Flying during COVID-19: How the airline industry keeps passenger satisfaction soaring

COVID-19 had the airline industry reaching for the panic button.

According to a Franklin Templeton-Gallup poll conducted in 2020, over half (52%) of Americans who flew at least once in 2019 admitted they were now uncomfortable flying because of the pandemic. Sadly, passenger and revenue numbers soon reflected this growing desire to remain grounded. 

International passenger travel plummeted 60% in 2020, per The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and U.S. airlines’ net losses are projected to be more than $35 billion.  

Yet, despite the turbulent times, there is one area where the industry soars: customer satisfaction.

In our most recent Travel Report, passenger satisfaction with airlines has never been stronger, climbing 1.3% to its best ACSI score ever at 76 (out of 100). It is the only travel industry to experience customer satisfaction gains years over year.

How are airlines managing to score satisfaction points with passengers amidst these tumultuous times? Let’s find out.

You can’t put a price on comfort

Seat comfort has the lowest score among customer experience benchmarks with an ACSI mark of 73. Yet, it’s also the only aspect of airline travel that improved during the pandemic, rising to an all-time industry high.

Per ACSI data, seat comfort reviews were even better at the beginning of COVID-19, as the whole industry incorporated the practice of blocking middle seats during flights.  

Delta, which ties Southwest as the industry leader after jumping 3% to an all-time high of 79, put forth a thorough plan to prioritize social distancing – a plan that also included eliminating middle seat usage. And while other airlines began letting passengers buy middle seats, Delta is keeping the policy in place and limiting capacity on all flights through April 30, 2021.

Passengers have become less satisfied since airlines started filling the middle seats again. However, seat comfort has been steadily improving over the last five years, so at least airlines are making a concerted effort to address this common pain point.

Putting safety first

The fear of contracting COVID-19 kept many frequent passengers out of the sky. To ease these concerns, the “Big Four” – American Airlines, United, Delta, and Southwest – took strong safety measures, starting with “cleanliness.”

American Airlines partnered with Purell and Vanderbilt University Medical Center to start its Clean Commitment. United teamed up with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to forge its CleanPlus program. Delta launched CareStandard with the help of the Mayo Clinic and the Lysol manufacturers. The Southwest Promise features a partnership between the airline and the Stanford School of Medicine, as well as the use of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

The airline industry also sponsored a study from Harvard’s School of Public Health. The report showed that the risk of getting COVID-19 from flying was much lower than shopping or eating out at a restaurant.

Although customer satisfaction with cabin and bathroom cleanliness drops slightly to an ACSI score of 78, the airlines’ attempts to make their passengers feel safe and secure most likely kept this decline minimal.

Not business as usual for the leisure crew

Before COVID-19, 32% of business passengers complained to the airline. Yet, they were relatively satisfied, with an ACSI score of 79. During the pandemic, however, that changed. 

The percentage of complaining business passengers rose to 38%, but their satisfaction declined 10% to 71. This was not the case with leisure travelers.

Pre-pandemic, just 11% of these individuals complained, but they were far less satisfied at 65. Fast forward a year, and while 17% complained to the airline, their satisfaction level was much higher, up 6% to a score of 69. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly changed to make these passengers more content. Maybe they’re showing kindness to the airline, or perhaps, the airlines are grateful that people are traveling the skies again and want to express their appreciation. Whatever the reason, a satisfied customer is good for everyone.

Gradual improvement for airlines over time continues 

While airlines have taken specific steps to improve comfort and safety during the pandemic, the industry overall has been making positive strides over the last few years.

Since 2018, customer satisfaction with airlines has risen 4.1% to reach an all-time industry high. So, it’s not as if things weren’t heading in the right direction.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic presented unforeseeable challenges that threw the industry for a loop. And, with strict travel restrictions in the beginning and consumers remaining hesitant to fly once they were loosened, airlines could’ve easily buckled under the pressure. But they didn’t.

Since April 2020, the number of Americans passing through TSA checkpoints has slowly grown. Of course, while more people are traveling, airlines can’t get too cozy. They must continue making safety a top priority, while also maintaining the level of comfort passengers have grown accustomed to. If not, we could be looking at less friendly skies in the future.

