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3 Ways to Bust Through a Customer Satisfaction Plateau 

Nancy Porte | Jul 7, 2016 521 views 5 Comments

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We all want to see constant improvement, but what do you do when customer satisfaction flat lines?

Image Source: Author

Image Source: Author

The dreaded customer satisfaction (CSAT) plateau. It happens to every organization. After beginning our customer experience program, we enjoyed watching the satisfaction metric rise. And rise it did. I couldn’t wait to see the quarterly results to see how much we had improved. And then it happened. Customer satisfaction levels plateaued, and not just for one quarter.

Ah, there must be something wrong with the analysis.

Ran it twice; it appears to be right.

What now?

Plateaus are beautiful in nature and illicit “oohs” and “aahs” from those who view them. In contrast, plateaus viewed in customer satisfaction bar charts conjure up silence or at best a deep “hmmm” from disappointed executives.

We looked for reasons, explanations, and universal truths – anything that might explain why our progress leveled off. What made our plateau particularly distressing was that we were sharing customer feedback and insights throughout the organization. A virtual plethora of improvement projects were complete or in progress. And we finished our first customer journey map and complemented it with a future, desired customer journey map. Our internal effort was at an all-time high, but the metrics told a different story.



I turned to numerous sources to research potential reasons for plateauing – and how to get the momentum moving in the right direction again. While there was a lot of information available about how to set up a new CX program and get executive sponsorship, there were few places to turn to for content about real-life, day-to-day issues that CX leaders encounter.

Over the years, CustomerThink proved to be one of the best treasure troves, which ultimately led to my desire to provide “in the trenches” experiences and support in this column. While I know I don’t have all of the answers, I think we have quite a few of the questions – ones which I look forward to exploring with the readers of CustomerThink.

Now back to the plateau. What did we do? And what did we learn about busting through a customer satisfaction plateau?

1. Review CSAT by Segment

We took a detailed look at the data, segmenting it in new ways to get a clearer picture of what was under the top number. We learned that, in some segments, satisfaction was indeed plateauing.

However, we also found that satisfaction was rising in two very important customer segments for our business. We continued looking at the details to understand why those satisfaction metrics were higher, and how that journey differed from the other segments.

2. Balance Project Portfolio

Next, our team took a look at recently completed projects and those in progress. We classified each by its “Level of Impact to Customer Satisfaction” and “Length of Time for Impact to the Customer Experience.” What we found is that most of the projects we’d recently completed were important to our customers, yet, wouldn’t substantially impact customer satisfaction for more than 12 months.

For example, we were re-designing an onboarding program that would affect only new customers, so, while we were improving the experience, the survey data wouldn’t reflect that until those customers had the chance to go through the new and improved process. In response, we plotted all current projects on a grid and initiated some we knew would have a shorter term impact. By maintaining a balanced portfolio of projects, we could create more consistency in improving the customer experience.

When we reviewed our project portfolio we noticed one other item. We were working on improving the rational side of the customer experience. Specifically, we were improving the product and services but not addressing the emotional component. As Colin Shaw notes in his 2016 predictions, emotions account for more than 50 percent of the customer experience! We identified a huge opportunity to understand how emotions impacted our customer experience and how we could use that to improve the experience.

3. Tell Stories

We went to the Customer Experience Executive Sponsorship Committee and told two stories. We used the personas we had developed for customer journey mapping and walked our team through the experience of the type of customer who still had increasing satisfaction, and compared it to another group whose satisfaction was decreasing. We also proved the importance of emotion in the design and improvement of the customer journey.

We also made recommendations about how we could use what we learned about one customer journey to improve the others, how to balance our project portfolio to make both short and long-term improvements and, finally, steps we would implement to understand the emotional component of the journey. The resulting discussion was lively and, at the end of the meeting, we had a renewed commitment from the board to support our efforts!

Plateaus are Opportunities, Not Roadblocks

In retrospect, I think we were looking at the plateau in the wrong way. Rather than viewing the flattening of the curve as a roadblock, it demonstrated that we were making progress. It was a perfect time to look back and see how much progress had been made. But it also indicated that we were moving to a more mature stage of customer experience and needed to add more refined techniques to our customer experience toolkit.

