A Brief History of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)

“To understand more fully the modern economy, and the firms that compete in it, we must measure the quality of economic output, as well as its quantity.”  Claes Fornell, Chair of the Board and Founder, American Customer Satisfaction Index, 1996

This ACSI Matters Blog is a modified excerpt from the ACSI expert team‘s 2020 book – The Reign of the Customer: Customer-Centric Approaches to Improving Satisfaction – covering 25 years of data, insights, tools, and managerial implications related to customer satisfaction and customer asset management.

So how and why did the ACSI project emerge?

How and why was the ACSI project created? How does ACSI measure consumer satisfaction with individual companies, industries, and economic sectors? How has it evolved over the course of a quarter of a century since its beginnings in 1993-1994?

A clear notion of how and why the ACSI was created and how it measures satisfaction across the U.S. economy and around the world provides the foundation for a deeper understanding of important and enduring purposes of consumer insights and customer satisfaction measurement. In turn, this information will enhance the insights and lessons derived from 25 years of ACSI data that is so widespread in the popular press (e.g., Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Newsweek) and myriad academic journals (per Google Scholar, more than 13,000 articles have referenced the ACSI).

In the early 1990s, researchers at the American Society for Quality (ASQ) – a prominent professional association founded shortly after World War II with the goal of advancing quality improvement principles and practices within economies around the world – recognized the need for a comprehensive, national measure of quality for the U.S. economy. Only with such a measure, so it was thought, could a clear understanding of how well the U.S. economy was performing be achieved. ASQ began by investigating whether a national, cross-company, cross-industry measure of quality already existed, and if not, whether its development was feasible.

With the help of a team of experts on the topic, ASQ examined numerous approaches to quality measurement and determined that no standardized measure of quality existed that could be applied to the multitude of diverse products and services offered within a modern economy. More specifically, while many different quality measures existed, none was designed to effectively compare and benchmark these measures across distinct industries and categories (e.g., goods vs. services, cars vs. consumer-packaged goods, or to aggregate them into a national index of quality (i.e., an economy-wide, macroeconomic view of quality). However, one potentially useful model that was being implemented outside the U.S. at the time was brought to the attention of ASQ: the Swedish Customer Satisfaction Barometer (SCSB).

A few years before ASQ began its search, in 1989, Swedish economist and professor at the University of Michigan in the United States named Claes Fornell had designed and launched a national index of customer satisfaction for the Swedish economy, a project called the Swedish Customer Satisfaction Barometer (SCSB).

The ACSI Matters has an interview with Claes Fornell.

Fornell had spent the first decade of his academic career writing extensively on the topics of customer satisfaction, consumer complaint behavior, the economic impacts of customer relationship management, and advanced statistical analysis of consumer survey data.  It was this expertise that had led him to conceive and create the SCSB.

With support from the Swedish government, which had seen its economy struggle with increased competition and slower growth throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s as the effects of the European Common Market became fully apparent, the SCSB was the first project to apply a single, standardized statistical model for measuring both quality and customer satisfaction across the diverse sectors of a large national economy. In its first year, the SCSB successfully measured satisfaction with nearly 100 Swedish companies across 28 distinct consumer industries, interviewing approximately 25,000 customers of these companies in the process. Ultimately, it was this model that would attract the attention of ASQ, be chosen as the best alternative for measuring quality and satisfaction in the U.S., and be transported across the Atlantic to be applied to the larger U.S. economy as the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

It was on the basis of the SCSB project that the ACSI was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by a group of professors at the University of Michigan’s Business School (now the Stephen M. Ross School of Business), under the direction of Fornell. With funding from ASQ, the University of Michigan, and several other organizations, an extensive “first wave” pretest of the ACSI was conducted in 1993. Analysis of these results confirmed what had previously been discovered in Sweden: that a cross-industry, cross-sector measure of the quality and satisfaction of a nation’s economic output was indeed possible, providing highly informative results about the conditions of the economy.

