What does ‘customer satisfaction’ really measure?

By Charlotte Young. Chair of Trustees, SSE.

What do you think when you hear that one organisation has a much better customer satisfaction rating than another? Does it make you feel it is a better organisation and nicer to deal with? Well,  be careful because it just isn’t as simple as that- especially not in our world of social entrepreneurship where we are trying to change the world!

You know how it is. You go to some sort of training event; it is all quite smart – nice place, nice food, entertaining speakers on the whole. Towards the end the organiser reminds you to fill in the simple “evaluation form” in your training pack and pop it in the box at the back. “Were the speakers good? Was the venue suitable? Did it meet your needs? Blah, blah, blah.” You dutifully fill in the form making positive remarks because it was similar to most commercial training events but perhaps a bit more entertaining.

The following week, somebody asks you whether it was a good event. You rack your brains to remember what it was about. Then you remember that you met 2 really interesting people in the lunch break whose cards you took and who you still need to follow up. “Yes it was OK,” you say. As you walk away, you think “Did I actually get anything useful out of that time spent?” and you find it hard to say whether it was worth the effort. But nevertheless you have become part of the customer satisfaction rating of the training provider.

So let’s dig into this a bit. Customer satisfaction is obviously a necessary first step towards engaging with customers or clients or beneficiaries. It sets the tone and lays the ground for a productive relationship. But this sort of satisfaction is relatively easy to obtain. It’s really a clapometer rating. Are your more superficial urges being satisfied as they might be with a good joke, a generous piece of chocolate or a warm fire?

How did you find today?

How did you find today? Good, Very good or Really very good?

Satisfaction will be closely related to what you expect. If you haven’t thought much about something, or if you have low expectations, or if your life is a bit routine just now and something quite pleasant happens, then you are much more likely to feel satisfied. And in contrast it takes a bit of time and reflection to assess whether the particular experience has any lasting value. If the experience you have had was quite stretching then it will take even longer for you to see it in perspective and get the full benefits.

Let me tell you about an experience of mine… Many years ago I was doing research for a public body. They wanted to understand what the common factors were amongst well-run organisations under their control. They had regular customer satisfaction data and financial performance data but they wanted to understand whether these tallied with wider outcomes. What we discovered was that many of these organisations treated their clients as dependent children, gave them a good service so long as they didn’t make a nuisance of themselves and were rewarded with very high customer satisfaction ratings. But there were others who treated their clients entirely differently, they encouraged them to do things for themselves and to make joint decisions about how they wanted their services to be provided. They were aiming at making their clients independent, confident and capable. Their clapometer ratings were nothing like as high. But the longer term beneficial impact these organisations had on the communities they worked with was profound and long-lasting. Behind this was the fact that the respondents had developed much higher expectations, were prepared to comment on things that could be improved and were then willing to work together to get better outcomes. The conclusion: customer satisfaction ratings said little about lasting value.

That said, I don’t think customer satisfaction is totally irrelevant it just doesn’t mean very much- and it certainly doesn’t help you to evaluate what you are doing with a view to getting better at what you do. Happy undemanding “children” will always give positive responses if you give them what they want. But I personally want a world where people are enabled to be independent and resourceful, to put in their comments and contributions and make things better.

So if you are being pressed to have superficial customer satisfaction measures by some outside body, stop and think; consider seriously what you really need to know about outcomes and find a practical way to get yourself some useful feedback. If you think the request won’t provide value, stick to your guns and tell them why it’s a waste of your time and theirs. And if you want me to quote my research at them – just let me know!!





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