The most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), looking at consumer data from the first three months of 2014, declined 0.8 percent, one of the largest declines in the 20-year history of the index.
Overall customer satisfaction fell from 76.8 percent in the first three months of 2013 to 76.2 percent in the first quarter of 2014.
Claes Fornell, founder and chairman of the ACSI, says the drop is due primarily to growing concerns about product quality and a lack of price incentives from manufacturers. The product quality issue, he says, is most obvious in the automotive industry, which has seen a number of large-scale product recalls in the past few months.
Among industries, all five sectors covered by the index—hospitality, healthcare, transportation, utilities, and cable and Internet service providers—posted declines in customer satisfaction. Satisfaction with TV service providers fell from 68 percent to 65 percent. For Internet service providers, satisfaction went from 65 percent in 2013 to 63 percent in 2014. Hotels and energy utilities saw declines from 77 percent to 75 percent; hospitals fell from 78 percent to 76 percent.
"I was surprised to see luxury car manufacturers do so poorly," Fornell says. (Top-rated Mercedes-Benz, with a score of 86, dropped two points, while Acura landed at the bottom of the list with a score of 77, down seven points from last year.) "They used to score high on customer satisfaction, but not so much anymore."
The low scores are not limited to just those industries, though. "Across the board, consumers are less pleased with the goods and services they are buying," Fornell explains. "What many people are saying is that the level of service they are receiving is not as good. They have problems getting through on the phone, and they're getting poor service in the stores."
Further chronicling the plunge in customer service, customer support software company Zendesk recently listed the United States as 14th in the world for customer satisfaction, with an average satisfaction rating of 85 percent. New Zealand (with 93 percent customer satisfaction) and Canada, Norway, and Italy, each with 92 percent customer satisfaction scores, were the top four. Others in the top 10 were Switzerland, Singapore, Australia, Denmark, Mexico, and the Czech Republic. India, Turkey, and Colombia were the three worst countries for customer satisfaction.
The data, based on the latest Zendesk quarterly Customer Service Benchmark, tracks actual customer service and support interactions from more than 25,000 companies across 140 countries and measures customer support efficiency, customer self-service behavior, and levels of customer engagement.
With its $15 trillion economy, great marketing, and big companies, the low U.S. ranking comes as a surprise to many, including Fornell. According to the Zendesk report, cultural differences can impact consumers' expectations of customer service and their willingness to provide bad ratings for service.
France, it notes, tends to score in the lower third of the benchmark report, but that doesn't necessarily mean that French companies provide inferior service. It could simply mean that French consumers have higher expectations of customer service and tend to give lower satisfaction ratings.
Fornell says rankings have as much to do with the small size of many of these countries and their overall economic health.
"The most obvious problem in the U.S. is the economy," he states.
Also affecting the U.S. rankings are the facts that U.S. consumers have more discretionary income than those in many other countries and that companies face greater competition in the U.S., according to Fornell.
But as the U.S. economy finally starts to rebound, that has trickled down to the corporate boardroom and to the consumer. "When things are really bad and companies are struggling, they take customer satisfaction seriously," Fornell says. "They take it for granted when they're not doing as badly. People try a bit less to provide good service."
To bring customer satisfaction up, U.S. firms need to make it a priority at the executive level. "Reporting of customer satisfaction numbers is not going up the corporate ladder as high as it needs to," Fornell says. "It's not getting the top-level executive attention that it should get."