Is it sufficient to satisfy clients in order to gain their loyalty? The commonsense answer to this question has generally been yes. But, are the clients strongly declaring their satisfaction always the ones visiting the practice more often? Were you not surprised one day to find out that the one spending the most with you was almost unknown to you? Moreover, the one recommending your practice so strongly may also be the same one who complains so often and so loudly. The relationship “satisfaction implies loyalty” seems to suffer from many exceptions or inconsistencies. To explain how to switch from client satisfaction to client loyalty, we will use the most recent findings of consumer behavior science, especially in the service area, rich in applications for veterinarians.
Today the answer is clear. In all areas, it appears that 60% to 80% of clients that switched their supplier, would had declared just before leaving that they were very satisfied! (Reichheld 1996) That author even mentions the “satisfaction trap” which big companies fall into. So what is happening? Actually, satisfaction is necessary but not sufficient for loyalty, and the explanation of this phenomenon lies in understanding the nature of loyalty and the conditions that make up the relationship between satisfaction and loyalty.
2. Nature of loyalty
When you ask different veterinarians to define a loyal client, you get various answers such as “the one always coming back”, “the one preferring us”, “the one talking positively about us”, “the one coming often”, “the one spending a lot”, “the one waiting for us when we are absent”, “the one having come for ages”, “the one liking us.” Obviously, because notions of frequencies, preferences, and attachments are already included, there is some truth in all of these statements. But, it also is revealing that there isn’t a consensus.
By nature, loyalty has two facets: a behavioral one and an attitudinal one. First, a loyal client behaves positively towards the practice, generating frequent visits and substantial spending (relative to his needs). Second, a loyal client expresses a positive attitude towards the practice, i.e., favorable opinions if surveyed and positive word-of-mouth. Consequently, we will say that a client is loyal when both facets positively co-exist. We are mistaken when we neglect one of them and this is the reason why we misunderstand the relationship between satisfaction and loyalty.
3. Nature of satisfaction
Client satisfaction results from a gap between a client’s expectancies and the perceived performance of the supplier. Satisfaction then increases when the supplier improves or when the client’s level of expectancies is low. However, when the supplier improves, the client’s expectancies automatically increase. Consequently, the more the veterinarian improves, the more he will have to improve!
Satisfaction by type of element of service.
Inventing Plus and maintaining Basics promote Client Loyalty. (adapted from Llosa-Stylios S. 1996)
By nature, the client’s global satisfaction regarding a service lies on four elements of service (Llossa-Stylios 1996):
“Key” services, which increase client satisfaction when improving (e.g., availability of the practitioner).
“Secondary” services, which do not affect client satisfaction (e.g., surgeons wearing masks).
“Plus” services, also called the “Good surprises” which increase client satisfaction when present, but don’t affect it when absent (e.g., the vet calling the owner at home to get a progress report about the animal).
“Basic” services affecting client satisfaction only negatively when absent but not positively when present because the client considers them as normal (e.g., cleanliness).
A few of these elements are also linked to client loyalty as described below.
4. Conditions of existence of the relationship between satisfaction and loyalty
4.1. Client satisfaction without client loyalty
In the following cases, client satisfaction is not followed by client loyalty because either the link cannot be observed, either the link cannot exist, or the link is multiple.
Case 1: When we misunderstand the two facets nature of client loyalty. A client affectively attached to, or even recommending the practice, but having no reason to visit the clinic, is nevertheless loyal. A behavior-limited view of loyalty would tag this client as disloyal. The link exists but is not observable.
Case 2: Because one can valuate at the same time different things in different individuals. Nobody is perfect, even a veterinarian, so we must accept that clients can appreciate part of our service and the rest through another veterinarian. For instance, a client can express strong loyalty to your practice for routine cases, but to another clinic for cases they evaluate as serious. The link exists but is multiple.
Case 3: Because one can valuate at the same time the same thing in different individuals! Of course, you are a good veterinarian, but the other one is also! Moreover, your client just cannot sometimes make an exclusive decision. We must not confuse loyalty and exclusivity. The link exists but is multiple.
Case 4: Because clients do not often do what they say. More than one consumer in two changes his mind between two surveys. (Riley et al., 1997. The links probably does not exist.
Case 5: Because satisfaction no longer increases and the client seeks variety (McAlistair 1982). The link no longer exists.
Case 6: Because the client used to visit your practice by habit, without being affectively attached to it. As soon as a new vet sets up a new practice closer to your client’s home, he leaves you while being satisfied of your service.
Case 7: Because, and this is quite common, you qualify a client as satisfied through a classical satisfaction questionnaire which is not explanatory of loyalty.
4.2. Client satisfaction with loyalty
Case 1: When you develop the “Plus” type of services and positively surprise your clients, because only over satisfied clients, we even say in marketing, delighted clients, have a voluntary commitment to repurchase through the same supplier (Jones et Sasser 1995).
Case 2: When you control your “Basic” type of services continuously.
Case 3: When you innovate before your competitors. Doing well and even better than the others is no longer sufficient to keep your clients. It is necessary to do different and before the others.
Case 4: When you recognize that a complaining client most of the time expresses his willingness to maintain the relationship with you. Therefore, when properly and humanly managed, he will be more loyal and generating positive word of mouth.
Case 5: When you develop an affective and not only economic link with your clients. You thus create attachment which is the key component, often forbidden, of true client loyalty. Satisfaction without affection contains the germ of disloyalty.
1. Jones T.O. and Sasser W.E. Jr (1995), Why Satisfied Customers Defect ?, Harvard business review, 73, 6, 88-99.
2. Llosa-Stylios S.(1996), Contribution à l’étude de la satisfaction dans les services, Thèse de Doctorat ès-sciences de Gestion, IAE Aix-en-Provence.
3. McAlistair L. (1982), A dynamic Attribute Satiation Model of Variety-Seeking Behavior, Journal of Consumer Research, 9, 141-150.
4. Reichheld F. (1996), The Loyalty Effect, Harvard Business Scholl Press.
5. Riley and al. (1997), The variability of Attitudinal Repeat Rates, International of Research in Marketing, 14, 5, 437-450.