Apple clobbers Windows PC makers in customer service survey

But its 'not fair' to blame Microsoft, says analyst

Apple beat rival computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell by wide margins in a recent customers satisfaction survey, an analyst said Monday.

Of the five computer manufacturers that made it into Forrester Research's Customer Experience Index top 114 firms, Apple scored 80%, enough for a label of "good" and 23rd place.

Gateway, HP and Compaq, meanwhile, scored 66%, 64% and 63%, respectively, taking places 64, 72 and 78. Only Gateway did well enough to sneak into the "okay" category; HP and Compaq dropped into the "poor" pigeonhole.

Dell was the lowest-scoring computer maker in the index, getting just 58% -- "poor" by Forrester's standards -- and holding down 93rd place.

The report, based on a survey of 4,500 U.S. consumers, points to Apple's strengths, said Bruce Temkin, the Forrester analyst who authored the poll and collated the results. "The largest gap between its scores and those of its competitors was in being 'easy to use,'" Temkin said. "In this component, Apple's lead ranged from 17 points over Gateway to 28 points over Dell."

Apple's lead was less dramatic in the other elements that combined to make the final score -- "useful" and "enjoyable" -- noted Temkin. Apple beat its competitors in the former by 11 to 14 points, and outscored them by 15 to 25 points in the latter.

While Apple whipped the country's biggest PC makers -- which equip nearly all their machines with one version of Microsoft's Windows or another -- Temkin didn't think it was right to point the finger at only Redmond.

"It's impossible to isolate the impact of the operating system on the overall scores," he said. "It's clear, however, that consumers' interaction with Windows plays a critical role in how they view the overall experience of the PC makers. But it wouldn't be fair to blame Microsoft for the low scores. The PC firms just haven't kept up with Apple."

Temkin, like other analysts, pointed to Apple's retail stores as one major advantage it has over its U.S. rivals, which sell direct to customers or through third-party retail chains like Best Buy, Staples and Wal-Mart. "The Apple store definitely helps," said Temkin. "It creates a compelling retail experience and the immediate, free access to an Apple Genius has revolutionized technical service in the electronics industry."

He also cited other recent research he's conducted that measured how satisfied consumers were with store interactions. "It turns out that Apple's satisfaction rate was well ahead of Best Buy's," Temkin said.

But high satisfaction levels -- at 80%, Apple's would be equivalent to a solid B -- don't necessarily translate into higher sales. According to rival research firm IDC, Apple's U.S. sales slipped during 2009's first quarter, falling 1.1% compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, IDC estimated that HP boosted its unit sales by 12.2% year-over-year.

Although Temkin said that customer experience is "an important driver for sales," he said that the strongest correlation is between satisfaction and "the likelihood that a consumer would buy more from the PC maker."

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