PC users can't get no satisfaction

Customer happiness with PCs is at all-time high, according to study, but cars and appliances still do better.

U.S. consumers were more satisfied with their PCs during the last year than they have been in more than a decade, but they're still happier with their car dealers than their computer suppliers.

A study released Tuesday by the University of Michigan shows that overall satisfaction increased by 4.1 percent on Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index to a rating of 77, the highest achieved by the industry since 1994. But customers still rate PCs lower than several other consumer product categories, including cars and appliances.

"The thing with customer service is to make sure you don't need it," said Claes Fornell, a professor at the University of Michigan and the head of the ACSI. Even though servicing a car or dishwasher can induce the same kinds of headaches as PC technical support does, car and appliance makers have done a better job of simplifying their products and reducing the amount of maintenance needed to keep their products going, while PC users continue to flood help lines when faced with complicated problems, he said.

Apple Computer led the pack among computer individual vendors with a rating of 83, a 2.5 percent improvement over last year's score. Dell, under siege all year for its customer service problems, rebounded from 2005, improving its score by 5.4 percent to 78.

Dell is going "back to basics" to try to win customers over again, Fornell said. The company led the ACSI's PC company rankings for several years until around 2004, when Apple passed it. The ACSI measured consumer opinion during the second quarter, when Dell was just starting to roll out new programs designed to improve its support, and it will be interesting to see if the moves pay off in next year's results, he said.

The ACSI also rated e-business companies such as Google, Yahoo and AOL. Google has a strong lead over all other search engines with a score of 81. That was actually down a little bit from last year, but no other search provider made a run at Google during 2006. Google is the most widely used search engine, followed by Yahoo and MSN, according to comScore Networks.

Yahoo fell four points to 76 after challenging Google's lead last year. Fornell thought that Yahoo's breadth of online products might be too confusing for consumers and advertisers. "Yahoo tries to be perhaps too many things, it's not quite as focused as Google."

Yahoo took issue with the index's conclusions, saying that other metrics point to increased satisfaction among its users. "Yahoo is the only major Internet company to have its average time spent per user increase every quarter over the past year...In addition, total unique visitors, page views, minutes spent and average usage days per visitor on the Yahoo home page have all increased since we launched our new design (according to comScore)," the company said in a statement.

AOL continued to improve its ratings after it was ranked very poorly in 2000, the first year Michigan ranked this category. "It was lower than the IRS" (Internal Revenue Service) that year, Fornell joked. AOL is now tied with MSN on the consumer satisfaction ratings with a score of 74, behind Google and Yahoo.

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