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According to ESOMAR's 2013 Global Market Research report, customer/stakeholder research currently accounts for about 7% of all market research (by value). This makes customer satisfaction one of the largest single categories of research - but it wasn't always so.

Some companies have always done some form of customer satisfaction monitoring; however, the customer satisfaction industry that we know today has its origins in the 1980s.

Origins: Before the 1980s, customer satisfaction tended to be measured informally (for example by front line staff asking people if they were happy), or via annual surveys of customers. Before the 1980s, most large brands and organisations were not customer focused; they were product focused and logistics focused. The key questions they asked were: could they make the best product and could they ship it to the right location faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than their competitors?

The 80s: The 1980s saw several changes in how businesses operated. The ability of brands and services to have clear product differences started to diminish. New cars, jars of coffee, and retailers were increasingly able to match each other's products. As companies became larger and increasingly multinational, they turned to management consultants to create complete/integrated strategies; these strategies often included boosting customer satisfaction. Having adopted a strategy, they needed to audit their performance against it. Also, there was a rise in management gurus - people such as Tom Peters, who advocated customer-focused solutions.

Customer satisfaction tends to rely on large samples because organisations want to be able to look at their performance by unit. However, in the pre-internet days, this was expensive. The early masters of modern customer satisfaction programs tended to be organisations who mastered paper-based research such as postal and face-to-face. These companies excelled at producing and distributing questionnaires cheaply and efficiently, and developing scanner-based solutions for inputting data.

1990s: As the 1980s and the early 1990s progressed, the data collection tended to shift to Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI). However, there were some interesting but short-lived experiments in B2B research such as faxed surveys and disk-by-mail surveys. As the 1990s unwound, the move to the internet started. The first step was for B2B research, which saw a growing number of studies migrate to email, followed by consumer, web-based, customer satisfaction studies as the millennium turned.

Another strand of customer satisfaction that developed in the 90s was the growth of CRM (customer relationship management), which was the start of a move towards a single view of the customer and something that has taken on a new lease of life with the growth of interest in big data.

2000s: In the developed markets, there has been a large shift to online research (and now mobile research). However, there is still a large amount of customer satisfaction conducted via paper, face-to-face, and telephone, and this is even more the case in less developed markets. The traditional modes of data collection are also adapting, with automated processing of paper, mCAPI for the face-to-face work, and interviewer-free phone calls for the CATI options.

In the last few years, customer satisfaction research has, itself, been showing decreased satisfaction amongst the companies commissioning it. Research buyers are saying it is too slow, misses too much, and too expensive. Customers often report that surveys are intrusive and frustrating. Many brands would like to evolve but often find themselves trapped by having linked executives' pay to customer satisfaction scores, and by linking the implementation of business strategies to their customer satisfaction feedback.

Over the last couple of years, companies have been looking at alternatives to the big customer satisfaction tracking studies. At the same time, experiments using social media listening, text analytics, and shorter, more mobile surveys have become increasingly common. There has been a growth in integrated customer feedback and attempts to link satisfaction and experience to big data. Customer satisfaction research appears to be at an inflection point, with the future quite possibly different from the past.

To learn more about the history of customer satisfaction, please check out our interactive infographic on the evolution of insight or click the image below.

the rise of customer satisfaction research

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