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Is Your Customer Satisfaction Score a Lie?

Aug 21 2023

By Dave Mitchell, founder of The Leadership Difference, Inc.

One of the fundamental tenets of performance improvement is to identify a metric that measures how you are doing. In business, the typical metrics are profitability, operational efficiency, and stakeholder satisfaction. The stakeholders are generally defined as ownership, employees, and customers. Of all these metrics, the one that can be the most misleading is customer satisfaction.

Many times, I have sat in a meeting that included the celebration of lofty customer satisfaction measures.

“We have a 90 percent customer satisfaction score!” boasts the executive.

But what sounds like excellence to them sounds like something else to me. Let me explain.

Recently, I used a town car company to provide me with ground transportation from the airport to my hotel. Afterwards, the transportation company sent me a brief customer survey. The five questions seemed appropriate enough: inquiring about ease of use, promptness, courtesy, safety, and overall satisfaction. I scored them at the highest rating in each category, but a nagging thought entered my mind. 

For me, those five areas did not differentiate the company from their competitors. I expected it to be easy to arrange to be picked up. I expected the car to be there when I arrived. I expected a courteous driver and to be safely transported to my destination.

The fact that I was completely satisfied by the experience did not mean that I wouldn’t consider hiring a different transportation next time. Customer satisfaction does not ensure customer retention; and retaining customers is the point. 

This transportation company’s approach to measuring satisfaction isn’t unusual. In fact, most surveys I take from companies of which I have been a customer focus on components of the transaction/service that I expect to be performed well. 

In my opinion, an organization does not differentiate itself from the competition by meeting fundamental expectations. By surveying customers on how well they performed the essential functions of the transaction, these organizations are simply measuring basic competence. Basic competence does not make for an exceptional customer experience. Basic competence is the expectation of the customer, not a value differentiator. 

Measuring your ability to deliver the basics is an operational metric, not a customer satisfaction one. To believe that your success is based on satisfying your customer suggests that you are hoping none of your competitors are competent. That is fool’s gold.

Back to that executive celebrating a 90 percent customer satisfaction score. That score also says that we are incompetent 10 percent of the time as determined by our customers. Is that really cause for applause? Really, all we know for sure from that result is that 10 percent of our customers won’t be using us again. The other 90 percent, who knows?

The best metric for customer satisfaction focuses on that “special sauce” that your organization offers that keeps your clients delighted and loyal. It is the element of your brand that inspires your current clients to evangelize you to others. 

To truly determine how well you are doing, consider asking your clients what makes you special; what makes your offerings distinctive in the marketplace. Instead of customer satisfaction scores as a measure of effectiveness, try measuring your ability to consistently deliver the thing(s) that keep your clients from straying to the competition.

Otherwise, you risk experiencing the false sense of security of high customer satisfaction scores while your customers continue to check out your competition. In the words of the famous management consultant Peter Drucker, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Find new ways to set yourself apart from competitors during Dave Mitchell's keynote address during the 2023 ARA Conference & Expo. Nov. 28-30. 

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