Satisfaction vs. Loyalty: Two Sides Of The Same Coin

One of the more common goals in online surveys is to understand the customer experience. Basically, we’d like to know two things:

• Are our customers happy?
• Are they going to come back and buy more stuff from us?

We could use fancier words, but that’s really the bottom line.


In a discussion of this subject, you’ll likely hear people talk about “customer satisfaction”, and sometimes you’ll hear about “customer loyalty”, and it’s important to recognize that these two concepts are NOT interchangeable.

“Satisfaction” is an attitude — it’s how I feel, and as such it’s distinctly subjective. I have an attitude that I’m satisfied, or I have a perception of myself as being satisfied.

In contrast, “loyalty” describes behavior. I may behave in loyal ways. When I become a regular, repeat customer and I recommend your product to my friends or family members, I’m behaving in a loyal way. If I’m really loyal, I’ll willingly pay a premium in order to purchase a product with your brand on it. That, again, is a loyalty behavior. It’s objective.

Why does this difference matter? Because you may be interested in gathering both types of information from your clients, but to do so you have to understand the distinction.

Loyalty without Satisfaction

Let’s take a real-world example. I happen to like coffee, and I buy a lot of coffee at Starbucks. Therefore, I’m loyal to Starbucks.

However, if Starbucks were to send me a satisfaction survey, focusing on my attitudes, they’d find that I’m not particularly satisfied in two specific areas.

1. I think the price of their iced coffee is entirely too high.
2. I think the naming of their cup sizes is pretentious and, in fact, I refuse to use it. When I’m at Starbucks, I order a medium.

Clearly, then, when it comes to Starbucks, there’s a difference between my behavior (my loyalty) and my attitude (my satisfaction with specific aspects of the experience).

Satisfaction without Loyalty

It can work the other way, too. Sometimes you can be really satisfied with something, yet fail to behave in a loyal way.

Take my local bookstore. I love my local bookstore. It’s a smaller, regional chain with a lovely environment and a nice selection, and I like their staff picks for recommended reading. There are many attributes of the local bookstore that I find to be quite satisfying — but am I loyal?

Not entirely. I also buy a lot of books on Amazon. For me, Amazon is convenient; I like the quick searching, and I enjoy reading the reviews. Too, Amazon offers a lot of one stop shopping options. I’m not that fond of going into stores generally, so I appreciate being able to order some books, some clothes and some games for the kids all in ten minutes.

So in this case, I’m quite satisfied with my local bookstore, but I’m not behaving in a very loyal way.

Why does this matter?

If my local bookstore asked me only for feedback on my satisfaction, and then collected similar data from a lot of other people, they’d likely conclude “We’re doing great! Our customers love us. Business should be good.”

The local bookstore would be at risk of drawing erroneous conclusions about their business outlook unless they ask about actual behaviors as well. Including questions like, “Would you recommend us to others?” and, “How likely are you to shop in our store in the next 30 days?” might well lead to an entirely different set of conclusions.

Design Considerations

When designing online surveys for the purpose of gauging the customer experience, there are a couple of basic considerations to keep in mind.

Keep it Short — Always keep your survey as short as possible. You never want to overwhelm them with lengthy questionnaires, especially if you’re surveying your own precious customers.
Be precise — Think very precisely about what you want. Are you trying to gauge satisfaction or loyalty? And if you must have both, how can you structure the questions so that completing the survey won’t be an onerous process for your participants?

Getting Fancy with Statistics

If you’re really into statistics, one of the things that can be very cool is to collect both satisfaction and loyalty measures, and then look for correlations between them. Are there certain satisfaction experiences that best predict higher loyalty behaviors?

If I’m satisfied with product reliability and price, am I more likely to be loyal than if I’m pleased with the color selection and aesthetic appeal?

You can’t Assume

Clearly customer satisfaction and customer loyalty are closely linked in many cases. The key point here is to not make assumptions. Remember, if you haven’t asked the right questions, you won’t get the right — useful — answers. If customer satisfaction is what you’re interested in, you can get just that. If you need loyalty information, though, flip the coin over and ask specifically about the behaviors that are important to your business. The results can be worth a chunk of change!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kathryn Korostoff
Kathryn Korostoff taught market research best practices at Ask Your Target Market, and is the president of Research Rockstar, delivering market research training and support services. She can be reached at KKorostoff AT ResearchRockstar DOT com.