Customer Satisfaction Fables

In the 1980s, U.S. manufacturers turned to quality as a way to create competitive advantage and sustain customer loyalty. The 1990s are emerging as the era for customer satisfaction in service industries. Service quality and customer satisfaction are important to marketers because a customer’s evaluation of a purchase is thought to determine the likelihood of repurchase and, ultimately, to affect bottom-line measures of business success. Customer satisfaction is important to all marketers, but especially to service marketers, because, unlike their manufacturing counterparts, they have fewer objective measures of quality for judging their production.

In particular, service marketers have embraced the “gap model,” which suggests that consumers will judge a service encounter as high quality if the experience exceeds his or her expectations. This concept is simple and intuitively appealing; it is consistent with our own experiences as consumers who have been frustrated by service that did not meet our expectations or pleasantly surprised by the service provider who “went the extra mile” for us and performed “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Simple ideas are often those that “catch on” fastest, and, true to form, the gap concept is popular in industry and academia. Books on customer service invariably feature examples of service providers who made extra efforts to please their customers. Furthermore, it is currently in vogue for managers in many industries to make statements such as, “We don’t want to just meet our customers’ expectations, we want to exceed them,” or “We don’t want to simply satisfy our customers (by meeting expectations), we want to ‘delight’ them (or ‘amaze’ them) by exceeding their expectations.”

Despite the pervasiveness of managers striving to “exceed their customers’ expectations,” this point of view has its limitations. The strength of the concept — its simplicity — is simultaneously its weakness; it is too simple to provide a thorough understanding of customer evaluations. We recognize that these ideas have taken the industry by storm and, indeed, seem so well accepted that they are beyond questioning. However, we feel compelled to discuss the shortcomings in order to put a brake on the current unquestioned use of the “exceeding expectations” ideology.

The Emperor’s New Clothes — There’s Nothing New Going on Here

“Customer satisfaction” may be a new buzzword, but the concept is not new. Striving for customer satisfaction is no different than good marketing.

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Acknowledgments

We are especially grateful to Sidney Levy and Louis Stern for their encouraging and amused reactions to this article.