include delivery and billing systems, hours of service, levels of staffing, communication of information, help lines and other programs that support the core. The price, promotions and distribution components of the traditional marketing mix fall under this heading. At the end of the day, if you can’t provide reliable support services and systems, your customers will be frustrated and dissatisfied, even though you may provide them with an excellent core product. Many great products fail because they can’t be reliably delivered.

The third level of our cone is technical performance. This level of our “drivers” of customer satisfaction model deals with whether you get the core product and the support services right. The emphasis is on performing in the manner that was promised to your customers. The company may have the procedures and systems in place to deliver the core product, but if they don’t get it right; the processes and systems fail. Are there errors in the bill? Did we deliver the fridge on Thursday afternoon as we had promised? Once again, the core product may not be the problem but your customers will be dissatisfied and frustrated by your failure to deliver what they had expected or had been promised.

At the fourth level of our model, we get to some really interesting aspects of the “drivers” of customer satisfaction, the elements of customer interaction. This is where your business meets your customers in person, over the telephone, through various forms of technology, including the Internet. This interaction relates to how you treat you customers, what you put them through in order to deal with you. Do you treat your customers with courtesy, with respect? Do you act as if they are important to you? Do you make it easy for them to deal with you? Are you helpful, understanding, knowledgeable, responsive? Understanding this level of the drivers of customer satisfaction indicates that your business has thought beyond the provision of core product and service, and is focused on the provision of superior service at the critical juncture where the company meets the customer.

At the fifth and top level of the cone, we find emotional elements, or what we sometimes refer to as the affective dimensions of service. This pinnacle level deals with the subtle messages that your business sends to your customers. It is these messages which will leave your customers with either positive or negative feelings toward your business, and which will determine whether or not your business is capable of developing genuine relationships with your customers. Essentially, this level deals with how you make your customers feel. The way you deal with your customers, through all points of contact and all interactions, affords you the opportunity to make an impression. Virtually everything that you do has the potential to make the customer feel certain emotions. You should make them feel important, valued, special, recognized, and pleasantly surprised. Instead, businesses regularly make their customers feel neglected, unimportant,
frustrated, disappointed, let down, and angry. I’m convinced that the most commonly-felt consumer emotion is frustration.

Customer dissatisfaction often has nothing to do with the quality of your core product or service or with how that core is provided to your customers. Even if your customers are satisfied with most aspects of their interaction with you, you might still lose their business because of some “minor” event like a thoughtless comment from a staff member, or because of some other “little thing” that go completely unnoticed by staff members. Our research over more than 25 years with the customers of many companies on both sides of the Atlantic has led me to conclude that in, as many as 75% of cases, what drives customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction has nothing to do with the products or services you are selling or the price you are charging for them.

How can an understanding of these five critical elements, these “drivers” of customer satisfaction, help you gain a competitive advantage? Increasingly, when we talk to customers, we find that the core product or service is not an issue. It is either so similar to competitive products and services that it offers little by way of adding value, or it is of such excellent quality that it rarely fails. In fact, in some industries, the core products and services offered by competing businesses are virtually identical. The quality of your core product is often taken for granted by your customers – a situation that borders in many companies on commoditization. In such a situation, you have to look to the higher-order drivers of customer satisfaction to gain a competitive advantage.

Today, having a good core product or service is absolutely essential to your success – it is the price of entry into a competitive marketplace. That is why your customers now look to other aspects of your interaction to give them a reason to continue dealing with you.

Your business can differentiate itself and add value for your customers by focusing on the highest levels of the “drivers” of customer satisfaction. For example, you could provide support and ancillary services related to distribution and information. You could make it easier for customers to deal with you. You could introduce no-hassle return policies, provide your customers with detailed product information, offer 24-hour service, and generally just “go the extra mile” for your customers. The truly successful companies that not only satisfy their customer but build a bond with them have created a sense of emotional loyalty. They treat their customers as if they are special, they have the right people meeting them, and they make the interaction as pleasant and positive as possible. The implications for human resources are obvious. They surprise their customers from time to time. They do the unexpected. They create a positive emotional response. They practise what I call “planned spontaneity.” (More on this topic in a later newsletter!)

Don’t get me wrong, a company must have a solid core product and surround it with reliable systems and processes for getting the product to the customer and to support its provision. But, today most of your competitors are doing exactly the same thing. They too have great product, and they have access to the same technology you have to support and deliver those products. By focusing more on the highest levels of the “drivers” of customer satisfaction model (the element of customer interaction and the emotional element) you can add true value for your customers and begin to set yourself apart from your competition. You can build the highest possible levels of customer satisfaction that, over time, will lead to the creation of solid, genuine customer relationships.

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