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Tracking customer satisfaction is essential to business success, Rice University research finds

Customer satisfaction directly influences a company's sales, margins, and earnings, and companies that track and measure customer satisfaction have a leg up on competition. Getty Images

Back when people flew nonchalantly for business, an unabashed fan of Great Reputation Airline took a flight where almost everything went wrong. First there was a weather delay. Then there was a mechanical issue. The crew was surly, the pretzels stale. Finally, after landing, when she finally made it to baggage claim, her suitcase was MIA.

But instead of complaining on social media, Great Reputation's passenger wrote off the problems to a rare bad day for the airline – which showered her with drink coupons and later delivered her luggage to her hotel.

GRA's response exemplifies customer satisfaction principles outlined in a paper by Rice Business professor Vikas Mittal and former Rice Business doctoral student Carly Frennea. Summarizing the major research about customer satisfaction, the coauthors codified their findings into a checklist for managers.

While most people understand the general concept of customer satisfaction, in business it's a specific term summarizing a consumer's post-use evaluation of the extent to which a product or service met their expectations. Satisfied customers are more likely to buy again, buy more, recommend a business to others and cost less to serve in the future. A satisfied customer doesn't just cut customer-acquisition costs. She can also help a business attract the right customers through online recommendations.

But the most compelling reason to chase customer satisfaction, say Mittal and Frennea, comes from the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks customer satisfaction ratings of public companies. Decades of studies based on this data show that customer satisfaction and financial performance go hand-in-hand. While the strength of this association can vary, the link is indisputable. "Nowhere else in marketing has the impact of a customer-based metric on a firm's financial performance been so clearly and consistently established," Mittal and Frennea write.

To help make that satisfaction/revenue link a felicitous one, the researchers recommend the five kinds of data managers should collect.

  • Overall customer satisfaction: A summary evaluation of an overall experience.
  • Behavioral intentions: "Loyalty metrics" that measure the likelihood of buying again, recommending to others and intent to complain.
  • Attribute-level perceptions: Evaluating specific product or service features. For a doctor, this may include time spent waiting in the office, quality of care and explanation of diagnosis. For an oilfield services company, this may include product quality, safety, ongoing service and support, billing and pricing.
  • Contextual information: Comparisons to earlier experiences with a firm and against those with competitors.
  • Customer background variables: Includes gender, age and use of competitors' products and services.

Once these data are collected, the researchers say, managers should use statistical analysis that includes all relevant variables (a method known as multiple regression). This allows companies to figure out which variables have the largest association with overall satisfaction, and which have none. For example, a multiple regression might show that the bad effect of dashing customer expectations is stronger than the good effect of exceeding those expectations. The analysis may also reveal that this effect is stronger for ongoing service and support, say, than for pricing and billing. Conclusion: The company should fix problems with ongoing service and support before tinkering with its pricing and billing strategy.

Companies should also share such customer satisfaction insights with employees and incentivize them to make customer satisfaction a top priority, the researchers write.

To achieve this, executives need to see customer satisfaction as a strategic tool, not just a "good-to-have" afterthought. For this:

  • Treat customer satisfaction as a strategic investment and integrate it into the strategic planning process.
  • Don't skimp on the science. Use the most advanced multiple regression models, and now machine-learning technologies, to distinguish the important from the unimportant, and prioritize the important.
  • Using statistical science, link customer-loyalty patterns to actual behaviors such as repurchasing and repeat sales.
  • Remember that your front-line employees are vital and motivate them by linking their performance to the right customer satisfaction metrics.
  • Don't just maximize customer satisfaction. Balance decreasing and increasing returns on satisfaction initiatives. For this, don't rely on "voice-of-customer" based on casual interviews and discussions. Use rigorously designed customer studies that can be statistically linked to financial results.
  • Share! Summarize satisfaction findings in understandable terms and train employees to act on them. Smart companies use this approach to derive their customer-value proposition and focus the company's strategy.

The formula, after all, is a simple one. If customers are a primary source of your company's cash flow, the first variable in your strategy needs to be making them happy.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research from Vikas Mittal, the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, and Carly Frennea, now an executive at Nike, who received her M.B.A. and Ph.D. at Jones Graduate School of Business.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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