Consumer Satisfaction: a Neglected Link?

Donald J. Hempel, Session Chairperson, University of Connecticut
Larry J. Rosenberg, Discussant, New York University
[ to cite ]:
Donald J. Hempel and Larry J. Rosenberg (1976) ,"Consumer Satisfaction: a Neglected Link?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 261-262.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 261-262


Donald J. Hempel, Session Chairperson, University of Connecticut

Larry J. Rosenberg, Discussant, New York University


Is consumer satisfaction a neglected link in the study of consumer behavior? An equivocal answer is found in the literature of the professional groups and academic disciplines represented at this conference. One can find many instances where the concept of consumer satisfaction is invoked as a basic consideration in the design and evaluation of marketing programs (Pratt, 1972; Kotler, 1975). The concept is widely accepted as fundamental to the definition of marketing and it is represented in most comprehensive models of buyer behavior (McCarthy, 1975; Sheth, 1974). However, there are significant limitations in the application of the concept that stem from problems in its definition and measurement (Bell and Emory, 1971). The absence of a generally acceptable operational definition of consumer satisfaction appears to result in neglected implementation of this critical concept. It is almost an axiom of administrative systems that those areas of concern which are not measured tend to become neglected.


Given the established importance of the consumer satisfaction concept, the underdeveloped status of its measurement is difficult to explain. The operational development of this concept is particularly relevant in a period of growing concern about consumer attitudes toward business and increasing rates of consumer complaints. In the absence of its precise definition and measurement, marketing systems must often be judged with highly subjective criteria, and both the acceptance and implementation of the marketing concept is limited by subjective appraisal.

The hesitant response of many firms to consumerism and social responsibility may occur because the two fundamental elements of the marketing concept--consumer satisfaction and profit--are both plagued by measurement problems. From the viewpoint of the manager, the greater measurability of profit performance and its prominence on the scorecard of business are likely to shift attention toward this concept with some consequent neglect of those aspects of consumer satisfaction which are not directly reflected in profit. Those who hope to implement the marketing concept are faced with the significant challenge of applying measures of consumer satisfaction which can be coupled with measures, of profit to achieve a balanced evaluation of total performance. There is need for those who specialize in consumer studies to develop operational measures of consumer satisfaction which are analogous to the concepts of "good health" in the medical profession and "efficiency" in engineering. Perhaps such efforts will be considered the hallmarks of our development as a profession.


In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the measurement of consumer satisfaction (Lingoes and Pfaff, 1972; Pfaff, 1972; Czepiel, Rosenberg, and Akerele, 1975). These renewed efforts appear to be stimulated by opportunities to use measures of consumer satisfaction as twin indicators of operational effectiveness and social performance. Further development of these measures as components of a quality of life index may provide an operational linkage between specific organizational units and the social system in which they function.

The papers presented at this session show that the link is not as neglected as first impressions indicate. They cast light on various facets of the market system, including the consumer, the corporation, the government, and the consumer advocate. We should first ask the question - What is the link that we are dealing with? Is it the link between the reality of consumer satisfaction and theory, that between theory and measurement in terms of consumer satisfaction or dissatisfaction and the quality of life, or the link between measurements and policy applications by government or business? Our speakers take a look at several of these links and it is the chain formed by all of them together that is going to give us a command of this topic.


Clark Leavitt looks at consumer satisfaction as the ultimate life force. He asks some excellent questions about the nature of satisfaction, its measurability, problems with methodology and what we can do with the results. This is an excellent agenda and his views contribute towards answering these questions. Several concerns ought to be taken into consideration. The first is the danger of over-promise: should we look at consumer satisfaction as perhaps less than the ultimate life force, but one of several contributing factors to the life force? What is the meaning of consumer satisfaction in the context of Clark's view on the quality of life? Is it a separate sub-category -consumer concerns for goods and services -or does it parallel and purvey all of the other categories that are listed? Our feeling supports the later interpretation and suggests that we better watch our methodology to allow for this interdependency. The studies that are cited in terms of the quality of life seem to give only minor attention to consumer satisfaction. This may be an area where we as consumer researchers have to conduct our own agenda so that we can fully focus on its total contribution. Our egos may be jolted a bit when we see on the studies that have been cited how small a piece of the total quality of life action we seem to have.


Keith Hunt's paper examines the program planning and evaluation perspective of consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction. If, as Keith puts it, there is increasingly a marriage between CS/D and PPE, the coverage in this paper seems to tell us a lot about the groom PPE; but the bride CS/D seems to be heavily veiled and off to the side. Since the usefulness of CS/D in this perspective is being questioned, we should have more knowledge about the state of the art in terms of measuring and applying CS/D. Who is working on it and what approaches are they using? Many methods have been proposed to evaluate program impact of which CS/D is one. But what are the other methods, how do these several methods compare, and what is the complementary nature of various methods? This paper links consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction together with the convenient shorthand CS/D, but how are they related? In terms of methodology and scale construction, are they at separate ends of the same continuum or are they on different continua such as very satisfied to not satisfied and very dissatisfied to not dissatisfied? This is a complex process and the two can exist at the same time. For example, one might be satisfied with the styling and the speed of an automobile, but dissatisfied with its safety and miles per gallon.

