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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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Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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