Retail case study: What Nike and Hobby Lobby are doing right, and what Ace Hardware and Williams-Sonoma must learn about satisfying customers

The latest wave of customer dissatisfaction has crashed into the Retail sector – and most retailers were unable to get out of the way.

According to our latest Retail and Consumer Shipping Report, customer satisfaction backslides 2.3% to an ACSI score of 75.5 (out of 100) – the sector’s lowest mark since 2015. None of the six retail industries improve, and 86% of the retailers we measure experience worse satisfaction year over year.

But it isn’t all bad news.

This year, we measured 14 new specialty retail stores, and two of them – Nike and Hobby Lobby – debuted among the sector’s top overall performers with scores of 80. Others, like Ace Hardware (74) and Williams-Sonoma (73), not so much.

How did they succeed while other specialty retail newcomers struggled? To answer that, let’s take a closer look at what Nike and Hobby Lobby did right and where Ace Hardware and Williams Sonoma missed the mark.

Nike keeps it ‘clean’ 

At a time when social distancing is paramount, customers are paying close attention to areas like store cleanliness and layout. And they feel Nike shines.

But it doesn’t stop there. Nike also impresses with its store speed, staff courtesy, and mobile app.

Hobby Lobby is winning customers over with ‘sales’

Like Nike, customers appreciate the cleanliness and layout of Hobby Lobby. But where the arts and crafts store really distinguishes itself is through discounts.

The least satisfying facet of the specialty retail shopping experience is the frequency of sales and promotions, with an ACSI score of 73. Hobby Lobby, however, has no such trouble. In fact, it’s thriving.

Ace isn’t the place for satisfaction

Ace Hardware doesn’t have the lowest score in the industry, but according to customers, it’s close.

The hardware retailer struggles across most of the customer experience. Per ACSI data, it could stand to improve in everything from store cleanliness and layout, to merchandise variety, to mobile app performance.

Williams-Sonoma has work to do

In its debut appearance, Williams-Sonoma outperformed just one specialty retailer – last place GameStop, which fell 4% to a score of 72.

According to the data, customers feel that price is a major concern for the company. But the dissatisfaction doesn’t stop there.

Customers feel store locations are inconvenient, store hours could be better, and staff could be more courteous.

Will Retail rebound in 2021?

2020 was a tough year for the Retail sector, but many are hopeful that things will rebound in 2021.

Newcomers like Ace Hardware and Williams-Sonoma have a long road ahead of them to get in the good graces of their customers. However, it’s not impossible. If anything, observing companies like Nike and Hobby Lobby that debut near the top of the specialty retail industry should provide a useful blueprint to follow.

Of course, we should also point out that Hobby Lobby recently got rid of its 40% off coupon, which could affect its scores moving forward. But if you’re in the same boat as Ace Hardware and Williams-Sonoma, you have several changes you can make to improve customer satisfaction.

Were citizens satisfied in the Trump administration’s final year?

Satisfaction with the U.S. federal government is less than ideal – again.

Following a 1.2% decline last year, citizen satisfaction stumbles once more, dropping 4.4% to an ACSI score of 65.1 (out of 100), per our latest Federal Government Report. Citizen satisfaction has now fallen for the third straight year, sinking to its lowest score in five years.

Any way you slice it, this has been a weird year for the government. While it’s fair to wonder if this drop is a direct admonishment of the Trump administration – the run-up to the November elections was combative and the post-election period was a powder keg that exploded in a most unforeseen way – it’s important to remember what this report actually looks at.

So, let’s get into it.

What’s driving citizen satisfaction?

We can’t stress this enough: Our Federal Government Report looks at the satisfaction of individuals who’ve had direct contact and dealings with the government.

It’s not about political affiliation. It’s not about the administration. It’s not about Congress. It’s about the government officials who provide day-to-day services.

We measure four primary drivers of citizen satisfaction – process, information, customer service, and website – and they reflect the most pertinent performance areas of government agencies and services. This year, none improved.

