Apple Inc. trounced rival computer makers selling Windows-equipped PCs by historic margins in an annual customer satisfaction survey, the poll's chief researcher said today.
"We haven't seen anything like this before, where a company scores 10 points over its nearest rival," said Claes Fornell, the head of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), conducted quarterly by the University of Michigan.
Apple's customer satisfaction score of 85, an ACSI record in the personal computer category, was 10 points higher than the closest competitor, Dell Inc.; 12 points higher than Hewlett-Packard Co.; and 13 higher than Gateway, which was acquired by Acer last year.
"It's almost an aligning of the stars," said Fornell, also a professor with the university's business school, talking about Apple's large lead and its six-point climb from 2007's score. Last year, Apple's customer satisfaction slipped four points compared to 2006. "There was a question mark last year about Apple, that maybe it had taken its eye off the ball by concentrating on the iPhone, but now, the iPhone and iPod and Mac are nicely aligned."
Apple has posted the top score in the ACSI's personal computer category for five straight years; the last time it was beaten was 2003, when it was edged by Dell by a single point.
To some extent, Fornell said, Apple's climb in customer satisfaction was due in part to the lackluster reaction to Windows Vista, Microsoft Corp.'s newest operating system, which in turn may have played a part in the lower scores by HP and Gateway, both which dropped three points from 2007. Even Dell, the only other named computer maker that gained ground, boosted its score by just one point.
"Most of Apple's Windows-based competition is suffering a bit from Vista," said Fornell. "Complaints about Vista are generating complaints about the computer makers." Fornell cited several components to the complaints, ranging from gripes about the higher cost of hardware necessary for Vista to compatibility problems with other programs.
Earlier this year, the ACSI noted a one-point drop in customer satisfaction for Microsoft.
But Apple has other things going for it besides a troubled OS competitor. "Apple is not without its quality problems," said Fornell. "People know there have been some service and product quality problems, but Apple has an almost Teflon-like quality. It's problems don't really seem to matter to consumers."
As Fornell said, Apple has had problems, most recently the rocky launch of its MobileMe service, which locked some users out of their e-mail accounts for nearly two weeks during July. Earlier this month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs shook up the management ranks over the debacle.
Apple's volatile up and down -- from 83 in 2006 to 79 in 2007, then to 85 this year -- is also unusual, said Fornell. "Most lose it slowly, like Dell has, which took a while, and we see companies improve, but Apple's extreme volatility is almost like its stock price."
But rivals such as Dell and HP won't stay down forever, Fornell predicted. "Apple will be very difficult to catch, but I don't think that these results, where there's a 10-point difference, will hold," he said. "My guess is that they will regroup at some point and come back."
The ACSI also touted a seven-point climb by Google Inc. this year to reclaim the search engine and portal lead from rival Yahoo Inc. Googles's score of 85 was nine points higher than Yahoo, and 11 points higher than Microsoft's MSN.
This story, "Apple Clobbers Competition in Customer Satisfaction" was originally published by Computerworld.