The good news is that we are, once again, on an upward trajectory with our customer satisfaction results! But, next time we reach a plateau, we will embrace it as a challenge and opportunity to reach the next level of customer experience management.

To recap, here’s what to do when your organization hits a CSAT plateau.

  • Understand your data. Go deep into the data to determine if the results have stabilized in all customer segments or just a few. Use text analytics to determine reasons for the differences.
  • Balance your project portfolio. Align your improvement projects for both short-term and long-term impacts. Include projects that address the emotional, as well as the rational side of the customer experience.
  • Improve your storytelling skills. Stories are powerful ways to describe the customer experience and help secure the institutional support required to change and improve an organization in order to increase CSAT.

If you or your team have encountered a CSAT plateau and overcame it, we’d love to hear how in the comments below.

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5 Responses to 3 Ways to Bust Through a Customer Satisfaction Plateau

  1. Gautam Mahajan July 8, 2016 at 12:13 am (173 comments) #

    Are you looking at absolute CSat scores, or scores versus competition? Absolute scores do not tell us whether we are improving versus competition.

  2. Ian Golding July 8, 2016 at 9:30 am (110 comments) #

    Lovely post Nancy and described as a true practitioner. Customer Experience Professionals are regularly expected to be ‘fortune tellers’ when it comes to the interpretation of customer feedback mechanisms. One thing I would add to your list is the risk of your measurement system no longer being reflective of the ‘truth’ – failure to review whichever mechanism you use can result in it being out of date and hence measuring the wrong thing!

  3. Chip Bell July 9, 2016 at 2:05 am (181 comments) #

    You have certainly outlined some very important actions on the path to greatness. I am wondering if your yardstick (customer satisfaction) is the best one to use? The word “satisfaction” comes from a word that means “sufficient or enough.” If a glass is full of water, there is no room for more. I realize we are bundling the product and/or outcome (the need the customer desires be filled) and the experience (the emotions associated with the encounter), but would some higher level of customer evaluation be a better goal?

    My favorite example is this: If i buy a refrigerator (product) I expect it to do precisely what refrigerators do. If it does that perfectly, I am completely satisfied and award the refrigerator the grade of “A.” If I take my car in to be repaired (outcome) and it is returned to me completely corrected at a fair price, I am completely satisfied and award the outcome an “A.” But, if I return from my honeymoon (experience) and am asked to give it an evaluation, somehow “completely satisfied” fails to capture the assessment of such a romantic experience. I am likely to use words like “awesome, amazing, or wonderful,” Mixing product/outcome evaluation yardsticks with experience evaluation yardsticks creates major problems with trying to gauge and move higher or better the CX needle. Ultimately, my goal is to create customers who are ardent advocates and loyalists, not just satisfied customers. Some research shows about 75% of customers who leave an organization to go with a competitor report they were “completely satisfied” with the one they abandoned. So, is CSAT the best aspiration?

  4. nancy porte July 11, 2016 at 9:28 am (9 comments) #

    Thank you for the insightful comments!

    I agree with the observations about selecting the right CSAT measure – and, testing it on a regular basis to assess it’s continued value. One of my early mentors (and a leading research expert!) guided us to the right measure by testing our data in a number of models. Ultimately we chose an index of two questions (Willingness to Recommend and Likelihood to Repurchase) and now use this Champion Index for measuring loyalty.

    This brings up an interesting question for readers – have you or your teams ever changed how your measure customer satisfaction after experiencing a satisfaction plateau?

  5. Michael Lowenstein July 11, 2016 at 6:32 pm (1281 comments) #

    Agree with your comment that plateaus and flatlines can also occur because of the measurement applied. Satisfaction is chiefly about assessing tactical, reactive customer transactional attitudes toward the tangible and functional aspects of value delivery, which are basic table stakes of performance. So, greater actionability, and at granular levels of experience, is required.

    To help break through the ceiling often created by satisfaction, customer voice should include the true emotional meaning behind what customers say about components of the experience, and the overall impact of experience memory on downstream behavior: http://customerthink.com/what-consumers-say-vs-mean-vs-do-toward-understanding-the-emotional-and-subconscious-drivers-of-behavior/

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