The efficiency and ease of government processes dropped 3% to 66, the ease of accessing and clarity of information backpedaled 3% to 69, and the perceptions of government website quality plummeted 5% to 71. In the end, only the customer service score stood firm, unchanged at 74 – the highest of the four drivers.

As the report notes: “These changes reflect a broad and deep erosion of the quality of federal government services experienced by citizens in 2020.”

Did the pandemic impact federal government satisfaction?

It’s very likely the pandemic impacted citizen satisfaction in the federal government.

How much? It’s hard to say. However, just under 1,300 individuals were surveyed this year, and because of COVID-19, there were a smaller number of distinct federal departments captured in this year’s report.

Of those, only the Departments of Commerce (74) and Agriculture (74) scored comparably to the economy-wide national ACSI average (74.4 as of Q3 2020). The former is down from last year (75 in 2019), while the latter is up from 70.

The remaining departments scored considerably lower than the national ACSI average. The Department of Health and Human Services was third at 65, followed by the Department of Justice at 64. The Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration tied at 63, and the Treasury Department finished last with an ACSI score of 60.

Another down year for citizen satisfaction in the federal government

For three consecutive years, citizens have been less satisfied with the federal government. Thanks to the decrease in 2020, this score is the lowest it’s been since 2015.

Yet, for all the malaise with politics, the general decline across the board cannot necessarily be attributed to the Trump administration. COVID-19, however, kept people away, limiting the number of interactions with – and services received from – the federal government.

Still, it’s clear that individuals who did deal with the federal government in 2020 were not satisfied. Here’s to hoping they have a better experience in 2021.

Streaming during COVID: What companies can do to satisfy their ever-growing customer base

Americans’ cord cutting had started well before the pandemic. But, with COVID-19, that shift has only picked up steam.

Before COVID-19, 73% of U.S. consumers subscribed to at least one streaming service. Now, 80% reside in a household with at least one paid streaming service, according to a recent Deloitte study. Prior to the pandemic, consumers paid for an average of three services. That number is now up to four.

There are no signs of slowing down for this industry – even when life eventually goes “back to normal,” as 45% of consumers plan to make streaming a permanent part of their life after the pandemic, per a new TransUnion study.

So, with all signs pointing to streaming remaining a regular fixture, the question is: What can the industry do to keep viewers from “changing the channel”?

Let’s see what the data has to say.

The newer, the better

For the most part, streaming providers are keeping consumers relatively satisfied, per our most recent Telecommunications Report.

Viewers are pleased with how easy it is to use on-screen menus and programming (score of 79 on a 0-100 scale). They’re satisfied with the overall performance and reliability (76). For the most part, they even feel good about the content itself – including the quality of original programming (76), the variety of movies by category (76), and the quality of movies by category.

Yet, one area that customers feel misses the mark is the availability of new movie titles. According to the data, this benchmark still resides at the bottom of the streaming industry with an ACSI score of 71.

Americans haven’t been able to go to the theater for a long time, and they’re clearly missing out on the experience of watching a new flick on the big screen. Luckily, the industry — recognizing that this might be an issue — is bringing movies straight to them.

Disney released the live-action adaption of “Mulan” exclusively on Disney+ on Sept 4. for an additional price. The studio moved the Pixar film “Soul” to the streaming platform on Christmas Day as well. Warner Bros’ “The Little Things” premiered on HBO Max (and opened in select theaters) on Jan. 29 and has a whole slate of 2021 films set to be released on the streaming service (for a month) and in theaters simultaneously.

The pandemic has forced the film industry to adapt in countless ways, including postponing one film after another. But it’s also allowed them to reach consumers through streaming, offering access to plenty of new movie titles. Streaming platforms would be wise to continue this trend to keep viewers engaged.

Be original

We can’t reiterate this enough: Customers crave original content.

According to our data, customer satisfaction with the quality of original programming remains steady with an ACSI score of 76.

Netflix (78) has been the king in this department, and they want to keep the crown. The streaming giant is projected to spend $19 billion on original content in 2021 alone. Yet there are several fierce competitors coming for the throne.

Customers are more satisfied with the content on Disney+ (80) than other provider, per our latest data. You can chalk a lot of that up to “The Mandalorian,” which has helped the streamer reach 73.7 million subscribers as of Oct. 3. Disney has no intention of resting on its laurels.

