Editor's note: William Ducker is senior partner of Ducker Research Co. Inc., Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

The concept of customer satisfaction is not new. Thirty years ago, sales managers in industrial companies were interested in the views of their customers. The information-gathering process was informal and little effort was expended ascertaining the views of prospective customers or lost customers.

Today, managers in all departments, not just sales, are called on to produce solid information that will benefit the company in very tangible ways. Further, information-gathering techniques are much more sophisticated, the information developed is more comprehensive, and companies base a broader spectrum of decisions on customer satisfaction findings.

What's more, the term customer satisfaction has come to apply to projects that go well beyond customers. These days, non customers and former customers usually are included in business-to-business research projects, and no study is complete if it doesn't address competitors. Employees also often are included.

Customer satisfaction debuts

In the 1960s, sales and field service managers at industrial companies were interested in customer views, but the information was not deemed critical. Product design and manufacturing departments had little to no interest in the results of whatever customer satisfaction surveys were done. Top management was interested only if a serious problem emerged or if a major customer who had the ear of senior executives was involved.

All that having been said, firms did do business-to-business marketing research. A great deal of work was underway in new product research, market segmentation research, product positioning studies, distribution studies and advertising effectiveness studies. Companies obtained customer views as a by-product of these efforts.

Information about customers' attitudes was used almost entirely in the interactions between sales and field service staff. Product design and manufacturing rarely received any feedback, and research and development departments received only minimal reports. In fact, most new product studies were conducted after the product was developed.

Beyond suggestion boxes and a few formal programs, input from employees was seldom sought and was mostly ignored when received.

Growing pains

In the '70s, the term "marketing" gained popularity. Sales and marketing managers as well as research and development managers and senior managers sought customer and user input on new products early in the development process. Sales and marketing managers also wanted to better understand the purchase-decision process, and senior managers were very interested in segmented marketsize determinations with comprehensive growth projections.

During this stage in the development of customer satisfaction, companies became increasingly interested in customer attitudes toward them. In particular, there was a great deal of activity in dedicated studies of customer buying practices. Specific audiences were addressed: customers at the top of the 20/80 pyramid and OEM customers separate from replacement customers and distributors, for example. Marketing managers wanted to understand the influences on the purchase-decision process and they wanted to know who was making the decisions.

Gathering customer information, however, was still a one-shot process: Ongoing programs were nonexistent, the manufacturing process remained uninfluenced, and employees still had no input. Further, even though overseas clients were looking at U.S. markets, few stateside companies took a global approach and studied overseas operations.

The studies were based on in- person and telephone interviews. Some mail was used and industrial focus groups gained popularity. Techniques such as conjoint analysis were developed and marketing researchers started to assign importance characteristics to purchase-decision criteria.

Coming of age

Customer satisfaction really came of age in the '80s. Driven by top management, business-to-business customer satisfaction studies started with big customers, then encompassed all customers. Competitors were considered in performance assessments. Late in the decade, non customers and lost customers began to be included. Industrial companies started to do formal satisfaction studies among employees.

Companies began taking a more serious and formal approach to business-to-business customer satisfaction programs. Extensive pretest fieldwork, including focus groups, was conducted to define factors in customers' terms. Respondents assigned numerical importance values to criteria. Sponsoring companies and competitors were evaluated against those criteria.

Studies began to be multidivisional and often international in scope. Update studies were conducted. Results were fed back to all departments, including product design and manufacturing. Industrial companies started to seek out the voice of the customer before conducting research and development. Customer satisfaction input became an important part of both Malcolm Baldrige Award evaluations and total quality management programs. Experts in the field - such as John Ettlie, director of the Office of Manufacturing Management Research at the University of Michigan's School of Business Administration - become convinced of the importance of client feedback. "Manufacturing management must have consistent, reliable input from customers if TQM programs are to be effective," Ettlie says.

As the '80s moved along, dozens of analytical techniques emerged: strategic improvement analysis, top box/ bottom box analysis and reward penalty analysis, just to name a few. Many companies came to depend on customer satisfaction indexes as a measure of progress. Some even tied employee compensation to customer satisfaction index measurements.

All of these analytical techniques proved valuable, but market researchers went too far. Too many numbers and too much detailed input amounted to micromanagement. Researchers went far beyond the detail needed to run even the largest industrial companies. It became difficult to tie customer satisfaction to actual sales results. Management was not getting, but now is insisting on, results the company can immediately put to use.

Forward into the future

Numerical input still is very important, but researchers need to provide a great deal more qualitative input if the results of customer satisfaction efforts are to lead to feasible, worthwhile recommendations. Performance ratings have to be used wisely and judiciously. Perspective must be applied to findings of dissatisfaction. (What does "dissatisfied" really mean?) Companies and the research firms they hire should define customer expectations and customers' versions of ideal performance.

Best-in-class benchmarking studies are popular. They can and should be incorporated into customer satisfaction studies. Further, best-in-class determinations need not be confined to the sponsor's industry or country.

Industrial market researchers should be taking an even more formal approach. Early planning that includes input from management and key employees is essential. Pretest interviews should include competitors, noncustomers and perhaps even representatives of other industries. Frequent review meetings should be scheduled with all participants.

Business-to-business customer satisfaction must be measured on a continuous basis. All departments of a company should be involved - design and manufacturing as well as sales and marketing. Today, projects often are conducted around the worldwide; analysis is done at corporate headquarters.

In addition to conventional analytical techniques, market researchers are exploring alternative scenarios, asking respondents "what if?" questions regarding possible moves by the sponsoring company. Trade-off analyses are conducted; respondents are asked to define the relative value of a client's actions. Analyses that predict returns on investment are not at all uncommon.

Business-to-business customer satisfaction has become an integral part of industrial corporate management. "Customer satisfaction studies have become so complex that management finds it difficult to interpret results. We need, and now are getting, skilled analyses that present results in an understandable format upon which management can base sound decisions," says Edward Donnelly, worldwide director of DuPont Automotive Finishes.

Business-to-business marketing research professionals must pay attention to the qualitative side as well as the numerical and continue to strive for customer satisfaction findings that lead to usable results.