Photo of a diagram of customer satisfaction

What Is the Relationship Between Product Quality and Customer Satisfaction?

Published on: 14th March 2016

Before we can answer this question of how quality and customer satisfaction are related we first need to understand what quality actually means. Quality is something we all look for, and we tend to know it when we see it. However, when we are asked to break down exactly what quality is, we often become unstuck. Most would agree that it is highly subjective and that, much like beauty, it lies in the eye of the beholder, but there is huge variance in the reported attributes or features that matter. This variance in opinion is a clear challenge but also a great opportunity. It is contended that a greater understanding of perceived quality could help designers to develop more satisfying products with a greater chance of commercial success.

It’s almost impossible to talk about quality without referencing Robert M. Pirsig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance…

“Quality ... you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is… But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof… But for all practical purposes it really does exist… Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others ... but what's the betterness?”

As Pirsig describes in the quote above, it’s an almost impossible task to try and untangle what quality is. We tend to know it when we see it; however, it’s incredibly difficult to unpack due to the large number of influencing factors. What is clear is that it is largely idiosyncratic, perceived quality is quite literally in the eye of the beholder. Some people judge it almost exclusively on a single measure, for example if you speak to a production engineer quality is largely about the absence of variability, whereas if you talk to a premium handbag salesperson quality is about material attributes such as the softness and feel of the leather. For others, quality is less about the artefact itself and more about the brand, for some, a premium watch must be Swiss, a car German, and a computer made by Apple. For most of us though it is a complex interaction of many things.

Given the complexity of its definition, one option is to opt to ignore tackling quality head on. Designers have the option of designing products to meet their own perception of quality. Thus, the way the product looks, sounds, feels and moves can be defined by the designer or design team. Likewise the balance struck (i.e. between reliability, weight and aesthetics), can all be decided by the designer. The real challenge comes in, however, where those interacting with the final product, each share different views of what quality really means. If these, often desperate views are not considered there is the real chance of alienating one or more of these groups.


Chopping it up

A scientific approach would be to chop up the perception of quality in to its constituent parts. Variables that relate to quality could then be isolated and making the subjective a little more objective. The challenge with this reductionist approach is that it is rarely a simple cause and effect relationship. Subtle changes to one aspect of the product can fundamentally change others. The trick at all times is to learn from the details without losing sight of the bigger picture.

From a design perspective, the ‘Holy Grail’ is an understanding of perceived quality that allows the design team to become even better at concentrating resources on optimising the aspects of a product that will resonate best with most consumers, improving customer satisfaction and maximising the chances of commercial success.


How the model is constructed

At the centre of the wheel are the words ‘customer satisfaction’, however, these could be replaced by ‘perceived quality’ or simply ‘quality’ as, arguably all quality is perceived. At the next level out, the model is broken down into expectations, use experience and longevity. It can be tempting to view these in a temporal fashion to fit a purchase journey. That is, expectations shape a purchase decision, the product is then used, and the longevity of the product understood after time. In reality though, perception of quality, just like all perceptions, is constantly evolving. Every interaction with the product shapes our expectations, which, in turn, shapes the way we sense and interact with the product – creating a looping cycle. To complicate things further these expectations are not just shaped by direct experience with the product. They are also shaped by new experiences with its competitors, or indeed completely different products.

The nine attributes in the next ring of the model are informed by a paper written by David A. Garvin, for Sloan Management Review in 1984. The more technical descriptions (performance, features, conformance, reliability, durability and serviceability) map almost directly. Whereas the less tangible aspects in Garvin’s list such as ‘aesthetics’ and ‘perceived quality’ have been revisited. In the proposed model aesthetics has moved beyond the look of a product to include all aspects of perception (e.g. sounds, feel, and smell) alongside cognitive and physical aspects of the user experience. Attributes more at home in a marketing book (brand, market share, country of manufacture) have also been included under the heading of expectations. The outermost ring aims to provide examples for each of the attributes; these are not intended to be exhaustive.


A customer satisfaction diagram


An example

We can take the example of two watches to highlight the utility of the model. Both can be considered quality watches, albeit with very different price points and attributes. The analogue Omega watches scores highly on expectations. It is from a premium brand, Swiss made, reassuringly expensive, and even endorsed by James Bond. In terms of core features it tells the time but has no real secondary features. Conversely, the Casio watch also has a strong brand but is not viewed as premium. It is extremely accurate and has a number of useful secondary features such as date, alarm, timer and stopwatch.

In terms of use experience, the real difference comes in the sensory experience as the materials and feel of the devices are quite different. The kinaesthetic movement of the second hand on the Omega watch (a constant sweep, rather than ticking) signals a coveted mechanical movement.

The Casio rarely needs any service with a very long battery life, when required batteries can be easily changed by the owner. Conformance is very high with all watches being an almost identical copy. Furthermore, as anyone who has owned one will testify they are practically indestructible – shock and water proof. The Omega on the other hand requires professional servicing periodically. Given the investment it also tends to receive much greater care to avoid damage.

In summary, the example watches exude different, but at times overlapping, attributes of quality. For some, there will be clear winner, while others will recognise the attributes of both.


Photo of an Omega analogue watch beside a Casio digital watch


How else can the model be used?

The watch example was chosen to highlight how two very different products can both represent quality. In reality though, most design challenges involve exploring subtle differences between very similar competing products in order to gain a competitive advantage in terms of customer satisfaction. The model works equally well in these cases. It can also prove to be a very useful prompt and structure for clarifying design briefs. The model highlights that customer satisfaction’ or ‘perceived quality’ is a multifaceted beast and that addressing any of these wedges in isolation may not have the designed impact. For example, the aspect optimised may be of limited importance to some or all of the stakeholders, or it may yield localised improvement, while having negative impacts on other aspects quality.


Concentrating efforts

It’s a fairly universal truth that design effort and resources need to be prioritised. There are numerous aspects to understanding which attributes to optimise:

1. Which attributes do stakeholders say they care about? Perhaps the simplest to answer, this involves asking a range of stakeholders the question in a structured way to establish a hierarchy of values. An alternative is to use existing data in the form of product reviews to identify attributes that are discussed.

2. Which attributes do stakeholder behaviours suggest they care about? This involves seeking to identify the gap between what users say is important, and their actual behaviour (e.g. purchases made, use patterns).

3. Understanding which attributes competitor products focus on, or are recognised for. Strategic decisions can then be made on where to match or exceed competitor standards or where to identify niches or ‘space in the market’ in terms of customer satisfaction.

Ultimately, the model provides a framework for considering customer satisfaction. The way it is used can be refined to fit the needs of a specific project. What is consistent, however, is that a better understanding of perceived quality should lead to better products.

Nick Mival, is Director at DCA and responsible for DCA’s consumer sector.

Dan Jenkins leads the research team at DCA.