The View

Why the big gap in customer satisfaction in the service industry?

Survey shows huge gap between corporate office view of satisfaction and those of customers, but there's the grey area in between that can only be addressed through direct contact

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2014, 10:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 July, 2014, 1:57am

Ask any company whether customer satisfaction is its priority and you can bet they will hurry to agree. Go one step further and ask these companies if they think they are outperforming their competitors and most will say either that they are or at least that they are trying to excel.

Then go ask the customers what they think and you will get a very different response.

This impression is vividly reinforced by a new survey undertaken by the Hong Kong Coalition of Service Industries and PwC Hong Kong. The survey, as the name of its initiators suggests, focuses on the service industries and was completed early this year.

It found that 92 per cent of companies see something called "customer experience" as core to their strategy and 60 per cent believe they are performing above the industry average in this respect.

A satisfied customer is less likely to elaborate on their views than a dissatisfied one

When customers were asked, only 6 per cent stated that they were very satisfied with the level of service received.

So, there is a massive gap between corporate views of satisfaction and those of customers.

This is often more evident in bigger companies where the management is very remote not only from their customers but also from lower level staff.

The people who are closest to the top have a tendency to tell the bosses what they want to hear so the criticism and dissatisfaction of the lower echelons rarely percolates upwards.

Moreover big companies employ hosts of research, marketing and other specialists who have a vested interest in making simple things complex. These wannabe gurus surround themselves with an all-knowing aura that often disguises high levels of ignorance.

So even though customer satisfaction usually comes top of the list of corporate objectives the people who chant this mantra do so with only the vaguest idea of what it means.

In this survey a majority of companies stated their belief that they are better than the competition.

Without this self-belief it is quite hard for businesses to function. Or to put it another way, how many companies declare themselves to be worse than their competitors?

The problem is how to bridge the gap between what companies think they are achieving and what their clients actually want. In this respect much emphasis is placed on customer feedback.

In my industry there is no shortage of feedback because an impressively large online community shares its views on eating establishments via websites such as Open Rice, the biggest of the Hong Kong restaurant sites, or they use more international sites such as Trip Advisor. Both of these are hugely influential and anyone running an eating establishment would be foolish to ignore them.

However, those of us who closely monitor these sites quickly discover that the most eloquent customer feedback tends to come from people who are dissatisfied.

Sure, there are many people who write glowing reports, but on the whole a satisfied customer is less likely to elaborate on their views than a dissatisfied one.

That is not to say that these restaurant forums are clogged with mindless criticism; on the contrary much of it is reasonable, but sometimes unfathomable.

For example, some people are vocal in their criticism of noisy restaurants, while others like the buzz of a noisy, bustling atmosphere. Who is right here?

And when it comes to the food itself, who's to say whether meat well done is better than served on the rare side?

I know of restaurants that, as a matter of principle, will not serve well-cooked steak. This is fine for me, but some people like a really charred piece of meat; surely they are entitled to have what they want. There is no one size fits all for cooking methods.

In public institutions where my company provides catering, a comments box is usually in place.

What surprises us is not that we get adverse comments but that there are quite a few really favourable ones. The point being that the incentive to bother with making a comment is much greater for the dissatisfied.

So how do you really discover what customers want? The obvious answer is to look at the objective measure of sales figures, if they go up you must be doing something right and if they go down, well, the conclusion is obvious.

However a big grey area lurks around where customers are neither quite satisfied nor quite dissatisfied.

This is challenging and in my experience the only way to tackle this is to speak to as many customers as possible.

Yes, I know that does not sound very scientific and no doubt fares badly among the perfumed ranks of management consultants who talk about things like "customer electricity" (I kid you not), but there really is no substitute for talking directly to customers.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster