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QSR customers no happier than they were, study finds

ANN ARBOR Mich. Quick-service chains failed to boost customers' satisfaction with the sector during the past year, with public contentment stagnating at the same level ascribed to hospitals, according to a study by the University of Michigan.

But the report, the latest annual update in a customer satisfaction study extending back 14 years, found slight shifts in the way consumers rate individual chains. Wendy's had the most favorable change, with its 2007 American Customer Satisfaction Index beating the year-earlier score by 2.6 percent. McDonald's, KFC and Starbucks also notched improvements, though of less than 2 percent.

The most significant rating change was generated by Pizza Hut, whose ACSI dropped 5.3 percent. The pizza sector as a whole undershot consumer expectations, with customer satisfaction also flagging for Little Caesars (2.6 percent) and Papa John's (2.5 percent), according to the study. It found no year-to-year change in the assessment for Domino's.

Declines in customer satisfaction were also ascribed to Burger King and Taco Bell, with ACSI declines for both of 1.4 percent.

Overall, the quick-service sector earned an ACSI of 77 points, outstripping airlines (63), wireless telephone service (68), hotels (71) and public utilities (72.9), but falling behind overnight mail services (81) and the study's new category, full-service restaurants (81). Olive Garden topped the satisfaction rankings within that category with an ACSI of 80, followed by Outback Steakhouse (79), Red Lobster (78) and Chili's (75). Because the 2007 study is the first to include table-service brands, year-to-year changes could not be computed.

The 2007 ratings are based on consumer surveys conducted between Jan. 1 and March 31 of this year.

The University of Michigan noted that the five business categories it assessed collectively raised their ACSI, but by a mere 0.4 percent, to 75.2 percent. The rating is an index, with 100 signifying perfect satisfaction.

"In addition to the large number of decliners the rate of improvement in satisfaction has slowed," said Claes Fornell, director of the University of Michigan body that compiles the study, the National Quality Research Center.

Fornell said the moderating gains in customer satisfaction could hamper efforts by the assessed industries to raise prices. "Companies don't have much pricing power unless there is shrinking supply or higher customer satisfaction," the professor said. "There are no signs of the former in most industries, so the latter becomes more critical. Companies may begin to see narrowing profit margins unless there is further improvement in customer satisfaction."

To view more results from the study, click here.

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