Study: Sam's Club, Amazon rated high for customer service

Customer service is one of the hardest things to reliably, consistently, accurately and--here's the hardest one--meaningfully measure in retail. But a new study that looked at the behaviors and reactions from some 10,000 U.S. consumers gives some broad hints as to where some retailers are faring well--or not so well.

On the "better at customer service" side, Sam's Club, Amazon, Costco and Nordstrom were at the top--and there are good reasons for that--along with Ace Hardware. The bottom of the list is more intriguing: RadioShack fared the worst and Gap, Best Buy, Walmart, TJMaxx and Ross were right near the bottom. But the second-lowest ranked chain? The Apple Store, despite its legions of fans and its highly-regarded sales associates.

The report, from the Temkin Group, tried putting some of the chains into historical context, such as by pointing out that RadioShack is hardly a newcomer to the poor-customer-service game. "Radio Shack is the lowest-rated retailer for the third consecutive year and 191st overall in 2013. The retailer is also the lowest scoring across all three underlying components, functional, accessible, and emotional," the report said. Report author Bruce Temkin (the firm's managing partner) added: "The retail industry remains one of the better sectors for customer experience, but RadioShack is a real black sheep in the industry."

The survey report's methodology was a Web survey. It's not clear who was invited to participate, but the company only considered answers from shoppers who met "age, gender, income, ethnicity, and geographic" criteria that matched U.S. Census data, Temkin said. It's not clear how many shoppers' answers were therefore actually analyzed. Shoppers were asked to rate experience from the prior 60 days. "While consumers rated many companies, we limited our analysis to only those 246 companies across 19 industries for which we had responses from at least 100 consumers," the report said.

When it comes to online survey methodology, that approach sounds as good as many, but it suffers from the same contextual problems of similar surveys. Assuming these people are self-reporting their specs accurately and that no one is trying to game the system, it's dependent on frail memories of shoppers about experiences during the prior two months.

Those recollections can be colored by quite a few things. Let's say someone has to wait a long time in an Apple Store to get an associate's attention. And the associate couldn't answer several key questions--or answered them incorrectly--and the wrong unit was brought and other customer service problems materialized. But the product worked great at home and the shopper is now in love with her iPad. Those favorable feelings are very likely to color her recollections and, hence, her answers. The same thing works in reverse. If you're Target and you're trying to improve your customer service performance, you want to know customers' reactions on the day of the purchase, which is when store customer service is likely to be the key factor in their assessment.

Questions need to differentiate between what store associates are doing to help the sales process (and certainly post-sales assistance can be key) as opposed to customers' feelings about the product two months later. That said, this particular battle of reality versus perception may be won by perception. If Costco customers in March think they had a bad customer experience in the stores back in January, it doesn't matter whether they really did. Their behavior will be dictated by their perceptions and recollections.

The real problem with reports like this--and the Temkin one appears to be one of the better ones--is that the answers are not nearly specific enough to be actionable. For example, why did Apple do poorly and Ace perform so well? Without follow-up questions that delve into specifics, the data points are interesting but ultimately not that useful.

Temkin dubbed both the performance of Apple and Ace as "surprises" but could only guess as to the reasons. "Ace Hardware was a surprise, but I think the store franchise structure leads to more personal service. I think the interesting item is comparing Sam's Club to Nordstrom. The lesson is that customer experience is about consistently living up to brand promises, not about trying to replicate how other companies deliver their experience. Sam's Club does that well," Temkin said, adding that Apple's surprise might be explained by unmet expectations. "It could be that Apple has a very avid fan base in some segments and not so much in others."

Other top customer service performers according to the survey, in order: PetSmart, BJ's Wholesale, Walgreens, AutoZone and Home Depot. Other weak performers: JC Penney, Marshalls, GameStop and 7-Eleven.

For more:
- check out the press release from Temkin
- see more specifics on the ratings

Related stories:
Best Buy's Customer Satisfaction Problem: How To Measure Happiness
Showrooming Survey: If It Was In Context, It Wouldn't Sound Good
Survey Says Consumers Worry About Mobile Wallet Security. But Does That Matter?
Fortnum & Mason's PCI Weakness: Customer Service