Despite all the effort and money poured into CX tools by companies, customer satisfaction continues to decline. In the United States, it is now at its lowest level in nearly two decades, per data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). Consumer sentiment is also at its lowest in more than two decades. This negative dynamic in the customer-centric ecosystem in which we now live creates the challenge of figuring out what is going wrong and what companies can do to fix it.
The short answer is that companies need to create an amazing customer experience. Customers no longer only compare companies to their competitors. They compare with the best companies and brands across industries. But satisfaction across the board is in decline! That begs the question: What customer satisfaction areas should companies tackle strategically to create greater profit at lower risk?
We base our answer on research at the ACSI — analyzing millions of customer data points — and research that we conducted for our book, The Reign of the Customer: Customer-Centric Approaches to Improving Customer Satisfaction. For three decades, the ACSI has been a leading satisfaction index (cause-and-effect metric) connected to the quality of brands sold by companies with significant market share in the United States.
Here are the top 10 areas to focus on to satisfy customers and create greater profit at lower risk:
Customer Satisfaction is a Strategic Asset
The American Customer Satisfaction Index defines customer satisfaction as a strategic company asset that should be optimized. Satisfaction should not be maximized but also not ignored; optimization is the key. Companies thrive by delivering on customers’ satisfaction expectations in combination with quality, value, and complaint handling. The focus should then be to manage the optimization of satisfaction relative to customer expectations and company resources used.
It is important to understand this optimization of customer satisfaction since there is a complicated — and ultimately negative — relationship between satisfaction and market share. That is, while high and improving satisfaction in smaller companies drives market-share growth, maintaining high satisfaction once the market share is larger becomes more difficult. This is because with a larger market share typically comes a more heterogeneous customer base and more diverse customer behaviors, which makes delivering high satisfaction more difficult.
Understand What Customers Expect
What type of demands do customers have relative to their experiences with companies? Let’s start with the misnomer of sky-rocketing expectations. For the past 12 years, using ACSI data, customer expectations have been relatively steady at the macro level (across industries and companies), scoring between 79 and 82 on a 100-point scale (where 100 represents the highest expectations). Now, companies in the auto industry like BMW, Mercedes, and Toyota, seemingly always have much higher expectations than average (>90) from their customers that they have to manage.
Despite the steady cross-industry expectations, the popular choice for many businesses is to aim higher and higher, and at least to “always exceed customer expectations.” Is this the future trend in customer expectations? Practically, it is a flawed argument since companies should avoid promising to “always exceed expectations,” as attempting such a strategy is not sustainable. Companies can and should delight the customer with an amazing experience but with realistic aims.
Quality Performance Matters
How have customers’ quality perceptions evolved (brands, products, and services)? Important in this context is what constitutes quality. Quality, as measured within the ACSI, refers to reliability and customizability, but customizability dominates reliability as a driver of satisfaction. At the macro-level, for the past 12 years quality has been residing in the 79 to 83 range on a 100-point scale (where 100 is the highest quality). For example, Quaker has impressive scores on overall quality, with BMW and Publix peaking in product and service quality, respectively.
A key issue moving forward is likely to be strategies for improving satisfaction in the absence of gains in perceived quality for many companies. Contrary to what managers often think, quality trumps price. More broadly, quality also trumps value as a driver of customer satisfaction across most economic sectors and industries. Plus, we live in a “mass customization” economy, which is reflected in satisfaction being more sensitive to the personalizability than the reliability of products and services.