Reflections about different perspectives on customer satisfaction.

Recently, I found myself stuck in a customer-service maze. You’ve probably been in a similar situation at some point — lost in a company’s customer-support phone menu, trying to reach an actual human. In this case, it struck me as ironic that soon after I was warned to expect long hold times to reach a human operator, a cheerful digitized voice assured me that “the voice of the customer is very important” at that company.

The recording also announced that some callers would be selected to complete a customer survey. But the company probably wouldn’t have wanted to hear my views at that moment.

However, that experience — a frustrating interaction with a company’s customer-service system that included a recorded message telling me how important customers are — brought to mind some of the themes in this issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, which contains a number of articles related to customer satisfaction.

For example, in “Should Your Business Be Less Productive?,” scholars Ming-Hui Huang and Roland T. Rust argue that executives have a bias toward improving productivity, often through automated systems, that dates from a time when the economy was dominated by manufacturing. However, Huang and Rust’s research suggests that for service businesses, productivity improvements can sometimes be bad for the bottom line — because they have a negative effect on customer satisfaction.

In their article “What Unhappy Customers Want,” Marc Grainer, Charles H. Noble, Mary Jo Bitner and Scott M. Broetzmann explore companies’ often unsuccessful attempts to deal with dissatisfied customers. On the whole, the authors report, businesses have not made great progress in handling customer complaints over the past few decades. “In addressing complaints, companies are failing in their efforts to create one-stop resolution with technology and people dedicated to resolving customer problems,” Grainer et al. write.

Customer-satisfaction surveys are also discussed in this issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. In “Reading Global Clients’ Signals,” Peter A. Gloor of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and Gianni Giacomelli, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Genpact, describe a big data alternative to customer surveys that can help companies assess the health of relationships with large clients in near real time — without waiting for customers to fill out surveys. Finally, in their article “The High Price of Customer Satisfaction,” Timothy Keiningham, Sunil Gupta, Lerzan Aksoy and Alexander Buoye raise the question of the limitations of customer satisfaction as a meaningful metric for businesses.

It’s not easy for companies to keep customers satisfied — and, as Keiningham and his coauthors point out, it may not always even be worth it. But the articles in this issue of MIT SMR offer a variety of thought-provoking perspectives for businesses as they wrestle with the age-old challenges of keeping customers happy while making money.

Martha E. Mangelsdorf
Editorial Director
MIT Sloan Management Review