Level vs source of customer (dis)satisfaction

We sometimes think of customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction as two sides of the same coin. If a certain feature is present – say, courteous service – customers leave satisfied; if that same feature is absent, customers leave dissatisfied. So, to have happy customers, all we need to do is keep improving on that feature.


However, it is not that simple.


Yes, there are some features whose presence or absence can have dramatic effects on customer satisfaction. Whether or not I can get a good cup of coffee when I go to a cafe’, for instance. Then, there are some features whose absence makes customers dissatisfied, but whose presence does not increase customer satisfaction. Sugar in a coffee shop, for instance. We expect to be offered free sugar with our coffee, and will feel dissatisfied if the coffee shop does not do that. But our satisfaction does not increase if the shop owner offers us 10 packets of sugar, instead of 1. Conversely, there are features whose presence makes customers satisfied, but whose absence does not lead to customer dissatisfaction. For instance, whether the barista remembers my name. It makes me smile that he does, but I would not stop going to that cafe’ if the barista changed and the new one did not know it.


Features that can create both satisfaction and dissatisfaction are called ‘critical’. They are the core reason why people come to you. These features tend to be related to the basic need that the product solves. Without them, the need has not been met. For instance, a good night’s sleep (in the case of a hotel), reaching my destination (in the case of transport), etc.


Those features that create dissatisfaction when absent (but do not increase satisfaction when present) are called ‘dissatisfiers’. They are like hygiene factors. These tend to be features that meet the customers’ extrinsic needs and are, usually, related to the functional or utilitarian aspects of the product – for instance, the price, the quantity, the product variety, and so on.


And those features that create satisfaction when present (but whose absence does not lead to dissatisfaction) are called ‘satisfiers’. They are sources of delight. These tend to be features that meet the customers’ intrinsic needs and are, usually, related to the hedonic aspects – for instance, priority boarding, reserved seating, exclusive offers, and the like.


So, when faced with customer satisfaction problems, it is essential to look beyond the level of customer (dis)satisfaction, and also consider its sources. Namely:

  1. Start by fixing the critical factors – there can be no failures, here, because this is the reason why customers came to us in the first place.
  2. Then, look at the dissatisfiers – if you are consistently below your competitors’ level, or the industry standards, you will loose clients and generate negative word of mouth.
  3. Finally, work on the satisfiers – these are the factors that trigger delight (and, hence, customer satisfaction), and will lead to positive word of mouth.


Jan Kieztmann and I researched how electronic word of mouth (eWoM) related to satisfaction. We looked at when customers are likely to engage in eWoM, about what and when. You can read a summary of the findings, here.

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