The studio is restructuring its media and entertainment divisions to make creating original content for its direct-to-consumer outlets – Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN Plus – its main priority. With the release of “WandaVision,” a Black Panther series in the works, and plans to capitalize on the exciting Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney+ should be well-positioned.

The battle for streaming supremacy

As one of the original streaming services, Netflix was able to build a leg up on the competition. But the race is far from over.

Not only has Disney+ recently usurped Netflix for customer satisfaction, but other streamers are also nipping at their heels, including Apple TV (77), Hulu (77), and Amazon Prime Video (76).

NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock, which launched back in April 2020 and has 22 million users as of the end of October, is absorbing the WWE Network, while ViacomCBS will be relaunching CBS All Access as Paramount Plus on March 4.

Everyone wants a piece of the streaming market. The older streaming companies are making moves, and new players aren’t shy about entering the fold. With so many streamers wrestling for consumer eyeballs, the name of the game is to give the people what they want. Offering original content and new movie titles are good places to start.

Airlines fly to record-high customer satisfaction during pandemic. Here’s how

For the past two years, passenger satisfaction with airlines has been climbing. Over the last six months, it’s reached new heights.

Per our Special COVID-19 Travel Report 2020 – based on surveys conducted from April 1, 2020 to September 30, 2020satisfaction with the industry soars 1.3% to its all-time high ACSI score of 76 (out of 100).

Even before that, airlines were on an upward trajectory. They were the only travel industry to improve satisfaction from April 2019 to March 2020.

How could this happen at a time when airlines were cutting schedules, planes were flying nearly empty, and cancellations rose to 41% (in April 2020)? Which airlines rose to the occasion – in the middle of a global pandemic – to meet the needs of their customers?

Let’s discuss.

Airlines offering a more ‘comfortable’ experience

In the past six months, seat comfort is the only element of the passenger experience that improves. While it continues to be one the worst aspects of flying, airlines have made significant strides in this area in recent years.

In 2015, seat comfort had an ACSI score of 64. In 2019, it climbed to 69. A year later, it reached 72. Since March 2020, that number is up 3% to 74 – an all-time high.

Much of this most recent rise can be attributed to carriers blocking middle seats during the pandemic to allow for social distancing.

Although no other factors improve over the six-month COVID-19 period, many benchmarks remain in good standing. Per passengers, mobile apps lead the way, as both reliability and quality score 82. Passengers also feel good about the check-in process and website satisfaction despite each dipping 1% to a score of 81.

Furthermore, passengers are quite happy with baggage handling, flight crew courtesy, gate staff courtesy, loyalty programs, and on-time arrivals, all touching down with a score of 79.

Southwest shines while Delta takes off in a major way

Southwest climbs to the top spot in the airline industry after rising 1% to 80. Per our most recent data, customers believe Southwest has the smoothest check-in process and provides the best value. The airline also improves in the quality of its in-flight entertainment, seat comfort, and the availability and size of overhead storage.

For the first time since 2004, Delta moves into second place. The airline soars 3% to a record-high score of 79.

As early as April, Delta put in serious social distancing measures, blocking the middle seats on its flights. It’s the only major airline to keep this policy in place through March 30, 2021. Passengers have taken notice, as the airline now holds the top score for seat comfort. Delta has also prioritized cleanliness and leads that area as well.

Airlines have more room to grow

Although airlines are the only travel industry to make positive strides over the past six months, there’s still room for improvement.

Passengers find it more difficult to make reservations (down 2% to 80) since March 2020, while the boarding experience and call center interactions are also worse for wear, each sliding 3% to a score of 78.

Still, during a period when fewer people are traveling and the industry is facing major financial hurdles, airlines are keeping customers satisfied. And those customers won’t soon forget it.

How to satisfy your younger investors (Hint: You’re doing it wrong)

Young investors are no longer just dipping their toes in the market – they’re taking the plunge.

According to our most recent Finance, Insurance, and Health Care Report, the percentage of respondents age 18 to 25 who’ve used internet investment services has nearly doubled year over year to 18%.

