Face it: Getting consumers to open their wallets in a hardy economy is not all that difficult. But when times get tough, companies need to step up their games.
So who's done that? There's a good way to tell: Ask the customers which companies have earned their business.
"Those are the ones," said Kevin Burkhard, an expert in strategic initiatives at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, "that coming out of this (recession) are going to be miles ahead of their competitors."
MSN Money's fourth annual customer-service survey, conducted by Zogby International, reveals which companies have been making their customers happy and likely will reap the benefits for years, and which may be sending customers a message -- "We don't care about you" -- they won't soon forget. (Psst: Can you say "big banks"?)
To gauge these sentiments, MSN Money identified 150 of the largest companies in 15 customer-facing industries, as varied as fast-food chains, airlines, grocers and financial-services companies. Zogby then asked people across the country if they'd had experience with each company's customer service and, if so, would they call the service "excellent," "good," "fair" or "poor"?
To get a sense of how attitudes have changed in the recession, we also compared the percentage of responses that were positive (answers of "excellent" or "good") and negative ("fair" or "poor") in past surveys to those in 2010.
A few of the surprises: Names not prominent in customer-service textbooks --and , for instance -- are making strides toward capturing customers' hearts. In a difficult economy, customers may be putting more emphasis on the bottom line.
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In 2008, 45.5% of respondents in the MSN Money-Zogby International survey gave Wal-Mart positive marks. In 2009, it was 55.3%. In 2010, that number climbed to 56.9%, giving the retail giant one of the largest two-year gains in the survey.
"They're appealing to new customers who have moved down a bit but who want reasonably upscale stuff, but at lower prices," said Praveen Kopalle, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. "They got them in because of the recession, but they want to keep them."
Through what it calls Project Impact, Wal-Mart has created more-appealing visual displays, widened aisles, lowered shelves, put down nicer floors, boosted register staffing, added higher-end products and "fair trade" goods, and even tried to make those now-shorter lines more bearable with well-placed TVs. The company switched its pitch from "always low prices" to one that emphasizes value and lifestyle: "Save money, live better."
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"They finally figured out that making the experience miserable is not worth it for a few pennies," Edwards said. "The middle-market customer is not willing to experience pain to save money."
Rivalscores were higher in the MSN Money-Zogby survey -- 68% gave the discounter positive marks -- but have remained stable over the past three years. In a reversal, experts say, Target is now trying to learn some things from Wal-Mart.
Other discounters making notable gains in the survey included T.J. Maxx (TJX, news, msgs), appealing to "fashionistas" by offering department-store labels at bargain-basement prices (its positive scores rose from 40.5% in 2008 to 53.5% in 2010); Home Depot (HD, news, msgs) (60% to 68.8% positive); and Costco Wholesale (COST, news, msgs) (72.5% to 79.4% positive), now on par with Nordstrom (JWN, news, msgs) (also 79.4% this year).