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Understanding customer satisfaction is one of the most important activities for those involved in marketing. But when you start your professional career, things are not so clear. The pieces come together along the way.

It is later on that you manage to connect the dots. As Steve Jobs used to say, it is only by looking back that you can do so; when you look ahead, you must proceed by trusting yourself, your intuitions, and your mentors.

I started my professional journey unconventionally. I was working on the literature review of Giorgio Gandellini‘s doctoral dissertation (who over time became a friend as well as a mentor). It was a beautiful and complex work that gave me an important overview, helping me build a theoretical framework that still inspires all my actions today. And thanks to that first project, I generalized a model to understand the mechanisms underlying customer satisfaction.

Let’s start with an obvious consideration. Customer satisfaction depends on the ability to deliver a product, a service, or a performance in line with the customer’s expectations. Ultimately, it is the customer who must express this satisfaction.

However, the issue is only apparently simple.

First of all, we need to understand how expectations are formed and then design the processes that a company must activate for their satisfaction. These processes are diverse and characterized by constraints to be considered.

How are customers’ expectations formed?

First of all, there are needs.

We live surrounded by products and services of all kinds, but we are always in a situation of tension toward improvement. We always want to progress towards a better version of ourselves. So the choices we make are conditioned by our needs, more or less consciously. Do we want to relax and spend a nice evening or a vacation period? We will consider all the purchasing or consumption options that allow us to achieve this goal.

Then we have the set of previous experiences on which we build our opinions. And these will also play a role in the choices we make. Choosing a restaurant or a place to spend a vacation is easier if I can refer to previous direct experiences, whether positive or negative.

Finally, since we are social animals and do not live in isolation, expectations are also influenced by interactions with our peers, and with our reference group. If we have friends who have been to a restaurant or a hotel and had a good experience, we will be inclined to trust them and base our choices on their judgments.

One scenario element: people’s expectations are always conditioned by cognitive biases that can be very powerful and need to be analyzed to begin to understand customer satisfaction. On this topic, the reading of Rolf Dobelli (The Art of Thinking Clearly) and Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) is invaluable. This is an important point that we will come back to.

The 6 work phases for customer satisfaction

Understanding how customers’ expectations are formed is only the first step, though. Achieving “customer satisfaction” means concretely focusing our resources on a series of connected activities:

  1. understanding expectations, decoding them
  2. defining a strategy aimed at their satisfaction
  3. creating a value configuration that embodies the strategy
  4. communicating to the customer the availability of this value configuration
  5. delivering to the customer the value configuration we have created for them
  6. caring for the relationship with the customer after the purchase

The better we work on the listed points, the higher the probability of achieving a high level of customer satisfaction. Alternatively, since perfection is not of this world: the final satisfaction is inversely correlated with the number and severity of errors made in carrying out these 6 macro activities.

This leads us first of all to the need (point 1) to understand the customer’s expectations. Understanding what they are asking for. What is the best version of themselves they are striving for. It’s not a simple thing, but today, thanks to digital channels, it’s simpler than yesterday. The bar has been lowered; we can start to understand customers by activating our digital channels and connecting directly with the reference market. In listening mode, which is not always simple. The goal should not be (only) to promote our products but (also and above all) to understand customers’ needs.

If we can listen to the market, we will probably have a fairly clear idea of what it wants. And here comes the second important step (point 2): defining a strategy aimed at meeting the identified needs. In theory, this is the point at which we should start building the product or service, not before. In practice, it is rarely like this, so we must be prepared to question, modify, and adapt what we have done so far to what we have learned in the previous point because no one can expect to force customers to appreciate a product. Especially in a reality where competitors are sprouting up from all sides ready to replace us.

But it is not even enough to make a good strategy if then (point 3) we are unable to transform it into concrete actions that correspond to what was hypothesized. Strategies are generally beautiful on paper but then need to be implemented, and here the problem is connected to the available resources. Not only financial but also managerial and organizational. The quality of resources and processes are elements that determine the quality of the final output, and its correspondence to what was established in the strategy, which in turn derives from what was understood about the market and the needs it expresses. Sometimes the compromises that are necessary in the implementation phase of a project take us far from the planned or imagined output. If we aim for customer satisfaction, this is a problem and should be avoided.

Another element to consider is that all these activities are not linear; they occur in a continuous process during which there are exchanges with the market. And this brings us to point 4: every time we interact with the market, we are communicating. For better or for worse. We send signals that are decoded and contribute to the formation of those expectations that are then the final test of customer satisfaction. Consistently and truthfully communicating the characteristics of the offer decisively contributes to customer satisfaction.

Another element to consider (point 5) is how to organize the delivery to the customer of the product or service they have purchased or that we would like them to purchase. We are used to very rapid delivery times and frictionless access modes. The delivery mode is now an integral part of the customer experience and undoubtedly has an impact on the final satisfaction. And it doesn’t just concern physical products but also services.

The last determining element (point 6) of customer satisfaction is caring for the relationship with the customer. What happens after the purchase is concluded? Too often, this moment is considered the conclusion of the process, but it shouldn’t be. The purchase is an important step, but the road to customer satisfaction does not end there. Everything that happens after the transformation of the customer from potential to actual has a fundamental impact on loyalty, the duration of the relationship, the customer’s propensity to speak positively about our company, and therefore to close the circle by becoming a determining part of the formation of expectations for other customers.

These, in our opinion, are the necessary elements to understand customer satisfaction. We will come back to this because it is a very important issue, but this is the starting point.