For a track session at Forrester's Marketing Forum at the end of April, I dived into the topic of customer satisfaction. For market researchers looking to set up a customer satisfaction (CSAT) study, much guidance is available. However, it also became clear to me why, despite all this advice, many customer satisfaction projects fail.

Most of the information I found — or the conversations I had, for that matter — were around the ‘science’ part of CSAT studies: the methodology and set-up. There are many discussions online about questions like which scale to use, which questions to ask (or not), whether a company should focus on relational versus transactional measurement, or if it's better to conduct a customized CSAT project or use an established method like Net Promoter.

However, in my conversations with market researchers, I found that the success of CSAT projects isn't based as much on science — although a sound and repeatable set-up doesn't hurt — as much as it is on ‘art.’ The art lies in understanding the company’s business issues; translating these into a well-structured questionnaire; finding the drivers for success; and later, when the results are in, presenting the results in an actionable format.

Any customer satisfaction project that focuses on numbers misses out on the 'art' element of CSAT. Of course, using a standardized methodology helps the company benchmark itself against its competitors. But what does it mean when 80% of your clients are satisfied? The organization will look at this number and want to drive it up, without any understanding of what the impact on the bottom line will be when the percentage of satisfied customers increases from 80% to 82%.

So what happens when art is applied to CSAT? It creates influence and change. When the customer satisfaction study measures what really matters — to both the organization and its customers — it helps identify problems and opportunities. One of the speakers at our conference summarized it as follows: "Customer satisfaction guides me to action. We've embedded CSAT surveys in a broad framework of analytics gathering. We use listening software to understand what's being said about the brand; we have Web analytics in place to see how people use our site and what they're looking for; we do page ratings to evaluate at the page level; we ask for feedback on our content; and, quarterly, we ask our customers how satisfied they are with us and with our services. All this information helps us understand where we do well and where we could do better. This information is channeled back into the organization, with recommendations on possible improvements and what they can expect when they implement any changes." The result: The CSAT results are directly reported to the executive team, with suggestions for improvement.

I would love to hear how customer satisfaction studies work in your organization. Do you feel your company is too focused on the numbers? And what would happen if you introduced a little ‘art’ to your customer feedback program?