There should be no surprises in the findings of researchers at the London School of Economics into the impact of the National Student Survey on student course and university selection.
It seems that students choose their university and course based on broader reputational ranking reviews such as those like the Times University Guide and other contextual factors rather NSS scores alone.
What I would like to suggest here is that students are making a value judgement rather than simply a satisfaction assessment.
Prospective students are imagining the future value of their course, being more concerned with what it will do for them rather than making their decision based on the particulars of an historic service experience.
What this means is that even if a customer feels that something is unsatisfactory it does not necessarily mean it lacks value.
Thus, studying long and hard and not having tutor contact on tap might not give a sense of satisfaction but the outcome can have huge value for the student.
Similarly dealing with ambiguity and being left to work things out for yourself might be deeply unsettling and disorientating and therefore could seem very unsatisfactory. However the value the student gains in seeing it through is potentially enormous.
Interestingly the question of why anyone would base their personal value judgment on the satisfaction assessment of others alone is apparently not considered by ‘student satisfaction evangelists’ who portray satisfaction as the only game in town.
One of the big problems with using service satisfaction as a form of competitive comparison is that students typically only experience one degree course at one university at a time. There is no way for them to personally compare different experiences.
Without some measure of satisfaction I realise that this could lead universities to act ‘as if’ they were no worse than anyone else and lapse into complacency. Nevertheless satisfaction scores can never be a true sense of competitive comparison unless a student can compare like for like experiences.
Recently I wrote an extensive literature review on the notion of customer value. Part of it covered the problematic nature of customer ‘satisfaction’. Here is the section:
Satisfaction versus Value
Woodruff (1997) points out that a particular difficulty in defining and determining the nature of value is that it is closely associated with other equally ambiguous terms such as utility, worth quality, satisfaction and benefits.
Scholars have identified a particular problem concerning the need to clearly distinguish between the ideas of customer satisfaction and customer value.
Eggert and Ulaga (2002) in their summary of conceptual differences between satisfaction and customer perceived value explain that satisfaction is a broadly affective construct restricted to a particular suppliers offer whereas value is a cognitive construct based on perceptions that includes a judgement of a range of competitor offers.
The idea of customer satisfaction management (CSM) is acknowledged by authors as a key contributory area to the development of thinking on customer value (Woodruff 1997, Payne and Holt 1999, 2001).
Nevertheless CSM is criticised on several counts (Cronin and Taylor 1992, Day and Crask 2000) which Salamonson, Aberg and Alwood (2012:146) summarise as the distinction that:
‘satisfaction can only be assessed after consumption, while value is possible to evaluate before, during and after consumption.’
The implication here is that value judgements can be anticipated and they can change over time.
Woodruff (1997) in particular acknowledges the heritage of satisfaction measurement in the quality movement and its aspiration to bring the ‘voice of the customer’ (Akao 1990, Bharadwaj, Nevin and Wallman 2012) into the organisation however Woodruff concludes that problems occur with the choice of satisfaction metrics when they are internally originated, and focussed on product attributes rather than ‘backed up with in- depth learning about customer value’ including affective components of value.
Methodologically CSM survey instruments such as SERVQUAL Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry (1988) are criticised for relying on expectancy/disconfirmation models that measure a post purchase evaluation and affective response to the product or service experience in order to determine key buying criteria rather than understanding what it is that customer’s value prior to purchase (Oliver 1992).
Furthermore Patterson and Spreng (1997:420) also point out that models of satisfaction up to that date rarely consider the role of perceived value with the notable exceptions of Liljander, (1994) and Liljander and Strandvik (1995) observing that whilst:
‘most satisfaction models incorporate benefits (via a measure of performance), they ignore any sacrifice component.’
There is therefore a clear consensus amongst academics that the determination of customer value needs to account for facets and levels of perceived value that are frequently portrayed as the more abstract levels of hierarchical models and that there are time related factors that influence how value is judged.
Satisfaction metrics may have a use but believing them to be entirely indicative of the value of a product or service shows an impoverished understanding of contemporary marketing theory and the intuitions of seasoned practioners in commercial practice.