One year later, in 1994, the baseline ACSI study was produced. This first wave of the ACSI study measured satisfaction with seven sectors of the U.S. economy, 30 industries, and approximately 180 large business-to-consumer (B2C) companies. The study has been replicated each year since, with fresh results collected and released throughout each calendar year. And as we show in our recently released book in 2020 – The Reign of the Customer: Customer-Centric Approaches to Improving Satisfaction – when reviewing the methods and models of the ACSI, the study has grown significantly in the intervening 25 years.

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The central purpose motivating Fornell to create the ACSI was simple and relates to the mission that originally sent the American Society for Quality (ASQ) on its search for a national index of quality. This objective remains important to better understanding the modern economy. While nations had for many years (since at least the 1940s, and in some cases earlier) measured the quantity of output produced within their economies through a variety of different metrics (and continue to do so today), they had up until the 1990s predominantly ignored a more elusive, but arguably more important feature of sustainable economic growth – the quality of output.

In Sweden, for example, the SCSB was created with the explicit goal of increasing the quantity of economic output in that country, and thus its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, but doing so by measuring, monitoring and improving the quality of that output as perceived by consumers. This would, it was hoped, increase consumer demand. The quality improvements were thus intended to make struggling Swedish firms more competitive both domestically and internationally by better pleasing consumers and inspiring them to spend more with domestic firms.

By the 1980s and 1990s many companies had begun to measure customer satisfaction internally (along with related “consumer insights” and the “voice of the customer” (VOC)).  However, lack of access to this data and the disparate research methods (e.g. different survey items, samples, timeframes, statistical methods) used to conduct measurement across these companies, coupled with divergent quality of the resulting output, made comparison and aggregation of the data to the macro level impossible. In short, new economic realities were increasing competition dramatically and making quality and innovation more important than ever, but standardized data permitting a clear understanding of the quality of goods and services being produced were largely unavailable.

It was from within this context that Fornell recognized that growing domestic and global competition demanded a clearer idea of the factors that satisfied increasingly powerful consumers. What motivated these consumers to open their wallets to spend money on certain brands of goods and services more so than others? Measuring satisfaction (alongside its drivers and outcomes) in a systematic, standardized fashion across the entirety of a national economy would provide vital information for fully understanding the health of companies, industries, and entire economies from the perspective of the ultimate and most important judge, the individual consumer. Clearly this perspective is more relevant than ever today, and will likely become even more so in the future as ongoing changes in the global marketplace appear to be dictating.

As the Information Age has evolved from science fiction to a fully developed reality over the last few decades, consumers now have more choice and greater power than ever before. The internet revolution has profoundly changed how buyers and sellers relate to one another, and in the amount of leverage and power held by consumers. The changes ushered in as part of the Information Age have given consumers many new advantages. These include: greater access to information about specific products and services prior to purchase and consumption; greater access to information about alternative suppliers (sellers) of goods and services; an increased ability to punish sellers through more impactful complaint behavior and word-of-mouth; and an increased ability to more directly influence new product/service offerings (i.e. co-production of goods and services). These changes have forced companies to reconsider how they measure and manage their performance, and to focus more on the voice of the customer.

Whereas companies – and national economies in their entirety – once relied almost exclusively on measures like labor productivity, market share, revenue growth, profitability, stock market valuation, and gross domestic product as performance indicators, these days in a more state-of-the-art analysis companies rely on external, customer-facing measures and the linkages between these measures and financial performance.

Indeed, practices like customer relationship management, customer asset management, and concepts like “customer-centricity” today occupy a central place in the discourse of performance precisely because of this changed landscape. More and more, measuring consumer satisfaction and related consumer perceptions and insights is viewed as a vital, necessary activity for the firm hoping to adequately compete for buyers in increasingly-competitive free markets. The same imperative holds for the national economy looking to compete in an environment with fewer boundaries and obstacles to free trade.

As an excerpt from Chapter 1 (Defining Customer Satisfaction: A Strategic Company Asset?) of our book – The Reign of the Customer: Customer-Centric Approaches to Improving Satisfaction – this ACSI Matters Blog provides a brief history of the ACSI. The findings and lessons in the book delve deeper into the ACSI and the half a century of results and implications. These findings reinforce the continued and growing importance of customer satisfaction and its measurement in the global marketplace.

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