Customer Satisfaction Isn’t Service Quality

Empathy: the level of caring, individualized attention provided to consumers. Empathy means service employees make consumer needs their top priority. It includes listening carefully, making an effort to understand, offering convenient business hours, being available for support or service when needed, etc.

Tangibles: how well the physical aspects of the service meet expectations. All IT services have some element of tangibility―user interface device, manuals, hardware, etc. Sometimes tangible matter a lot, and sometimes they don’t.

Now, since my cable company always asks me if I am satisfied with the result (which is Dan coming and getting me back to work) I must say yes. Since Dan has been here several times, you could trend my satisfaction over the last year and you might think that service quality is high. After all, I am a “satisfied customer” am I not?

This is the mistake and trap that customer satisfaction spanning one dimension of service quality (e.g., Dan coming to “fix” my Internet connection) is equivalent to overall service quality. It isn’t, and it will never be so.

Not So Much

Satisfaction and quality are definitely related, but they are not the same. Service quality is an assessment of the quality dimensions made by the service consumer during service consumption over time, spanning multiple transactions and interactions with the service provider and its services. Service quality is based on expectations across the five dimensions of a service. A service quality survey asks the customer about all or most dimensions of service delivery.

Satisfaction on the other hand is related to a specific transaction or group of transactions. Customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) can therefore result from any single dimension. Unlike judgments of quality, non-service delivery quality issues such as feelings of fairness or equity can also shape customer satisfaction judgments. A customer satisfaction survey usually hinges on a specific dimension.

In summary, expectations and perceptions of quality and satisfaction are created in many ways, and perceptions are influenced by many factors. There are multiple inputs to setting quality and satisfaction expectations including word of mouth from others, service marketing (implicit and explicit) and service intensifiers, e.g., my own needs for service.

While consumers develop both service quality and satisfaction judgments, satisfaction within a single dimension can outweigh for a general lack of service quality. We generally call this a trade-off, such as in my opening example where I trade-off a pleased palate for a fast bite.

You need to track both satisfaction and service quality, and can’t fall into the trap of thinking that satisfaction with a service means the service is of high quality. To do so prevents us from uncovering potentially faulty dimensions of quality, or unsustainable levels of personal achievement that mask faulty dimensions of quality.

Some quick guidance: If service encounters are infrequent focus on customer satisfaction. If service encounters are frequent or your overall relationship with consumers is more important than any individual service encounter then measure service quality. There are also situations when you may want or need to do both. You can do this with a properly designed survey instrument that asks about quality (overall) as well as the most recent service encounter (satisfaction).

But, don’t measure either too often since one of the last things you want to do is annoy customers with too many quality and satisfaction surveys! Response rates will go down (not a good thing) and negativity will go up (making them no longer statistically valid.)

Hank Marquis is practice leader for Business Service Management at Global Knowledge. You can reach Hank at [email protected].