My organization conducts research on customer satisfaction with many consumer products and services, across many industries. In looking at a number of these syndicated studies, and, in particular, two of our larger studies in the financial services industry, certain expectations emerge that are common across consumer product and service usage. I like to call these expectations "truisms" in the consumer world.

One of these truisms is that service is important. In our syndicated studies on credit card holders and on-line trading, "customer service" ranks highest in the hierarchy of customer expectations.

The credit card study is a good look at the broad consumer population, given that 100 million households have and use credit cards.

On-line trading is an industry that is rapidly evolving, yet much less mature. Although our on-line trading study looks at a much smaller and more distinct population in this dynamic industry, customer expectations are similar to those for the credit card industry.

Further, in a satisfaction study conducted for Dow Jones Newswires by J.D. Power and Associates of all investors who use brokers and have portfolios in excess of $100,000, customer service is the second-most-important driver of satisfaction. ("Information and education," a service-related driver, ranks highest.)

This is not to say that price is not important. But "fees and commissions" is the least significant contributor among all the factors that make up overall satisfaction in our on-line trading study and in the Dow Jones Newswires investor satisfaction study.

If the "value proposition" is built solely, even mostly, on price, a huge disservice is done to the customer and to the company itself.

Developments in the credit card industry during the past year or so have been evidence enough. MBNA Corp. does not have the lowest interest rate in the credit card market, but with customer service a vital part of its customer program, the success this company has enjoyed is no surprise. MBNA ranked highest in credit card holder loyalty in the platinum card category of the J.D. Power and Associates study of the credit card industry.

Strategies based on price result in quick, short-term gains but have long-term consequences.

Our research shows that price is one of the primary reasons for acquiring a credit card, with 26% of cardholders citing "low introductory interest rate" as a reason.

Among on-line trading investors, "lowest fees and commissions" is the most frequently cited reason for choosing their primary on-line firm, with about the same percentage giving the response. But it is these same customers who are most likely to defect. However, when a strong customer service experience is involved among these disloyal customers, the likelihood of defection is brought back to the industry norm.

Among the remainder of the more loyal customers, the likelihood of defection is reduced by 30% among credit card holders and 50% among on-line investors.

For the broader investor population, strong satisfaction with the primary broker's service results in much less likelihood of using an additional broker. That seems pretty compelling to me.

You can get them on price, but you'll keep them with service. I would also suggest that price should not be the only focus for acquisition strategies, given the disloyalty it can breed.

Our research has also revealed that the human touch is still very important, even among users of on-line services.

Credit card holders who access their account information on-line also use telephone customer service more often than those who do not use on-line access. Among on-line investors, customer service contact by telephone is overwhelmingly preferred. Customer service representatives who are knowledgeable, empowered, and express empathy with the customer are invaluable.

Ultimately, it is about building relationships. This can be done even with products and services where there are low barriers to switching. Expand the value proposition with customer service and support, and they will stay.

Even when cardholders are hit with a penalty fee, strong customer service can dramatically reduce the likelihood of defection. Mr. March is director of financial services at J.D. Power and Associates. He is based in Westport, Conn.

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