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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

 
 

The second cohort of The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator hosted a day full of thought leadership and startup pitches. Photo by Shobeir Ansari, Getty Images

In light of COVID-19, it is more relevant than ever to discuss and support startups with sustainability and resiliency in mind. At the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Cohort 2 Demo Day, a virtual audience was reminded of that.

"So, 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented uncertainty and change for Houston, for Texas, for our country, and for our world," says Christine Galib, director of the accelerator. "The past few months in particular have been especially difficult as the global pandemic and civil unrest continue to spotlight systemic and structural scars on the face of humanity."

The virtual event was streamed on July 1 and hosted several thought leaders and presenters before concluding with pitches from four of the cohort companies.

"Through it all, and in a virtual world, Cohort 2 startups, the mentors, and our Ion team have been the change we wish to see in the world," Galib continues. "For these startups, failure is simply not an option — and neither is going at it alone."

Earlier this year, Galib announced the second cohort would be focused on solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs. The program, backed by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX, launched on Earth Day and commenced shortly after. Cohort 3 is expected later this year.

Here are the four companies that pitched and the problems they are trying to solve.

Re:3D

re:3D was founded just down the street from NASA's Johnson Space Center to address the need for a mid-market 3D printing solution. The Houston-based startup also wanted to create their 3D printer that operates on recycled plastics in order to prevent excess waste.

"Where some see trash, we see opportunity," Charlotte Craff, community liaison at Re:3D says in her presentation.

Re:3D's clients can get their hands on their own Gigabot for less than $10,000, and the printer uses pellets and flakes from recycled plastics —not filament — to print new designs. Clients are also supported by the company with design software and training.

"We can help the city of Houston help meet its climate action and resilient city goals by transforming the way people think about recycling," Craff says about Re:3D's future partnerships with the city.

Water Lens

While two-thirds of the world is covered in water, only 0.7 percent is drinkable. And of that fresh water, 92 percent of it is used in agricultural and industrial settings. This is how Keith Cole, CEO and founder of Water Lens, set the scene for his presentation.

Water Lens, which is based in Houston with a lab located in Austin, wants to solve the problem of cities and countries running out of fresh, drinkable water by equipping huge water-using companies with a water testing tool.

"We've developed a system to let anyone test any water literally anywhere in the world," Cole says, citing clients like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Halliburton.

S2G Energy

S2G Energy, based in Mexico, is focused on optimizing energy management in order to digitize, empower, and unlock potential for cost-saving efforts and technology.

In his pitch, Geronimo Martinez, founder of S2G Energy, points out that restaurants, commercial buildings, and other adjacent industries can save money by implementing energy management solutions that come out of S2G Energy's expertise. In Mexico, Martinez says, clients include the top two restaurant chains that — especially during COVID-19 — need optimization and cost saving now more than ever.

Eigen Control

A refinery's distillation columns are expensive — their fuel use accounts for 50 of operating costs, says Dean Guma, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Eigen Control.

Guma explains in his pitch how Eigen Control's technology can plug into existing sensors, model networks based on data, and employ the startup's artificial intelligent technology to reduce carbon emissions and save money on operating costs.

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