Whipped Cream on Top of the Sundae


Service and a good variety of features are key in developing relationships with the customer. We always want to satisfy our customers. But if we sometimes exceed their expectations, overly satisfied customers will more than likely spread the news about our service or product--we've added whipped cream, and maybe even a cherry, on top of their ice cream. In this week's column, Mike Cohn explains how he measures customer satisfaction using Kano analysis, which categorizes the features customers look for into baseline, linear, and exciter features. Doing so will help us identify which features will delight our end users, and help us surpass the level of simple satisfaction.

I travel a lot, so I'm frequently in hotels. I recently stayed in one that truly delighted me. After putting my bags in the room, I went downstairs to exercise. Built into each treadmill was a small television I could control, which really thrilled me. I didn't have to watch Friends re-runs or CNN on the communal television just because someone had already tuned to those stations. But it did require headphones, which I hadn't brought. Then I noticed that the hotel gave away free headphones with disposable foam earpieces. Can you see why I was delighted? After working out, I went back to my room. I was thirsty and noticed, again to my delight, that the bottle of water the hotel left in my room was free, not $4 as in most hotels.
This hotel had done a wonderful job of providing features called "exciters" or "delighters." An exciter is a feature that a user doesn't know he wants until he sees it. I didn't know I wanted an individually controllable television on my treadmill until I used one. In considering customer satisfaction, exciters/delighters are one of three categories into which we can group the attributes or features of a product.

The next category, linear, is for features I describe as "the more of the better." An example would be the size of my hotel room. I am generally more satisfied when a room is 500 square feet rather than 250 square feet. The more area there is in my hotel room, the better. The presence and quantity of a linear feature correspond directly to a user's satisfaction with the product. Other examples of linear features are battery life on a cell phone, horsepower in a car, the number of chocolate chips in a Chips Ahoy cookie, and so on.

The final category is for features that are mandatory. If a product does not include all mandatory (or baseline) features, customers will be dissatisfied and will not buy the product. My hotel provided a bed, a shower, a television, and so on. It was also reasonably clean and secure. I consider each of these factors to be a baseline feature for a hotel.

The idea of separating features into baseline, linear, and exciters is part of a technique called Kano analysis. This approach is simple and involves asking potential users sets of paired questions. Each pair includes one question called the functional question, which asks the user how she would feel if a feature were present. The pair also includes a dysfunctional question that asks the user how she'd feel if the feature were not present. For example, the hotel that delighted me might have distributed a questionnaire with the pair of questions shown in Figure 1.

Suppose I answer that I like it when a television is built in, but that I don't expect it to be built in. That pair of answers (I like it when the feature exists but I don't expect it to) tells you that this feature is an exciter for me. To see what a pair of responses tells you about a respondent's view of the feature, cross-reference both answers on Figure 2. (Note that some answer pairs lead to questionable, reversed, or indifferent opinions.)

I see a lot of questionnaires that ask the question only one way: How desirable is this feature? The respondent is then given the opportunity to rate the feature on a typical five-point scale. Asking only how desirable a feature is does not help us separate the baseline features from the linear features from the exciters. To decipher which features our customers view as baseline, linear, and exciting, we need to ask both the functional and the dysfunctional forms of the question.

While it may not be ideal, it's often possible to make some pretty reasonable guesses at how users will view each feature. When the hotel installed the treadmills with built-in televisions they probably knew those weren't a baseline requirement for the hotel business. Next time you are faced with prioritizing requirements or deciding what should be in or out of a product plan, consider rating each potential new feature as baseline, linear, or exciter.

The best products include all baseline features (they have to) plus an appropriate mix of linear features and exciters. Remember that linear features have a linear effect on customer satisfaction. The more of them, the better. However, since time is scarce and often insufficient for everything desired in most products, we often cannot deliver all linear features. Even so, leaving room for some exciters does wonders for customer satisfaction. I didn't start this article by telling you about the unexpected 100 square feet some other hotel gave me. I started it by writing about something that delighted me. Users will often pay a premium for a product with the right mix of delighters.

Let me close with a good example of a software delighter. A project team was discussing priorities for its next release. One of the team members suggested that their reporting engine should be capable of directly generating a set of PowerPoint slides. He reasoned that the most common use of their reporting engine was to generate graphs and figures that users cut and pasted into presentations. If their product could directly generate even part of the final presentation, it would be a huge timesaver for their users. This product hasn't been released yet, but when it is, I am sure it will delight its users.

What have you done lately to excite your users?

Further Reading

  • Center for Quality Management, Fall 1993, "Kano's Methods for Understanding Customer-Defined Quality"
  • Sauerwein, Elmar, Franz Bailom, Kurt Matzler, and Hans H. Hinterhuber. "The Kano Model: How to delight your customers in Preprints." Volume I of the Ninth International Working Seminar on Production Economics, Innsbruck, Austria, February 19­23, 1996: 313­327.

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