Civility Rights for Consumers

The University of Michigan's business school has been doing an outstanding job of tracking customer satisfaction for the past seven years. And frustrated consumers likely won't be surprised to learn that the school's latest quarterly report of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), shows a continuing downward trend.

How is it that company managers, many of whom are increasingly focusing on pleasing customers, appear to be failing?

Some analysts suggest that companies take the drive for efficiency way too far in maximizing profits. Anyone who has had to contact a company through a nonhuman electronic voice will agree. Others think the economic downturn and resulting cost-cutting have led to a drop in quality of service.

One common consumer complaint is erroneous billing practices, especially by some utilities and credit-card companies. (See story, page 1.) Such practices erode trust in corporations that takes years to rebuild.

One industry that slipped on the ASCI scale was personal computers. Could the lack of customer satisfaction be as simple as the fact that the avalanche of instructions to help folks understand ongoing technological advances is a real turn-off?

An obvious target of complaints is cable-TV companies, with their sanctioned monopolies over regional markets. The high level of complaints is a reminder that customer satisfaction falls or rises on the amount of competition within an industry.

The business basics of keeping customers happy hasn't changed as the economy has become more high-tech and companies larger. Dependable products delivered on time, and with a high level of meaningful personal attention, still feed the bottom line.

Consumers, too, are perhaps more demanding. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, of Harvard's School of Public Health, notes a culture of "meanness" that sadly seems to have taken over much of the way Americans interact with one another. Just read the flaming postings on some 8,000 websites devoted to customer complaints.

Both companies and consumers must be willing to treat each other as they would a neighbor. Then customer satisfaction will go up, not down.

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