When the June 2012 American Customer Satisfaction index (ACSI) results for Accommodations and Food Services were released this week, the report revealed some historic findings. For the first time in the 19 years that ACSI has been measuring and reporting, dining customers seem to be equally satisfied with what they are getting from full-service restaurants and limited-service (fast food) restaurants. This indicates that U.S. dining customers are becoming less willing to pay higher prices for better restaurants because the "better" is becoming not good enough to justify the cost.
Fast food restaurants can only claim partial credit for closing the gap of customer satisfaction. As a whole, customers are 15.9% more satisfied with fast food restaurants overall than they were in 1995, according to ACSI data. The rise has been slow, but unwaveringly positive, which is a credit to the conscious efforts of the largest U.S. fast food chains and their franchisees.
Part of the credit for the closed satisfaction gap, though, also goes to the full-service casual dining restaurant chains that haven't ever managed to definitively improve overall customer satisfaction year-over-year. Conventional restaurant wisdom has been that customers are willing to pay higher prices at full-service restaurants in exchange for a combination of better food quality, better service, and better ambiance. It seems obvious with the latest ACSI data, that customers are telling full-service restaurant chains that their better-ness is not good enough.
What's less obvious in this ACSI data is the effect that the growing fast casual segment is having on the perceived value of moderately priced full-service chains. A multi-year comparison of the top Fast Casual restaurants in the U.S. is a directory of the trendiest, cult-iest, buzziest restaurants in the U.S. So it could be that diners are not so much dissatisfied with any full-service chain in particular, as much as they no longer see the value of the full-service concept unless it's attached to a fine dining experience.
Of the fast food restaurants specifically evaluated, Papa John's (PZZA) is at the top of the ACSI rankings and McDonald's (MCD) is at the bottom. Papa John's exchanges the top spot with Subway quite frequently. McDonald's has consistently claimed its position of lowest customer satisfaction every year since 1995. Following last week's statement by McDonald's head chef that there is nothing unhealthy on the McDonald's menu, I'm waiting for another McDonald's executive to respond to this latest ACSI report with the declaration "I see no customer dissatisfaction here."
The monthly ACSI reports are just one of a seemingly endless number of ways that the U.S. restaurant industry is measured and compared. The significance of the ACSI data, however, is that their methodology seems to have a direct correlation with stock market performance. The companies with the highest customer satisfaction scores add more stock market value than the companies with the lowest customer satisfaction.
It seems only logical that higher customer satisfaction should have a positive impact on a company's financial performance. It's nice every once in a while, though, to justify customer satisfaction efforts with statistical proof.