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Departments: First Word

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


Customer Satisfaction Vs. Customer Service
Customer satisfaction and service quality don’t equate.

Scott Paton

If you’ve visited Amazon.com recently, you may have noticed a letter from the company on its home page touting its high score on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Amazon.com is understandably proud of its score of 88, the highest score received by a service company since the ACSI began in 1994.

But is a score of 88 really great? Would you be delighted if your child’s highest grade in school was an 88? Would you want a pacemaker from a company that received a score of 88? Would you fly on an airline that received a score of 88? You never have. The highest score received by an airline in the latest ACSI report was 74, earned by Southwest Airlines.

Obviously we can’t directly equate customer satisfaction with quality. If Southwest Airlines’ safety record compared to its ACSI score, no one would dare get on any of its planes. Fortunately, Southwest has the best safety record of any airline.

In a Six Sigma environment, a score of 88 is dismal. But, if we were looking for a benchmark for customer satisfaction, Amazon.com would probably be high on the list.

I’ve heard countless times during my years as editor of Quality Digest how terrible service quality is. Yet there seems to be little correlation between customer service and customer satisfaction. For example, in the automotive world, Japanese automakers’ reputation for high-quality vehicles led them to market dominance and premium prices. In the service world, however, customers routinely tolerate lousy service in order to save a few bucks.

Costco’s ACSI score of 79 is an excellent example. I don’t mean to imply that Costco has lousy service. I’m a dedicated Costco shopper myself. Costco shoppers are willing to deal with the cavernous warehouse environment, long lines and lack of product specialists in order to save a few bucks. Costco scores so highly in customer satisfaction because its shoppers know that they’ll get a very low price, face no hassles when returning products and that Costco sells high-quality products.

Contrast Costco’s score with the Federated Department Stores’ (owners of Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Burdines, Lazarus and others) score of 71. These high-end stores have scores of employees to answer customer questions, fancy displays, sales and other customer motivators. In essence, they offer high customer service but still score low in customer satisfaction. The highest retail score was earned by Kohl’s (84), a discount retailer.

Perhaps the disconnect between high customer satisfaction and poor customer service comes down to Philip Crosby’s concise quality definition: Quality is conformance to requirements. My requirement for the lowest price very often overrides my desire for high-quality customer service. It explains why Southwest’s airplanes are almost always full and Wal-Mart is now the world’s largest retailer. Organizations that meet neither the customer service nor customer satisfaction requirements face an uphill battle, which is a significant factor in the bankruptcies of United Airlines and Kmart.

To learn more about the ACSI, visit www.theacsi.org. To share your thoughts on the state of customer satisfaction and customer service, e-mail letters@qualitydigest.com.