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Customers rekindle love of full-service restaurants

Customers rekindle love of full-service restaurants

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It was all smiles at Darden Restaurants headquarters today when 2013 scores for the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) were released. The numbers were up overall for the full service restaurant category and the company’s two oldest and largest casual dining concepts, Olive Garden and Red Lobster, tied for top spot in the full-service portion of the index.

There was good news for Applebee’s, too.  The chain made a big move in the full-service restaurant rankings. It posted a six percent increase in customer satisfaction scores in the 2013 ACSI report.  Even Chili’s, the lowest-ranking concept, saw its customer satisfaction score climb three percent on the year.

Are these numbers good? To put them into perspective, overall customer satisfaction with full service sits exactly where it did in 2007, with a score of 81. Last year, the full-service category recorded a decline of two points, from, 82 to 80, returning to 81 this year. That tiny boost in 2013’s results represents a 1.3 percent change over the prior year.

But this score at least shows that full-service has an edge in customer satisfaction over its competitors in quick service. The overall ACSI score for the QSR segment in 2013 was 80.

Digging deeper, ACSI quizzed consumers on key elements of the restaurant-going experience common to both segments. Here’s what the latest report found.

“Both sit-down and fast food restaurants do well on most aspects of the dining experience,” the report concludes. “Sit-down chains receive a top rating for order accuracy, but speed of table service has room for improvement. Fast food also gets its highest mark for accuracy—but at a step below the sit-down category. The same pattern holds for other benchmarks, including cleanliness, staff courtesy and food quality.”

Scores on all nine elements were close, ranging from 81 to 85 for limited-service restaurants and from 82 to 89 for full service. What aspect of their full-service dining experience did customers find least satisfying?  Using the restaurant’s website. Least-satisfying aspect of their limited-service dining experience? “Quality of the food in terms of taste, temperature and freshness of ingredients.”  

To compile its results, Ann Arbor, MI-based ACSI says its interviews 70,000 U.S. consumers and uses the results to produce customer service scores for 230 companies across 43 industries, plus 100 services, programs and websites of federal government agencies. Scores are reported on a scale of zero to 100.

So are these numbers really telling us much about how satisfied customers are with full-service restaurants?

One way to think about it is to look at the industries that post the lowest ACSI scores: health insurance providers (72), airlines (69), subscription TV services (68) and Internet service providers (65). Are these industries consumers love to hate? We’d have to say they are. Be glad that full-service restaurants aren’t one of them.

Similarly, is your anecdotal experience that customers of companies in the highly rated package shipping industry (84) are satisfied with the service they get from FedEx and UPS? We’re betting the answers are yes for the most part, despite the expense of these services. In this and other instances, ACSI scores do seem to correlate with real-world consumer preferences.

Bottom line: from a customer-service standpoint, the full-service segment isn’t getting everything right, but comes reasonably close. Many industries and government agencies—we’re looking at you, Homeland Security and the IRS—would like to have the kind of customer satisfaction scores full service does.

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