Customer satisfaction and customer experience: 2 very different things


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It may seem to go against everything you learned in business school, but making your customers happy isn’t the same as delivering a good customer experience.


That’s right. Customer satisfaction and customer experience are not equals. In fact, satisfaction, often measured as a degree of “happiness,” is just a small component of the customer experience.

If you’re a longtime reader, you know quite well that every customer experience begins with a person who has a need, problem, or desire they would pay money to solve. Whether or not they are able to solve their need is their ultimate measure of success. Whether or not you help them solve that need is yours.

Since the customer experience hinges on solving a customer’s need that’s where your focus should be. From product design to marketing, from operations to staffing decisions – everything you do should be about what solves your customers need better than anyone else.

Satisfying customers is a good thing. However, making them happy and solving their need is not the same thing.

I often like to illustrate this point by talking about a visit to the doctor. If my doctor’s main goal were to make me happy, to satisfy me, I’d leave the office with some good drugs and a scale that lies. Is that solving my need? No. I’d sure be happy though.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother worrying about customer satisfaction, or the degree of happiness your customers feel about your product, brand or company. It just means that your investment should only be in making them happy insofar as it solves their problem.

How can you know if you’re working on satisfaction or solving a need? Here are two questions you can ask as you make any decision or action:

Is there an end to what I’m about to do?

When we’re out to make people happy, we want them to be as happy as humanly possible. Ideally, we want to surprise and delight our customers. If we could, we would do anything! Solving a need is different. We can see a logical “enough” that is matched to a need. More is not always better.

Is this something my customers will pay me to do or provide?

Not necessarily as a discreet price, but customers are smart enough to know they pay for everything you do for them in some way. Your customers will pay you for if and how well you solve their need. If you are thinking they wouldn’t value what you’re about to do enough to pay you for it – you are working on satisfaction, not needs.

A quick look at Target can illustrate both questions. If Target invested in the same policies and staff attention that Nordstrom invests to satisfy customers, it would be a waste. Target customers are looking for (humor me Target, I know your customers would not use these words exactly) “upbeat fashion on a budget.” Target customers would not value – nor pay for – the same kind of happiness Nordstrom offers.

Some have argued – as Karen Freemen, Matthew Dixon and Nicholas Toman did on HBR last summer – that you should altogether stop trying to delight your customers.

Delighting customers isn’t bad, but your investment should be metered by what solves their need, and not some immeasurable, unending scale of happiness. In fact, if your attempts to delight customers aren’t tied to their specific needs they might not even notice what you’re doing.

Think about it on a personal level. There is something inherently satisfying about having your needs perfectly, simply filled with out a lot of fuss. It’s one of those things that makes everybody happy.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Linda Ireland
Linda Ireland is co-owner and partner of Aveus LLC, a global strategy and operational change firm that helps leaders find money in the business performance chain while improving customer experiences. As author of Domino: How to Use Customer Experience to Tip Everything in Your Business toward Better Financial Performance, Linda built on work done at Aveus and aims to deliver real-life, actionable, how-to help for leaders of any organization.


  1. The key difference between satisfied and satisfaction (from a csutomer experience perspective) is a little word that strikes fear into the hearts of board members globally – feelings.

    One IS satisfied, it is rooted in physicality.

    One has to FEEL satisfaction as it is an emotional need that is met and it matters not a jot whether you are aware of it or not.

  2. When those in business learn to comfortably embrace the attitude of the Servant, it seem easier to develop customers who have enjoyed the experience of engagement.

    When EGO is conquered in the Business persons psyche, a whole world of success seem to open up.


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