Thursday, June 19, 2014

Satisfaction, Delight, Disappointment, and Shock

The phrase "meet or exceed customer expectations" is a mantra in the customer experience profession, said so frequently and done so rarely that the phrase itself has become devoid of meaning. Pondering this adage in light of the stimulus-response theory of emotion, I'm led to the sense that it was never quite right in the first place - that the satisfaction (or disappointment) of a customer has less to do with whether their expectations were met or exceeded and more to do with a combination of two factors: whether the outcome of an interaction was positive and whether it was predicted.

By matrixing these two qualities against one another, it becomes evident that satisfaction or delight (as well as disappointment or shock) depends on both factors - and that delight is not merely an extreme sense of satisfaction that occurs when expectations are met (nor is shock merely the extreme of disappointment), but that they are separate emotions based on the interplay of a second factor (predictability) rather than mere extremes on a scale that depends on the degree to which expectations were or were not met.

Satisfaction (Predicted Positive Outcome)

Customer satisfaction occurs when the outcome of an interaction (any interaction, not merely transactions) is positive in a way that the customer predicted - whether his expectations were set in advance or arose during the encounter in question.   It is in this sense that the notion of meeting expectations causes an immediate sense of satisfaction, which may be supported or undermined at a later time (such as when the customer is satisfied at the cash register but later dissatisfied when they get the product home and attempt to use it).

Satisfaction is not delight. There is no rush of positive emotion, but merely a flat or null emotional response that results when things go as expected.   It is not wondrous to pour a carefully measured pint of water from one measuring cup to another to find that it still measures exactly one pint.  If a person were to tell someone else of this experience, their response would (rightly) be "so what?"

And "so what?" is exactly the response of a satisfied customer.   It is not a memorable experience, nor an experience that is of sufficient interest to tell to anyone else.   He is contented that things went the way they should, and that is all.  This is the reason that customers who are satisfied do not become loyalists or advocates for a brand.

To merely be satisfied by a customer experience is like being told a joke to which you already knew (or could easily predict) the punch line: it does not make you smile and might even make you sneer.   And a customer who is merely satisfied does not develop a positive emotional connection to the brand, and is likely to shop the competition in hopes of an experience that is not merely satisfactory, but delightful.

Delight (Unexpected Positive Outcome)

Delight is not merely an extreme form of satisfaction, but an emotional sensation that is entirely different in its foundations:  we are delighted when something positive occurs that was not expected or predicted.

That is to say that a customer who goes to a merchant expecting to pay five dollars for a pint of product is not delighted when he pays five dollars and receives the pint.   It is exactly what he expected and he experiences a cold, emotionless sense of satisfaction.

Delight, unlike mere satisfaction, evokes a positive emotional response.  This occurs when there is some positive consequence that was unexpected - and it is likely that the unexpected consequence must be something significant enough to exceed the "more or less" variance in expectations (a 5% savings does not cause delight, but "half price" might because it would be completely unexpected).

Experiences of delight cause a customer to be awestruck, or at least significantly impressed, and the experience is memorable.  Customers who are delighted by a merchant want to continue to interact with the merchant in hopes of being delighted again, and the experience is so unusual that they are likely to spread positive word of mouth.

But here's the tricky part: the second time around, the customers remember their previous experience - what was unexpected the first time becomes expected the second time, and thus fails to cause a repeated sensation of delight.   Going back to the analogy of a humor, a joke is never as funny the second time it's heard by the same person because they already know how it's going to turn out.

The same can be said of the "new" customers who are attracted by the positive word-of-mouth of a delighted customer.   Their expectations have been set such that when they obtain the benefit that delighted the initial customer, they are merely satisfied by an experience that met their expectations.

This is where delight becomes an ever-increasing burden on a service provider: they must add something unexpected to the interaction each time.   There are likely effective ways to do this.  For example, the Cracker Jack model is to lead purchasers to expect a surprise - and though "expected surprise" is an oxymoron, the fact that the customer doesn't know exactly what he's going to get restores some degree of delight to the experience.

Disappointment (Predicted Negative Outcome)

Disappointment is not entirely the opposite of satisfaction: the experience had a negative outcome (or failure to produce a positive outcome) - but the customer had still anticipated that the outcome would occur.   It's in this way that meeting customer expectations does not result in satisfaction when customers had low expectations in the first place.

As with satisfaction, disappointment does not engage the emotions in any significant way - the customer got somewhat less than he expected, or he may have gotten what was expected but his expectations were low to begin.   At most, he experiences a low-grade melancholy in the same way a satisfied customer experiences low-grade contentment, which doesn't move the emotional needle far from a neutral setting.

It is generally believed that a customer who has a disappointing experience with a vendor will not repurchase from them, but this does not hold true in instances in which the customer feels the service was not too inadequate and they have no better alternative.   If one supplier is no better or no worse than the rest, and none of them are expected to deliver a completely satisfactory experience, people will reluctantly continue to do business with "the devil they know," but are always on the lookout for a more satisfying prospect.

This is the reason that customers who are mistakenly identified as "satisfied" due to their willingness to purchase repeatedly often defect to competitors - whether the competitor has made an overture that leads them to expect a better experience or they have merely become fed up with the routine disappointment of their regular supplier, these customers will avail themselves of any opportunity to obtain satisfaction elsewhere.

In that sense, most firms would do well to reconsider their criteria for customer satisfaction - as those who appear to be satisfied or loyal may simply be "not disappointed enough" to leave ... though their departure is inevitable.

Shock (Unpredicted Negative Outcome)

Shock is a different reaction than mere disappointment, which occurs when the customer experiences a negative outcome (or lack of a positive outcome) to a degree that they did not predict prior to the encounter with a supplier.   There is a strong emotional reaction and a sense of betrayal when this occurs.

And like delight, an emotional reaction of this strength motivates a customer to take action: to seek a different vendor the next time the need arises (which may be immediate if their need was not fulfilled), to retaliate against a company for its betrayal, and possibly to give warning to others about the negative experience they had.

Shock is the most difficult of the four results when it comes to making a service recovery.   A customer who is merely disappointed may return in hope of being satisfied (or delighted) the next time around, but one who is shocked will avoid future contact and may be galvanized against the vendor's attempt to ameliorate.

Companies would do well to consider whether their one-time buyers (or near misses) may have been shocked by their experience.  Particularly when there are diminishing results for advertising campaigns, the explanation may be that their previous overture had shocked the market of prospects and the chances of gaining their interest with repeated overtures have been damaged by their initial experience.


Thus considered, the mantra of "meet or exceed customer expectations" needs to be abandoned, and replaced with two others:
  • Satisfy the customer's needs
  • Delight them with the unexpected
Do those two things, and you will achieve more than satisfaction - but win the loyalty and advocacy you need to retain their business in a highly competitive market.

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