Think you know your customer? Maybe not.

Every manager knows that happy customers mean better business. But despite decades of in-depth research, elaborate customer satisfaction monitoring systems, and extensive customer service support teams, managers still struggle to understand their customers’ desires and needs, leading them to make misguided decisions that can hurt their business.

From misinterpreting data to undervaluing what drives purchasing decisions, our research shows managers get more wrong about customers than they get right.

Managers think they know their customers

Managers might want to think twice about how well they understand their customer. Even some highly confident managers don’t understand all the levels and drivers of customer satisfaction.

In the aggregate and on average, the managers we surveyed significantly underestimated their customer’s propensity to complain, and thereby failed to address the customer’s complaints. Additionally, they overestimate their customers’ satisfaction and loyalty while misunderstanding what drives both customer expectations and perceptions of value.

With the importance most companies place on customer feedback, how can these misunderstandings be so widespread? Managers should look to the type of feedback they’re measuring, to start. Not all feedback is useful (no matter how pretty those 5 stars on Yelp appear).

For example, what does having a high average review score tell you about your customer? Many managers make the mistake of blissfully accepting a positive review, but either don’t take the time or don’t have the data to understand why the customer gave them a particular rating. When implementing customer feedback monitoring systems, managers should emphasize specifically catered feedback that will provide relevant insights into their product and service decisions.

The data has the answers, but you still don’t

Implementing a customer satisfaction monitoring system – such as market research or consumer data collection and analysis — to evaluate customer feedback and communicate the data throughout the organization is a solid first step in understanding customer satisfaction and motivations. However, for many organizations, these systems often don’t live up to their potential. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Some managers aren’t exposed to the data these systems collect.
  2. Some managers receive the data, but they misinterpret and misunderstand it.

Both cases result in frustrated customers, falsely confident managers, and ultimately, the loss of business. Monitoring systems only work if managers have access and training to accurately interpret the data.

Additionally, to extract all the benefits from monitoring systems, managers should inspect the current extent and nature of their customer perception level to help minimize any manager-customer disconnects. This baseline will uncover the holes in understanding and facilitate more informed decisions to close them.

Once managers understand where lapses in data and interpretation are occurring, they can take corrective actions that make sense for their business, and ultimately, for their customers.

Going beyond what the customer wants

Understanding what your customer wants is the first step, but to truly bridge the gap in manager-customer misunderstanding, managers need to take it a step further. Beyond what your customer wants, why do they want what they do?

In many oversaturated and competitive markets, like retail, simply knowing what your customer wants isn’t enough anymore. There are five, 10, even 100 other firms selling the same exact product or service for a better price. And yet, the more expensive option might sell better and produce more satisfied customers.

Why? Lower prices are not the deciding factor in winning over the customer. Instead, quality drives customer satisfaction and loyalty, along with perceived value and customer expectations. So before scrambling to stay competitive in the short-term by reducing prices, managers need to take the time to find out why the customer feedback says what it says.

Learn from Netflix’s mistake. In 2011, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings pushed for a premature split between hard copy DVDs and the company’s new streaming service — a move that resulted in 800,000 fewer subscribers and more than a 25 percent stock plummet. The split not only divided customers, but required them to pay for both services separately. Turns out, the new business model combined with the price increase was enough to warrant a “no” from the “Are you still watching?” prompt.

Hastings apologized a few weeks later, admitting he was overconfident in the push to streaming and assumed that the divide had already been presented to customers via feedback platforms (clearly, it had not), and that the price increase wouldn’t come with backlash (wrong again).

Following this misinterpretation, Hastings made a swift recovery by focusing on why the remaining customers were interested in streaming services over DVDs, leading to an amazing comeback in 2012 that’s held up through today.

Making the change

Winning over customers is about more than implementing fancy monitoring systems and simply relying on the data without context; it’s also about understanding the customer’s desires and needs, and — as a manager — checking your ego at the door.

With the plethora of data available today, it’s easy to misinterpret information and direct precious resources to well-intentioned but needless tasks. To avoid making this mistake, it’s time for managers to reassess data, determine key drivers of customer satisfaction as well as complaints, and fix gaps in interpretation and information sharing. If managers make the effort now, they’ll have happier customers — and better bottom lines — in the long run.

Forget millennials. Here’s the generation most impacting your bottom line

By this time next year, Generation Z will outnumber millennials globally, accounting for nearly 32 percent of the population. While millennials have recently been in the spotlight for having unreasonable expectations and supposedly “killing” industries, it’s consumers born after 2000 that are likely to have more of an impact soon.

With the oldest members (ages 18-20) of this massive generation now in the market as consumers, there a few things companies should keep in mind as they try to woo this digital-savvy demographic.

Be prepared for a harsh critic

Younger consumers have never had a reputation for being particularly optimistic when it comes to satisfaction. Gen Z customers appear to be overwhelmingly negative in their response to new products and services; in fact, almost every variable the ACSI measured in 2017, including loyalty and perceptions of quality, proved Gen Z ranked the lowest.