If only their level of satisfaction matched their eagerness.

While this generation’s participation in investment services is up, satisfaction is down, sliding 4% to an ACSI score of 71. This number is significantly worse than the industry average of 78.

So, why are younger investors so unhappy with their online investment experiences? How can brands not only attract, but retain these customers? Let’s take a look at where the industry is missing the mark (spoiler alert: it’s not just one thing).

Internet investment services are universally worse for wear

To say internet investment services aren’t meeting the demands of customers would be an understatement. And not just among younger investors.

The industry has the largest customer satisfaction drop-off in the Finance and Insurance sector at 3.7%, and not a single element of the investment experience improves.

Overall, internet investment services’ mobile apps fared best. But they’re still worse than the year before, with mobile app quality slumping 2% to 83 and mobile app reliability dropping 4% to 82.

Websites are struggling as well. Site performance, product selection, and the ease of making transactions all decline 4% to 79. Customers also find it more difficult to navigate sites, with satisfaction tumbling 4% to 78.

The remaining elements all decline to a score of 77: product descriptions (down 4%), customer support (down 4%), investment research (down 3%), and investment planning tools (down 3%).

Financial advisors don’t have the answers, either

Financial advisors have the same problem with younger investors. The percentage of survey respondents age 18 to 25 using financial advisors nearly doubled to 15% in 2020. Unfortunately, these young clients are less thrilled with their advisory experiences, as satisfaction sinks 3% to 72.

Among all demographics, we see similar patterns. While not as worse off as internet investment services, financial advisors also struggled to please customers in 2020, with satisfaction down 2.5% overall to a score of 77.

Mobile apps, like with internet investment services, have the highest marks. But, again, customers are less happy than last year, with satisfaction for mobile app quality and reliability both decreasing 4% to 81. Customers also want financial advisors to give them more mobile options to manage their accounts (down 1% to 76).

How to keep young investors engaged

The younger generation is more comfortable with digital tools. The problem is, both internet investment services and financial advisors are slipping in these areas. And it goes beyond tech.

Newer investors aren’t as pleased as seasoned investors. This year, customers who have worked with their online broker for less than a year are much less satisfied (72) than those who have been with their broker for more than one year (78).

Younger generations want to invest. However, the real challenge is keeping them interested. It starts with meeting their needs and focusing on what they want from an investment standpoint.

Online brokers should provide more digestible information for new investors. Everything from product information to investment research.

Financial advisors must establish a relationship. While trust and confidence are down 4% to 78, customers feel advisors could do a better job of explaining investment strategies (down 3% to 77) and prices and fees (down 3% to 76).

Determining how to relay this information effectively is another area of importance. Find a balance of communication. Most customers are less happy with the frequency of routine contact, by mail or by email (down 3% to 77), as well as contact by phone or meetings (down 1% to 75).

Improved digital services are a good place to start, but younger investors won’t just invest blindly. They don’t want to be bombarded with calls, but they don’t want to be left in the dark, either. You must walk a fine line.

The good news is younger investors are more receptive to investing. Only by meeting their needs can you keep it that way.

Super regional banks struggling with identity crisis

The banking industry has seen better days.

After slipping 1.2% last year, customer satisfaction with banks overall slides even further, dropping 2.5% to an ACSI score of 78, per our latest Finance, Insurance, and Health Care Report. This marks the first time since 2015 that satisfaction with banks resides in the 70s.

In 2020, no one escapes the swell of dissatisfaction, which has washed over national, super regional, and the smaller regional and community banks, and nearly every brand within those categories.

Yet, while the decline is industrywide, one category takes the brunt of the punishment: super regional banks.

Considerable satisfaction drops for super regional banks across the board

In 2019, national banks and super regional banks both had an ACSI score of 78, with the former lagging in six of 12 customer experience benchmarks. This year, much has changed.

As big banks decline 2.6% to a score of 76, super regional banks plunge 3.8% to a category-low 75. They also now trail both national players and smaller banks in every element except ATMs and branches, where they only outshine smaller banks – 73 to 70 and 73 to 64, respectively.

