Satisfaction is Just the Start

The new vocabulary of brand management

Customer satisfaction may be the oldest brand metric in the book. When the first “consumer” traded a pelt for a flint (or something like that), he or she was either pleased and came back for more, or found that the flint shattered on first use, leading to a series of unflattering cave paintings of the vendor.

Even this silly example draws out several of the critical implications of customer satisfaction, including its roles in loyalty and brand switching, word of mouth and reputation, and long-term brand viability.

As brands and communications channels have multiplied, the complexity of satisfaction assessments and loyalty has grown exponentially. With greater choice in almost every category has come a sense that poor product performance need not be tolerated. However, if choice feels excessive—too many deodorants or energy drinks to pick from—harried consumers may simply buy what they know instead of wading into the pros and cons of a new decision. To manage brands effectively today, marketers need to have a holistic picture of all of the connections between consumers and brands, and the real factors driving not just current purchase decisions, but also the long-term health of the brand/consumer bond (if one exists).

Misunderstanding Loyalty

First, we need to be clear that loyalty is not the same as what I like to call “affinity.” Viewed from the outside, brand loyalty may be just a series of transactions: A consumer buys the same product for a period of months, so he must be loyal. In fact, this kind of loyalty may be driven by such unglamorous factors as lack of choice or price pressures. It could just be a case of simple use and re-use, not active choosing.

Marketers who manage to this most basic level of loyalty are living quarter to quarter, trading strategic planning and decision making for reactivity. With a potentially tenuous hold on consumers’ pocketbooks, these brands could crater with a single shift in the competitive landscape.

Building Platforms for Customer Satisfaction

We have also learned from behavioral economics that brand experiences—the core drivers of satisfaction—are more multifaceted than marketers of the past believed. Companies often assumed that product quality was the only ingredient of good or bad brand experiences: The car turned on or it did not; the lightbulb lasted 1,000 hours or burned out in a week.

But with competition so intense, quality, while still important to satisfaction, is not enough to assure a brand is chosen. Brand experiences need to be not just satisfactory but memorable. This is the difference between building simple loyalty, by meeting traditional, one-dimensional goals, and creating affinity, something more personal and indelible.

Imagine, for example, a flashlight battery brand that provides long life year after year, but rarely ventures into relationship building. A competing battery with merely decent performance begins a campaign to collect and share photos of customers with their flashlights in a variety of environments: hiking, camping, etc. Not long after, the upstart battery brand is taking market share from its technically superior rival. This is the difference between satisfaction based purely on performance and an experience that combines adequate performance, a slightly lower price and a memorable element to draw in the consumer at a personal level.

Like affinity and engagement, we find that brand experiences and relationships are often symbiotic. All brand experiences happen within the context of the consumer’s relationship with a brand. Because the traditional battery in our example has built loyalty exclusively through performance, it has a one-dimensional relationship with its customers. This is not to say that product or service performance is not a critical foundation to building an engaging relationship. Consumers will not be interested in persisting in a relationship—even at a superficial level—that does not deliver adequately on the product or service’s core value proposition. The point is that a singular focus on maximizing satisfaction through performance without an appreciation for how to parlay (or transform) this performance into engagement-building attitudes (e.g., trust, exclusivity) is a big miss.

Satisfaction with the traditional brand is all riding on battery life. It has not created a platform for other experiences and for developing multiple sources of affinity. The invader brand has diversified its game. While it may not win the battle on quality, it can triumph in the war for overall engagement because it has delivered memorable experiences or aligned and integrated itself with personalized “moments of truth.”

Not Just Any Dashboard

For marketers, the digital engine of the new economy is providing enormous amounts of information, but can this digital exhaust be refined into insights for driving decisions, instead of creating more data smog?

To be clear, we need to have metrics to appropriately monitor key elements of the interaction. I do not mean to suggest that we should toss any away. Frequent feedback gives us the resources to manage brands in real time, using dashboards and other tools. This is how we move from reactive branding and satisfaction management to active planning and execution. But beware: Dashboards are only as good as the process that created them. The wrong data—too much or too little—can lead to poor decisions, wayward brands and dissatisfied customers.

To say that satisfaction in the digital age is multidimensional is perhaps the understatement of the decade. Brands exist and touch consumers in so many different spheres, and it is up to marketers and researchers to manage those complex relationships effectively. This means more than watching the dials jump around. It requires a strategic perspective where goals are clear and adjustments are made ASAP when the big ship starts going off course by even a fraction of a degree.

Consumer information is the engine of customer satisfaction. To do more and better is not just possible but essential because the competition has many of the same resources and perhaps the same commitment to focus. To the brand with the strongest grasp on consumer relationships will go the spoils of deep satisfaction and loyalty.

This post was written by AMA contributor David Krajicek and originally appeared on the AMA Headquarters website. See it here.

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