A prominent marketing concept posits that a customer’s satisfaction with an experience is based on prior expectations. To the extent that customer expectations differ from experience, confirmation or disconfirmation is said to occur.

In other words, if you expect to be happy with a new toy and you are, your expectation is confirmed. If you’re not just happy but thrilled, or if you’re disappointed, your expectation is disconfirmed, for better or worse. That’s clear enough, maybe even suggesting the idea is in the, “Well, duh” category.

But the so-called expectation-disconfirmation model, often promoted to the lofty position of a theory, goes well beyond that and the suitability of the otherwise obvious idea to explain customer experience satisfaction becomes questionable.

You have to go back to the mid-’50s, the heyday of behaviorism and the idea of cognitive dissonance, to find early explanations of customer behavior. But people are emotional beasts and don’t always behave as expected—some researchers even suggest that what people expect from an experience isn’t necessarily what they value and desire in it, to begin with.

Other researchers have suggested that people exaggerate the extent to which their expectations are met (or not), so you really can’t use their expressed satisfaction as an accurate measure of performance, anyway. And just to further confuse the issue, there’s evidence (research) that suggests people adjust their expectations based on their experience. Sigh.

The problems go deeper. One essential premise of the expectation-disconfirmation model is that people have expectations prior to their experience with an experience. So how does the model work in a novel situation, say a space tourist’s first flight in a rocket, when expectations are hard or even impossible to define? No one has ever done it before!

Before purchasing something tangible, customers can evaluate obvious properties such as size, color, or data capacity. Tourists, it’s true, can search for some physical characteristic such as location, equipment, facilities, or appearance that will produce certain expectations. But variability in design and program may create uncertainties that make pre-purchase expectations difficult to form.

SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin will all soon offer flights into space, for example, but the designs and experiences as advertised by each are very different. Worse, how can people have expectations for something they can’t even evaluate after the fact, such as rocket reliability or the launch team’s risk management decisions?

Yet another problem for the expectation-disconfirmation model is that people may not evaluate an experience afterward based on their original expectations. Researchers found that what people listed as features that affected their pre-purchase expectations were not the same as what they listed afterward. So expectations may affect choice, but not necessarily satisfaction. Oops.

Digging deeper, when researchers ask subjects about expectations, do the questions mean the same thing to everyone? One person may consider a certain level of performance as acceptable, while someone else may consider the same performance substandard, for example.

And there’s a fundamental presumption underlying the expectation-disconfirmation model: customers will evaluate an experience favorably if their expectations are met. What if their expectation is that they will be dissatisfied? If they are, then their expectation is confirmed and no disconfirmation occurs—but they still won’t have a favorable view of the experience.

Other models, or perhaps a combination, may be a better way to explain satisfaction with customer experience. For example, satisfaction could result from product performance, past experience, and the experiences of other consumers (think Yelp.com). Or, more likely, satisfaction may be a complicated emotional response to a cognitive process that compares experience to values, needs, wants or desires. (This gets my vote. People, especially customers, are complicated!)

There is a consensus that customer satisfaction is judged relative to a standard, but while several comparison standards have been proposed by researchers, there really is no consensus for which standard will best predict customer experience satisfaction.

Disconfirmation disconfirmed?


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