Most notably, these young consumers were 10 percent less satisfied than the Silent Generation, and 4 percent less satisfied than millennials, who have a reputation for being critical consumers. To overcome this trend, companies will need to work harder to prove the worth of their products and services over competitors’ offerings to young shoppers. Growing up with digital conveniences like Amazon and phones that also function as wallets has fostered higher expectations for convenience and value among Gen Z.

Customers that don’t know how to properly complain

Aside from the general negativity associated with Gen Z consumers, an underlying problem is that these consumers often don’t productively complain about their dissatisfaction. Our data consistently shows customers who complain to the provider of a product or service generally have a better experience, in part because they have an opportunity to see the issue resolved and also because they feel their issues are being heard.

Yet, instead of calling or emailing customer service, Gen Z tends to take to social media to express their frustrations. This becomes problematic when consumers tweet or post without tagging or messaging the company directly. Not all corporate structures have the resources to search for and respond to indirect customer complaints on social media. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to address the customer’s experience directly, salvage customer satisfaction, win back the customer’s loyalty, or manage their reputation. Customers, in turn, miss out on a chance for resolution.

For example, earlier this year 20-year-old celebrity Kylie Jenner complained about the newest Snapchat update to her 25.4 million Twitter followers, many of whom belong to Gen Z. The tweet received over 73,000 retweets and 5,000 replies, many of which conveyed the tweeter’s plans to delete Snapchat altogether or to stick to other social platforms until an update was made. In the aftermath of Jenner’s post, Snapchat, Inc. lost $1.3 billion of its market value.

While a single tweet from a celebrity isn’t typically enough to influence satisfaction overall (and we can’t say Jenner’s tweet was solely responsible for Snapchat, Inc.’s stock plummet), the example shows the impact Gen Z could have on company bottom lines.

A problematic generation, or a problematic age?

Before companies across the country redirect their concern over the impact of millennials toward Gen Z, they should think back to being an 18-year-old shopper. The “problem” with 18-20-year-old consumers may not be that they belong to a digital generation raised with more conveniences, but instead that they’re too young to be a well-informed buyer. Perhaps it’s time to consider that this might happen again … and again and again, as each new generation reaches the early stages of adulthood.

Members of the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers tend to be the most satisfied customers because they’ve spent years shopping, which has shaped them into a much wiser customer than they may have been in their late teens and early 20s. More practice in purchasing leads to better habits, including research before buying, which ultimately leads to a higher level of customer satisfaction. They also tend to have more disposable income and therefore less stress associated with each purchase, whereas younger consumers with less income may be more significantly impacted by their purchasing decisions, and could be more critical of companies because of that added burden.

The fact that Gen Z ranks the lowest in satisfaction should still be taken as a warning sign for companies. But before scrambling to please the youngest consumers entering the market time and time again, it’s worth considering that the real answer to achieving satisfaction in the younger generations might be to give them some time.

Great Customer Service Harder to Find in Federal Agencies

Just two years ago, customer service was a strong point for the U.S. federal government, with citizens giving the courtesy and helpfulness of staff a rating of 80 out of a possible 100 points. The American Customer Satisfaction Index—which applies the same rigorous, scientific methodology to measuring satisfaction with both private and public sector organizations—deems scores of 80 or above as excellent.

This once-excellent customer service has diminished since 2012, down 6% according to the ACSI’s annual report on citizen satisfaction with government, but without the benefit of other aspects of agency performance—such as the critical website channel—improving to anywhere near the 80 mark. In fact, website satisfaction has failed to improve at all—staying flat at a benchmark of 72 in 2014, or 3% below its 2012 level. Other aspects of the citizen experience have downgraded further. The process of applying for and receiving services falls to a low score of 68, while the clarity and accessibility of information provided by agencies drops to 69.

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As in the private sector, customer service is often the first casualty of cost-cutting and poor service leads to less satisfaction. The overall score for citizen satisfaction with federal government is down for a second year, reaching a new low of 64.4.

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The downturn in citizen satisfaction comes amid cutbacks in agency budgets and fewer federal workers. As reported in January, reduced funding for the IRS could mean longer wait times for callers this tax season, delays in refunds for paper filers, and perhaps even a total agency shutdown later in the year.

If cuts are going to be made to the people delivering the services, then part of the solution is paying more attention to websites. ACSI data show that citizens are much happier when services are offered electronically. In the case of the Internal Revenue Service, satisfaction is dramatically higher for taxpayers who file electronically (76) than for those who file on paper (56).

Read more »

Federal Computer Week: Satisfaction With Fed Customer Service Worst Ever »

The Washington Post, Federal Eye: Index Shows Americans Increasingly Unsatisfied
With Federal Services »

MarketWatch: Americans Hate the Federal Government Now More Than Ever »

Federal Times: Satisfaction With Agency Services Continues to Fall »