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Improving Customer Satisfaction

Improving customer satisfaction is the focus of of my book, Managing Expectations. And itís at the heart of my presentation, Tales of Whoa and the Psychology of Customer Satisfaction. For additional information, contact me by

The following articles will help you improve customer satisfaction.

Satisfaction Guaranteed or . . .

The right incentives can work wonders. That was the experience of a technical support team that offered callers total satisfaction or a free ice cream sundae. Their ideas was to offer a free sundae to anyone who called for support that month, left a detailed voicemail message explaining the problem, and didnít feel the call was returned quickly enough.

(Actually, to avoid a mushy melted mess, what they offered to give out was a coupon for a sundae, rather than the real thing.)

The teamís objective was to encourage callers to leave more complete and relevant information in their voice mail messages. Detailed, informative explanations would improve the odds that team members would be able to call back with answers rather than requests for more information ("Your what is blank???").

Callers were also asked to indicate a priority, such as "rush" or "within 2 hours." This would enable the team to respond to calls in a priority sequence. Contrary to what you might predict, this request for a priority didnít lead callers to claim all problems were top priority. In fact, many callers said the problem could wait to the end of the day or the next day for help. As a result, the team knew what was genuinely high priority and could take timely action.

The notice to customers about the sundae offer stated that the tech support team would respond to all voice mail messages quickly. But (and this is key) it didnít say how quickly. The team debated the pros and cons of attaching a time to the offer, such as, "A free sundae if we donít get back to you within 10 minutes." But they decided that itís the customer who must decide whether the turnaround time is good enough; customers have different ideas about whatís good service, depending on their needs and priorities.

Was this offer successful in getting callers to leave detailed messages? Absolutely! Even better, many callers actually hoped their calls would not be returned quickly so they could collect a $1 coupon for ice cream! In fact, some callers complained, "On, no, you called back too quickly . . . I wanted a free sundae!"

And what about those free sundaes? How many hundreds of coupons did they end up giving out to callers who felt their calls werenít returned fast enough? None at all. Not even one!

This lighthearted way of encouraging callers to leave detailed messages significantly improved the quality of their messages. And the offer of a free sundae gave callers the freedom to categorize the service level as unacceptable ó without appearing to be a complainer as a result. Just ask for a free sundae coupon, and the point would be made. Yet, the only complaints the team heard were that calls were returned too quickly.

Clearly, incentives donít have to be budget-breakers to be effective. Tootsie rolls, anyone?


Copyright © 2009 Karten Associates. All rights reserved.

Perceptual Lags

When an organization with dissatisfied customers takes major steps to improve service delivery, customers ought to be happy. Yet, often, they continue to grumble and grouse. Why? Because of what I've dubbed the perceptual lag. That is, the perception of an improvement often lags far behind the reality of that improvement.

The perceptual lag might seem unfair, but it's a fact of life, and once you become aware it, you can take steps to minimize or prevent it. One of the best ways to do this is to publicize the improvements to the customers who've agitated for them or will benefit from them.

A lag lesson

Consider, for example, a company I consulted to whose customers had been enduring service snags, slips and snafus. These customers -- internal business units -- would have gladly obtained the services on the outside if they had that option. But they didn't. They felt trapped and were very unhappy.

At length, following a much-needed management change, the service group undertook a major series of improvements. Over the course of a year and with significant effort, they accomplished a great deal. They were justifiably proud of the improvements they'd made and badly needed a pat on the back from their customers.

Yet, when they ran a customer satisfaction survey, the ratings barely surpassed the ratings in the previous year's survey. In reviewing the results of the two surveys, I could see how unhappy many customers still were. The service personnel were devastated. Despite all they had accomplished, many customers seemed to neither notice nor appreciate their efforts.

Although customers may be swift to complain, they're usually much slower to notice changes made as a result of those complaints. What customers tend to see isn't what's been fixed, but what's still broken. Actually, that's not surprising: If customers have endured an extended period of shoddy service, they adopt a "prove it" mentality and require an even longer period of consistently good service before they believe it's real and enduring.

A lag avoidance strategy

A major reason for the lag in improved customer satisfaction is that service personnel have done a poor job of publicizing the improvement effort and the benefits of the implemented improvements. As a result, even if customers recognize that things have gotten better, they don't associate the improvement with the complaints they had voiced.

To minimize the perceptual lag, start by identifying customer grievances. Use surveys, customer interviews, a review of service records, and other methods of your choice. Summarize the grievances into a small number of categories. Identify specific actions you can take for each category, or at least those deemed highest priority. Then put on your public relations hat and notify customers about your proposed plan for making improvements. Involve key customers in evaluating and finalizing the plan, so they'll have a stake in your success. Let them know the part they can play in helping you help them.

Make sure customers are aware of the improvements you're working on. Report your progress regularly, and keep making the linkage between their grievances and the action you're taking. When you've made a change, inform them. Communicate, communicate, communicate. And while you're at it, be forthcoming in acknowledging that there's much left to do.

When service has slipped, what customers often want as much as anything else is to know you take their needs seriously. In fact, personal attention often leads to higher customer satisfaction ratings in subsequent surveys, even when work on service improvements is far from complete.

If you have deliriously happy customers, the perceptual lag is a problem you're not facing. But if you're still working toward that goal, do everything you can to limit the lag.


Copyright © 2009 Karten Associates. All rights reserved.

Karten Associates
Randolph, Mass., USA

Copyright © 2010 Karten Associates. All rights reserved.