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The University of Michigan's quarterly American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) is out this week, and even in the midst of a recession-like economic decline the index registered its first gain in a year. It wasn't a big increase, but it could have been worse.

The index was up 0.4 percent to 75.2 on ACSI’s 100-point scale.

According to a statement released by the school, "the improvement in ACSI may boost consumer spending and jumpstart the economy, but conditions are much different than they were the last time a reversal in ACSI signaled recovery from the economic downturn in 2000 and 2001, primarily because consumers’ ability to spend is more limited today."

Highlights from the report:

• "Customer satisfaction with airlines drops to its lowest point since 2001, falling for a third year in a row. Faced with the soaring cost of jet fuel, airlines are raising ticket prices, overbooking flights, and charging extra fees for checking more than one bag and for 'premium' seats."

• "The hotel industry ties an all-time high after improving 6% to 75," with "quality" hotels doing better on the scale than price-driven chains.

• "Traditional local and long distance service is up 4% to 73, reaching its highest score since 1999 … Customer satisfaction with wireless telephone service stays at an all-time high for the second consecutive year at 68, with Verizon Wireless topping the industry at 72 … AT&T Mobility (formerly Cingular) registers the biggest gain, improving 4% to 71. AT&T was the first wireless company to let customers use phones from any manufacturer, and it is also the only company to offer Apple’s iPhone."

• "The fast food restaurant industry improves 1% to 78, its highest score ever, while the full-service restaurants drop 1% to 80."

“Households are under pressure from falling housing prices, tight credit, and rising food and fuel costs, making it more difficult for satisfied consumers to spend more even if they want to,” said Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI scale. “The smart move for companies in this economic environment is to make sure they keep the customers they have by shoring up their customer relationships.”

KC's View:
That last sentence is worth repeating:

“The smart move for companies in this economic environment is to make sure they keep the customers they have by shoring up their customer relationships.”

By the way, customer satisfaction with airlines is likely to drop even more with the decision by American Airlines to charge even for the first checked bag. Though I have to admit, as a frequent flyer, that I have no real problem with that. With the cost of oil getting up near a gazillion dollars a barrel, the airlines have to do something…and having them go bankrupt doesn't seem like a good option.

As for the other segments rated by ACSI, I can say from personal experience that I am extremely satisfied with my iPhone and AT&T service (though this may have more to do with Apple than AT&T), I'm satisfied enough with the hotels I stay in, and with the exception of Burgerville in the Pacific Northwest, I've never been satisfied with a fast food experience.

So maybe I'm not exactly typical.