Here’s an intriguing dilemma for sales and marketing executives:  90% of companies use customer satisfaction as a benchmark for success and overwhelmingly most companies report that their customers ‘like their products just fine.’ Yet 80-90% of new products fail in the first year.

What’s at play with this apparent contradiction? One conclusion is that every new product cannot be adopted en masse. But even with this consideration, the customer satisfaction benchmark cited remains confounding. If everyone says they are satisfied, why do so many new products fail? Why don’t those reportedly happy buyers get their friends to buy the product and make it a big success?

Contrary to widespread assumption, consumer satisfaction surveys do not accurately predict that a customer is so satisfied with a product that he/she will repurchase. Nor do surveys indicate whether a customer’s emotional needs have been met. So when a company asks customers if they are satisfied with their product experience, most say “yes,” leaving marketers feeling elated until those same, seemingly-satisfied customers turn around and reach across the aisle to grab a competitor’s product.

What’s the problem? Why don’t customers follow through with what they tell market researchers? Why isn’t a satisfying customer experience indicative of customer loyalty?

Here’s why:  Most businesses employ a logic-based process when studying what requires an emotion-based method. The resulting responses do not necessarily reflect likely behavior.

To test this hypothesis, marketing experts Susan Fournier (Dartmouth College) and Jennifer Aaker (Stanford University) created an Internet-based consumer psychology test to examine how closely business relationships and interpersonal relationships mirror each other. During a two-month period, the researchers monitored the evolving strength of their relationship with customers whom they introduced to a fictional online photo business. Customer-participants were told they’d been selected for a pilot program and were encouraged to enjoy the website’s services in whatever way they wished, and asked to evaluate their experiences. The test was arranged in such a way that half the participants interacted with a website filled with amped-up marketing language while others interacted with a down-to-earth, personalized version oriented more toward forging a dialogue than a wham-bam thrill ride.

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The result? Customers engaging with the “exciting” website exhibited the trajectory of a “short-term fling.” Those who experienced the “sincere dialogue” website developed a relationship with the company that deepened over time. It was thought that this happened because customers’ expectations of a higher level of service were raised, leading to loyalty. By developing a personal relationship with customers, the sincere website gave customers a reason to invest in it a second time, and presumably a third, fourth and fifth time… effectively, “forever.”

To understand how this happens, consider the process our brains undergo when, as emotional beings, we are asked to answer a logic-based customer satisfaction survey. First, we evaluate our expectations of the product at time of purchase. If product results met our expectations, when the product was actually used, we tend to deem the product “satisfactory.” A one-time purchaser of a flat-screen TV will likely never tell a researcher, “It worked well enough and I was basically satisfied. But I did feel that the design failed to enhance my deep-seated feelings of identity as I had hoped.” Such thoughts and emotions are simply inaccessible to standard language probing.

Your customers need to do more than “appreciate” your product. That will never be enough to build a tight loyalty bond. Instead, a real relationship with the product or company must be formed via unarticulated emotional needs that the product/company meets. Without this, a stated appreciation means virtually nothing for a marketing manager who is trying to build a cohesive and long-lasting base of loyal buyers. Merely satisfying customers will not achieve this, as the bond will be far too weak.

Unlike with friends and loved ones in our personal lives, businesses aren’t often afforded the luxury of a second chance upon initially mishandling a situation. From the first run of advertising all the way to the ultimate policies that regulate your company’s customer service process, you must continually identify and track how your customers’ emotional and rational needs evolve, then build a business process that supports them.

To the chagrin of traditional marketing specialists, a business must view its customers not as “satisfied product buyers,” but as human beings on a quest for a healthy sense of self-identity and emotional fulfillment. Lofty as this may sound, the data supports it as a proven formula for customer loyalty that doesn’t quit.

Image credit: Customer Satisfaction Survey