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Can we predict the future with customer satisfaction? Some say we can, but I would argue that customer satisfaction is inherently backward looking. In a nice, tidy fashion, it summarizes the cumulative strength up until now of a relationship between a brand and a consumer. Up until now—three words that look so innocent on the screen but conceal an absolutely devilish secret.

The future is inherently disruptive and we truly suck at preparing ourselves for it. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in the The Black Swan, our futures are full of delightfully and horribly unpredictable events that, despite our best efforts, we will never see coming and for which we will never adequately be prepared.

So, why are companies so complacent—almost smug—when it comes to touting customer satisfaction scores? Great, you’ve found a way to satisfy your customers in the past, but how future-proof are you? Are you ready for the next great evolutionary leap? Or are you mere months away from being wiped completely off the map?

Consider this: the American Customer Satisfaction Index for banks (a widely reported measure of brand health) rose to an all-time high of 78 in 2007. As 2008 rolled in, bank managers could point to their lofty customer satisfaction scores and envision rosy futures, full of greater and greater goodwill and loyalty from their customers. Well, we all know how that turned out.

Or consider the retail sector. In 2008, Borders, Office Depot, and J.C. Penney all closed the years with healthy ACSI scores of 75 and above. As I write this, Borders has gone the way of the dodo bird, Office Depot’s share price has tumbled almost 75%, and J.C. Penney is, in the words of Forbes, “doomed.”

For those of us who believe we can predict the future by looking at today’s customer satisfaction scores, the previous two paragraphs are absolutely devastating. But for the rest of us, those paragraphs shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Disruptive new technologies flip the script and render all backward looking metrics meaningless. It’s not that folks were dissatisfied with the horse-drawn carriage when the locomotive came around; it’s just that the train was so much freaking better that it made the buggy obsolete!

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