For super regionals, both staff courtesy (82) and in-branch transaction speed (80) decrease 5% year over year. By comparison, big banks and community banks decline just 1%-2% for these elements. Similarly, call center performance (74) for super regionals drops 6%, while large and small banks experience 1% and 2% dips, respectively.

Super regional banks also undergo substantial declines year over year in mobile app quality (down 4% to 81), website satisfaction (down 4% to 81), ease of understanding account information (down 4% to 78), variety of available services (down 4% to 78), and ease of making changes to accounts (down 5% to 77).

Super regionals don’t know where they belong

National banks have the power and money to go full steam ahead into digital services. The smaller banks have the personal touch that creates a quality in-person experience. Where does this leave super regional banks? They’re trying to figure that out themselves.

Not quite big enough to have the resources of larger banks, but not intimate enough to warrant the close connections to the community that smaller firms have created, super regionals could be having a difficult time finding the right balance of digital and human resources that customers want.

KeyBank, for example, faces this very problem. It’s considered by some to be too small to compete with the mega banks, yet too big to give off that community feel. It makes sense that it’s at the bottom of the super regional category, down 5% to a score of 72.

So, if you’re one of these super regional banks, what can you do? If you’re BB&T and SunTrust, you can go the merger route. Of course, while this “merger of equals” will make the newly formed Truist, the nation’s sixth largest bank, our studies have shown that mergers hamper customer satisfaction in the short term.

Walking a fine line

As super regional banks struggle with an identity crisis, the opposite can be said for the regional and community institutions.

Despite dropping 2.4% year over year, these banks still top the industry with an ACSI score of 81. Customers continue to appreciate the personal care they receive from these institutions, as regional and community branches are significantly better than their competitors in courtesy (87), speed of transactions (86), variety of financial services (83), ease of understanding information about accounts (83), and ease of making changes to accounts (83).

Surprisingly, the smaller banks are outperforming both national and super regional banks in digital services as well. They lead the industry in mobile app quality (86) and reliability (85), website satisfaction (85), and call center satisfaction (82).

It comes down to knowing who your customers are and what matters most to them. Smaller institutions, even with slight satisfaction declines, have this covered. Super regional banks, not so much. And with customers already frustrated with the banking industry as it is, these institutions have little room for error.

Restaurant response to COVID-19: 2 chains that elevated customer satisfaction, and 2 that failed to deliver

There was every reason to believe full-service restaurants were going to struggle compared to limited-service chains during the pandemic.

Not only did limited-service chains already have the proven business model to support expanded carry out and delivery, but customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants was already diminishing prior to COVID-19, down 2.5% to a score of 79, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) 2019-2020 Restaurant Report.

Amazingly, that’s not what happened.

Per our new special COVID-19 restaurant study based on surveys collected from April 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2020, customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants climbs 1.3% to a score of 80, outperforming fast-food restaurants, which remain unchanged at 78.

Of course, as is always the case, some restaurants thrived, and others did not. Here’s a look at the two full-service restaurants that upped their customer satisfaction game during the pandemic and the two chains that failed to deliver.

Chili’s rises from the ashes

At the time of our last Restaurant Report, Chili’s sat at the bottom of the full-service industry with an ACSI score of 75. That’s no longer the case.

Chili’s climbs 4% to 78, tying five other full-service chains – Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel, LongHorn Steakhouse, Outback Steakhouse, and Red Robin. It now sits just two points off the industry lead.

While Chili’s doesn’t lead any of the customer experience benchmarks – and remains mostly in the middle of the pack – it’s made slight gains in multiple areas, including food quality and food variety. Customers agree that the restaurant’s biggest improvement is in store speed.

Red Robin flies out of the cellar

Red Robin wasn’t in the basement like Chili’s, but it was pretty close, tied with both Denny’s and Ruby Tuesday at 76. Red Robin has since flown in the right direction.

Red Robin jumps 3% into a six-way tie at 78. The gourmet burger chain makes small strides in courtesy, layout and cleanliness, order accuracy, and beverage variety. According to the data, Red Robin makes serious progress in terms of store speed and mobile reliability, placing it near the top of the industry in both areas.