Another basic issue is what should we expect of our CS/D methodology? Can it satisfy the dual requirements that both Clark Leavitt and Keith Hunt have set forth--that it will simultaneously apply to specific products as well as serve as a social indicator? It seems to be a tall order to serve both as a general indicator that takes on a monitoring quality like the Gallup Poll to provide data from which we can make inferences, and as a specific product evaluator where we would expect more diagnostic capacity. What is the linkage between complaints and CS/D monitoring? Again, are they viable as separate measurements or do they comprise a total system in which the strengths and weaknesses of each can somehow be complemented? This leads to the issue of whether the government should react or anticipate. A reactive posture often takes on the view of a policeman who responds only after there have been victims. It does not minimize the actual suffering of consumer that results from poor choices or bad experiences with products and services, or prevent the further erosion of credibility in our economic system and in many of our social institutions. There is need to truly anticipate these shortcomings before they become serious problems; to make the government a guardian of the process rather than just a policeman.


Ray Stokes' paper provides some policy perspectives concerning consumer satisfaction from the vantage point of one who has experience with this issue in both business and government. His focus on the food industry is also very relevant--it allows us to evaluate an important system in terms of its business and government interaction. One issue raised is that many of the consumerism programs have not been very successful. Are these shortcomings the responsibility of the program planners who pressured for it and conceptualize it--perhaps the consumer advocates? Who implemented it in a minimal commitment way, without sufficient educational resources to bring the programs to the consumer in a forceful way? What is the appropriate time frame? The outcome might well be different over the long run with sufficient education. And who does the education? Is it just business or does government in its guardian role have a responsibility to contribute? Another issue is the information gap that is pointed out in the food companies not knowing the percentage of dissatisfied consumers who actually complain. Why haven't they found out? Why haven't they taken a look at what might be called the iceberg hypothesis--that the complainers are a distinct minority who have special skills in a division of labor sense. They may be the articulate few who reflect the views of the larger silent majority below the water line. In this analogy the consumer advocates might be the seagulls who perch themselves on the top of the iceberg and not only speak for the vocal complainers, their immediate constituency, but also represent the drift of the entire iceberg. A third issue is the timidity of manufacturers to print on packages or to publicize in advertisements their money back guarantees. Are they afraid of too much response or does their silence contribute to the consumer not knowing his rights? Business can recognize these rights but if it's done in a quiet way it is equivalent to nonrecognition.

Ray Stokes' paper praises competition in the food industry. It is interesting to probe why the consumer advocates have such little regard for this accomplishment of what appears to be an extremely efficient system of food distribution. Perhaps competition at these levels could turn out to be bad social responsibility. In other words, social responsibility may get lost between the cracks of vigorous competition. For instance, the product differentiation and the multitude of package sizes and descriptions are regarded as good by the standards of competition. In terms of social responsibility, have we truly estimated the confusion and therefore the anxiety and further erosion of credibility that has resulted on the part of the consumer?


These papers are significant forward steps in the construction of an agenda for further exploration of this important link in consumer research and in our marketplace. There are many more issues that can be raised. Among the topics in need of further research are the aggregation problems resulting from intra-family differences in CS/D, the generalization of CS/D with specific products to other parts of the marketing system and temporal variations in reported levels of individual satisfaction.


Bell, Martin L. and William, Emory C. "The Faltering Marketing Concept," Journal of Marketing, 35 (October 1971), 37-42.

Czepiel, John A, Rosenberg, Larry J. and Alkerele Adebayo, "Perspectives on Consumer Satisfaction", in R.D. Curhan, editor, Marketing's Contribution to the Firm and to the Society, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1975), 119-123.

Kotler, Philip, Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975).

Lingoes, James C. and Pfaff, Martin, "The Index of Consumer Satisfaction Methodology." Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research (College Park, MD.: Association for Consumer Research, 1972), 689-172.

McCarthy, Jerome E. Basic Marketing: A Managerial Approach (Homewood, Illinois: Richard D. Irwin, 1975).

Pfaff, Anita B. "An Index of Consumer Satisfaction," Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research (College Park, Md.: Association for Consumer Research, 1972) 713-37.

Pratt, Robert W. Jr. "The Index of Consumer Satisfaction and Corporate Marketing Policy," Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research (College Park, Md.: Association for Consumer Research, 1972) 742-5.

Sheth, Jagdish N. Models of Buyer Behavior: Conceptual, Quantitative & Empirical (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).