Have you ever had a customer tell you on a survey that she is "satisfied" or even "very satisfied"–and then leave you the next day for one of your competitors? An experience like this, where nothing goes wrong yet the customer goes away, can lead a business leader to wonder if satisfactory customer service–a solid customer experience, in other words–is enough to ensure customer engagement and loyalty.
The research on the subject would confirm your doubts that there's a connection between self-reported customer satisfaction and what a business really is looking for: customer engagement and customer loyalty.
Various research, including the work that provides the conceptual basis for the entire Net Promoter Score methodology, has found a weak link at best between a self-reported satisfied customer and repeat purchases from that customer. (And most of this research was done before it became as easy to switch suppliers as it is today in our globalized, de-frictionalized, broadbanded economy.)
So here's the deal. Here's the reason there's no clear-cut connection between customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. It's quite possible to satisfy a customer without leaving an indelible impression on him or her. Getting a customer to return depends on more than satisfaction. It depends on giving the customer a reason to come back.
The most bulletproof reason you can have for a customer to return, of course, is to have a product or service they absolutely can't get anywhere else, and that they really, truly need or desire. Apple (if you're hooked), Google (if you're alive), Oxford (if Mum and Grandfather attended and will disinherit you if you don't follow suit) all fall into this enviable category. Also falling into this category, due solely to geography, are (if you don't like to drive) your corner dry cleaner and (if you don't like to drive after drinking) your corner pub.
For the rest of us in business, those of us whose services or products aren't absolutely unique and irreplaceable, the best way to give a customer a reason to come back is through a customer experience methodology I call "homebuilding." This means building a customer experience that feels to your customer like an ideal vision of home. Think of it as having three parts:
The customer needs to know that you're happy to hear from them and are dropping all other concerns except the customer's own pleasure, safety, and success the moment they enter your establishment/call on the phone/email or chat with you.
The customer needs to feel, while they're experiencing your service or the purchase and use of your product, that they are receiving something special. Specifically, that you are tailoring your service to their particular needs, interests, and wishes in an anticipatory manner that doesn't even require them to ask or explain themselves. That you are serving "even the unexpressed wishes" of this customer, to use the Ritz-Carlton's trademark phrase.
The customer needs to know, as they are leaving your business at the end of the transaction, that their business matters to you, and that it matters to you that they return soon.
The business-killing hazard of “Who Cares?”
These three, somewhat fluffy-sounding customer experience elements are important because the problem of the satisfied-but-not-loyal customer comes down to this: You are always at the mercy of a great big “who cares?" from the customer.
Think about it: Do you think passengers mentally thank Delta every time it doesn't lose their bag, doesn't overbook their seat, and so forth?
Generally they don't. They don't even think to do so. The airline didn't lose their bag, didn't overbook their seat, but who cares? It's not really their job as customers, actually, to care.
There is a way to build customer loyalty via customer satisfaction. But it's hard.
There is, actually, a way to build customer loyalty via satisfactory customer service. You can, eventually, build customer loyalty via cycles of repeated, unrelentingly "satisfactory" service. In other words, the correlation between satisfactory service and customer retention increases the more iterations that the customer experiences satisfactory service: if a restaurant treats a guest fine once, it's no big deal, and it's not going to correlate very well with customer retention; that guest may go anywhere for lunch the next time.
However, if for whatever reason the guest happens to come back, and if she then gets at least temporarily in the habit of coming back, and if she's treated fine-but-not-exceptionally-memorably every time, after, say, 5 visits the likelihood of a 6th visit becomes a pretty good bet. The tricky thing is that that's a lot of "ifs." For each of those first five iterations, the customer is an open target for other marketing, passive or active. Who knows where she may go for lunch the 2nd, or 3rd, or 4th, or 5th time; anywhere in there she may get distracted and wander over to a competitor.
So I try, as a customer service and customer loyalty consultant, to warn businesses away from thinking their best path to a customer’s heart is year after year of giving good-enough service and hoping that nobody else’s good-enough service catches their eye.
The better way to kickstart customer loyalty
Better, I argue, is to give extra consideration and do the extra customer experience and customer service work needed on the important touches–the attention, the recognition–that can directly break through customers' apathy, that can break through a customer's default position of "who cares?"– a default position that unfortunately is likely to be held even by customers who are "satisfied" with everything about you as a brand.
Because that's the way to build customer engagement and customer loyalty, directly and reliably. And it's worth it.