Customer Satisfaction Isn't Service Quality

By Hank Marquis

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We all make satisfaction vs. quality decisions every day. I can go to a restaurant and get a quick meal that won't be very tasty, but it's fast, cheap and good enough for now. If you catch me as I leave the restaurant and ask me if I am satisfied with my encounter I will say yes. If you ask me if this is a high quality restaurant I will say no.

Quality and satisfaction are different things altogether. Yet, many confuse these basic concepts; contributing to the ever-widening "business/IT gap". You probably know how this gap feels if you work in IT. For example, you might use customer satisfaction surveys to measure say, the service desk. You pester users to complete a survey after every call to the service desk, and every quarter whether they called in or not. Few users actually complete your surveys, but those that do generally indicate satisfaction with the service desk. And yet, they (the users, customers and business) still complain about the service desk. The same holds true for other services, too. What gives?

Sweet & Sour

The answer is that one may be satisfied and still feel that service quality is low; and vice versa, one my be dissatisfied and feel service is of high quality. Service quality is a complex judgment about the overall superiority of a service whereas satisfaction is related to contentment regarding a specific transaction.

Here is a simple IT example from my own experience: my cable TV provider also provides my Internet. My Internet fails mysteriously several times a year―it slowly degrades, with my download speeds (but interestingly not my upload speeds) falling over time. I pay for top-tier boosted turbo-charged high-speed service, so you could say my expectations for service are high since, according to what my provider has told me via its marketing (you know, boosted turbo-charged high-speed service) I should be very happy with the service I receive, but I am not.

However, I am satisfied occasionally with the support I get. Even though when I call the service desk they make me wade through a litany of trouble shooting steps and ask dozens of questions (I know they are following ITIL good practices and that in the long run it's for my own good) before resetting my cable modem (which they always do). I am not satisfied with the service desk overall since they take lots of time from me and never resolve the issue. They don’t listen to me and always wind up sending Dan the repairman.

Dan (he is a real person) comes and fixes things (mysterious things, things outside my office, up a pole, far away … things about which I am not supposed to speak.) Dan solves my problems. Dan is good at what he does, and I am satisfied with the service he provides. I am not at all satisfied with the service desk, however, and I think the overall service quality is very low.

Let me be clear. If my provider were to ask me about the quality of my Internet service I will say without hesitation it is poor and that I am not getting my money's worth. Now, if they ask me if I am satisfied with the service provided by Dan (Isn't it sad that I know his name?) I will say yes. Very much. Dan is efficient, pleasant and gets his work done fast.

Reliability supporting a service is but one of five aspects or dimensions of service quality. Service quality for any service and satisfaction for any service encounter arises from perceptions made by consumers around one or more of the following five dimensions:

Reliability: how closely the level of service provided matches any promises, guarantees, or formal statements made by the provider. Reliability reflects the consistency and dependability of the service provider and its services. Reliability is the ability of the system or component to perform its required functions under stated conditions for a specified period. Service Reliability is the ability to deliver promised service dependably and accurately.

Responsiveness: the willingness and readiness to provide prompt service and support to help consumers. Key components of responsiveness include telling service consumers exactly what services will be performed, keeping service consumers apprised of when they will receive service, the status of tickets etc.

Assurance: the level of safety and confidence felt when using the service or working with the service provider. Includes concepts such as security of transactions, sensitive information and risk, the knowledge of service provider employees expressed during service encounters.

Empathy: the level of caring, individualized attention provided to consumers. Empathy means service employees make consumer needs their top priority. It includes listening carefully, making an effort to understand, offering convenient business hours, being available for support or service when needed, etc.

Tangibles: how well the physical aspects of the service meet expectations. All IT services have some element of tangibility―user interface device, manuals, hardware, etc. Sometimes tangible matter a lot, and sometimes they don’t.

Now, since my cable company always asks me if I am satisfied with the result (which is Dan coming and getting me back to work) I must say yes. Since Dan has been here several times, you could trend my satisfaction over the last year and you might think that service quality is high. After all, I am a "satisfied customer" am I not?

This is the mistake and trap that customer satisfaction spanning one dimension of service quality (e.g., Dan coming to "fix" my Internet connection) is equivalent to overall service quality. It isn't, and it will never be so.

Not So Much

Satisfaction and quality are definitely related, but they are not the same. Service quality is an assessment of the quality dimensions made by the service consumer during service consumption over time, spanning multiple transactions and interactions with the service provider and its services. Service quality is based on expectations across the five dimensions of a service. A service quality survey asks the customer about all or most dimensions of service delivery.

Satisfaction on the other hand is related to a specific transaction or group of transactions. Customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) can therefore result from any single dimension. Unlike judgments of quality, non-service delivery quality issues such as feelings of fairness or equity can also shape customer satisfaction judgments. A customer satisfaction survey usually hinges on a specific dimension.

In summary, expectations and perceptions of quality and satisfaction are created in many ways, and perceptions are influenced by many factors. There are multiple inputs to setting quality and satisfaction expectations including word of mouth from others, service marketing (implicit and explicit) and service intensifiers, e.g., my own needs for service.

While consumers develop both service quality and satisfaction judgments, satisfaction within a single dimension can outweigh for a general lack of service quality. We generally call this a trade-off, such as in my opening example where I trade-off a pleased palate for a fast bite.

You need to track both satisfaction and service quality, and can't fall into the trap of thinking that satisfaction with a service means the service is of high quality. To do so prevents us from uncovering potentially faulty dimensions of quality, or unsustainable levels of personal achievement that mask faulty dimensions of quality.

Some quick guidance: If service encounters are infrequent focus on customer satisfaction. If service encounters are frequent or your overall relationship with consumers is more important than any individual service encounter then measure service quality. There are also situations when you may want or need to do both. You can do this with a properly designed survey instrument that asks about quality (overall) as well as the most recent service encounter (satisfaction).

But, don’t measure either too often since one of the last things you want to do is annoy customers with too many quality and satisfaction surveys! Response rates will go down (not a good thing) and negativity will go up (making them no longer statistically valid.)

Hank Marquis is practice leader for Business Service Management at Global Knowledge. You can reach Hank at hank.marquis@globalknowledge.com.