There is much confusion about the constructs of quality and customer satisfaction (Q/CS). “Quality is doing the right things right,” say some experts, but how can we be assured that a service provider is doing the right things? Here’s an example: “I recognize that the opera singer has a tremendous vocal range [high quality], but I hate opera [dissatisfaction].” In other words, if service providers are interested in quality as a means of achieving customer satisfaction, the cognitive model of quality is inadequate. In essence, a service provider can achieve quality by doing things right whether the things that they do are right or wrong in terms of customer satisfaction. Although it’s true that the cognitive formulation of Q/CS may result in orthogonal (or at least different) constructs that are easier for researchers to work with, the value of quality so defined appears suspect. An alternative way of defining the Q/CS constructs would be to ask the consumer to make the following judgments:

  1. Did the provider do what you wanted it to do?
  2. When the provider did what you wanted, did it do it well?
  3. How do you feel about the value you received from the service?

Items 1 and 2 address quality from a predominantly (but not entirely) cognitive perspective, which is a measure of quality as a value. Item 3 is clearly seeking the affective response of the consumer to the service experience, which is a measure of customer satisfaction. To the extent that responses to the first two questions predict the response to question 3, quality can be said to be “causing” customer satisfaction. However, it is likely that additional factors (e.g., price, the provider doing things that the consumer did not want, etc.) would have an effect on customer satisfaction as well. Many researchers use the disconfirmation paradigm to investigate both quality and satisfaction because both are measured by comparing experiences to expectations. One views satisfaction as more specific to the situation or the service encountered, while quality is viewed as more holistic. Others demonstrate that, in fact, there is a great deal of confusion between the Q/CS concepts, pointing out that the constructs of Q/CS have not been consistently defined and differentiated. In many articles, the terms “service quality” and “customer satisfaction” are used interchangeably. In other articles, the terms represent different concepts. Some academics recommend the use of the more general term “evaluation” until the terms “quality” and “satisfaction” are more precisely defined. You can find one example of this confusion in “A Multi-Stage Model of Customers’ Assessments of Service Quality and Value,” by Ruth N. Bolton and James H. Drew ( Journal of Consumer Research, 1991). The authors of the article describe quality as a result of customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction and the disconfirmation of prior expectations. They further define satisfaction or dissatisfaction as a function of the disconfirmation, the expectations, and an absolute level of performance. In other words, in the Bolton and Drew formulation, quality and satisfaction/dissatisfaction are algebraically identical, even though they are discussed as if they were separate constructs. Such confusion can only hinder research efforts. Another researcher argues that quality and satisfaction are separate but related customer judgments. Quality is viewed as a more enduring construct having quality- specific referents, whereas satisfaction is a superordinate concept that includes quality influences, is situation- and experience-specific, and involves dimensions and antecedents unique to satisfaction judgments. The two concepts are compared in table 1.

Comparison DimensionQualitySatisfaction
Attributes or dimensionsSpecific to quality judgmentsPotentially all salient dimensions
Expectant referentIdeals, “excellence”Predictive, norms, needs, etc.
Experience dependencyNot required, can be externally mediatedRequired
Other conceptual antecedentsCommunicationsEquity, attribution, emotions, etc.
Table 1: Comparison of Quality and Satisfaction

In this model, quality is just one of the dimensions evaluated in reaching a satisfaction judgment. The implication is that there are also non-quality dimensions to service satisfaction, such as price. Thus, although quality and satisfaction are related, they are not the same.

In short, when it comes to identifying the voice of the customer and creating new ways to improve it, we in the quality profession are in need of better guidance from our thought leaders in academia. This is especially true in the area of services, which is already huge and still growing in importance. The field has been an active area for academic research for over 20 years, but it has yet to define its own foundations. We’re all waiting–and hoping–that they do so soon.

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