LongHorn Steakhouse falls from first

Earlier this year, LongHorn Steakhouse led all full-service restaurants with an ACSI score of 81. Its rule was brief, and its fall was hard.

LongHorn Steakhouse joins Chili’s, Red Robin, and three other brands at 78 after plunging 4%. Its grip over the other chains in many of the customer experience benchmarks also disappears.

Save for mobile quality and reliability, LongHorn Steakhouse tumbles across the board. Customers find it especially worse in beverage quality, food quality, layout and cleanliness, order accuracy – all areas it once held or tied for the lead.

Red Lobster sinks toward the bottom

Red Lobster was previously tied with Olive Garden and Cracker Barrel with an ACSI score of 79. It’s since sunk below them both (among others).

The seafood chain now sits closer to the bottom of the industry after dropping 3% to 77. Aside from mobile app quality, where it remains steady, Red Lobster declines in every customer experience benchmark.

Per the data, its biggest drop-offs occur in beverage quality, staff courtesy, order accuracy, and store speed, where Red Lobster now scores closer to the bottom of the fast-food industry.

Full-service restaurants rise to the occasion

Full-service restaurants were on shaky ground when we released our latest Restaurant Report; just one restaurant improved, while seven out of 12 saw customer satisfaction slip.

Yet, since that time, the industry has shown toughness, resiliency, and flexibility. Now, six fast-food chains see customer satisfaction growth, and the industry is improving in many areas, including beverage quality, food quality, staff courtesy, order accuracy, service speed, and mobile app reliability.

While some restaurants struggled to meet customer needs during the pandemic, many identified their weaknesses and turned things around. All four of these full-service chains may have the same ACSI score of 78, but the paths they took to get there made all the difference.

Restaurants that want to do the same might want to take a page out of the Chili’s and Red Robin playbook.

Customer satisfaction case study: Amazon has the most to lose during COVID-19

Customers’ dissatisfaction with retail is very real. And, since the pandemic, it’s only gotten worse – especially for internet retailers.

Internet retail’s once-comfortable lead over the supermarkets, specialty retail stores, department and discount stores, and drug stores has all but evaporated, per our special COVID-19 retail study, which is based on surveys collected from April 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2020.

Since our 2019-2020 Retail Report, customer satisfaction with internet retail plummets 4.9% to a score of 77 – the largest decline within the retail space – as zero internet retailers improve during the pandemic.

As if this weren’t surprising enough, no internet retailer has taken a bigger knock on the chin during COVID-19 than Amazon.

How has Amazon fallen behind the customer satisfaction game these past six months? Let’s take a look.

‘Amazon in the Middle’

It’s not just that Amazon no longer leads the category, it’s that Amazon is no longer even in the upper echelon of internet retailers.

After tumbling 7% to a score of 77, Amazon finds itself firmly in the middle, tying five other companies – Staples, Best Buy, Target, eBay, and Macy’s – for the industry average.

As it stands, seven online retailers currently outpace Amazon, with Costco, Nordstrom, and Etsy all square at the top with a score of 80.

Amazon’s fall from grace isn’t because of any one thing; it’s from a customer experience meltdown across the board.

Flailing customer experience

Amazon doesn’t have the sole lead in any customer experience benchmark. According to the data, the drops have been significant.

The online giant’s largest decreases come in inventory, navigation, variety, shipping, and customer support. By comparison, Etsy experiences substantial gains in customer support, while Sears, which has the lowest overall score, makes strong gains in shipping.

Many of Amazon’s losses aren’t as sizable, but they are still noteworthy, including site performance, images, and site-generated recommendations.

In most cases, Amazon’s scores aren’t bad. The company is near the top in mobile reliability, clarity, variety, and site performance, and it shares the lead in mobile quality, store speed, shipping, and inventory. However, its marks in these areas have all declined over the past six months.

Amazon’s sales aren’t suffering … yet?

And yet, you’d never know anything was wrong with Amazon based on its sales.

According to May 2020 data from eMarketer, Amazon currently owns 38% of U.S. e-commerce sales. Furthermore, spending on Amazon between May and July was up 60% year over year, per Facteus.

But just because Amazon dominates the online space now, doesn’t mean it will forever.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift to digital, and many businesses are changing with the times. Walmart, Amazon’s closest competition at just under 6% of the market, recently launched its own membership program – Walmart Plus – to challenge Amazon Prime.

No one’s suggesting that Amazon will lose its stranglehold anytime soon, but it’s no longer the only horse in the race. And while the online giant’s sales are through the roof, changes in customer satisfaction do influence a household’s willingness to buy.

Over the past six months, Amazon’s customer satisfaction is trending in the wrong direction. Although this hasn’t affected the company’s sales, it’s something to keep an eye on. If this trend becomes the norm, Amazon could see sales sink just like its customer satisfaction.

3 companies that adapted to meet customer needs during COVID-19

Disney had big plans for the live-action adaptation of “Mulan.” COVID-19 changed that. So, Disney did the only thing it could do in the face of a global pandemic: pivot.

On Sept. 4, Disney released the motion picture exclusively on Disney Plus in the U.S. and other countries where the streaming app is available. The film cost an additional $30, but subscribers own it.

Does this offer the viewer the same experience they’d have watching it in a movie theater? Of course not. But is it a worthwhile alternative at a time when social distancing limits options? Absolutely.

The pandemic enhanced consumers’ voracious appetite for streaming, and Disney adapted. And it’s not the only company to do so.

Here are three examples of companies shifting to meet customer needs during COVID-19.

1. Papa John’s is going the ‘fortressing’ route

The pandemic hasn’t slowed down Papa John’s.

With sales surging in the Northeast – same-store sales up 30.3% in July – Papa John’s is increasing its footprint in the region. The company will open 48 new locations in Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey by 2028 thanks to a deal with franchisee HB Restaurant Group.

Taking a page out of the Domino’s playbook, Papa John’s is going the ‘fortressing’ route by building more locations near one another. The goal is to shorten delivery time and make carry out orders more accessible.

Customer satisfaction with fast food restaurants’ speed of checkout and delivery was down 1.2% to a score of 81, according to our most recent Restaurant Report. Building more clustered locations could help swing things in the other direction.

2. Walmart launches Walmart Plus

Companies that expand digital options may see greater success. Walmart is the latest to take the plunge.

On Sept. 15, the retailer launched Walmart Plus, a new membership program that has its sights set on Amazon Prime. At just $98 per year – compared to $119 for Prime – Walmart envisions this subscription service as a more affordable alternative. Walmart Plus offers customers unlimited same-day delivery of over 160,000 in-store items, including groceries, everyday essentials, and various electronics.

Walmart customers can also use the Walmart app to scan and pay for items in the store using the Walmart Pay feature. According to the retailer, this automated scan and go checkout service gives customers “a quick, easy, and touch-free payment experience.”

While Walmart Plus was planned before the pandemic, it directly addresses consumer needs right now. Still, this is a classic case of David taking on Goliath, as Walmart sits near the bottom of the internet retail sector and Amazon sits alone at the top. Time will tell if Walmart Plus moves the needle.

3. Burger King is taking the ‘touchless’ approach

Burger King is below average from a customer satisfaction standpoint, and it struggles in three key customer experience benchmarks: store layout, accuracy of the food order, and speed of checkout and delivery. The fast food joint plans to rectify this.

To adapt to current customer behavior, Burger King unveiled two restaurant designs that will offer a completely touchless experience. The “Next Level” design has up to three drive-thru lanes, with one specifically for delivery drivers. A conveyer belt also delivers food to drive-thru customers.

With the “Your Way” setup, customers can park and have food delivered to their car by scanning a QR code and using the Burger King app. This concept will also feature two drive-thru lanes and a walk-up window for takeout orders. Both restaurant designs have curbside and mobile pickup.

Fast. Contactless. Convenient. Efficient. Burger King sees what customers want – as well as the shifting landscape – and is adapting accordingly.

The message remains the same

Even in the middle of a global pandemic, the message remains the same for businesses: Customer satisfaction is paramount to your success.

As the landscape changes, so does the mindset of the consumer. If companies want to stay afloat, they must pay attention to what their customers want and adjust to fit these needs. It’s either that or get lost in the shuffle.