Online retailers and restaurant chains are among the Top 10 companies in marketing firm Nunwood's ranking of Top 100 consumer brands for customer experience. But a financial services firm for military families topped the list. United Services Automobile Association, based in San Antonio, Tex., beat Darden Group brands, not to mention Zappos, Amazon and Apple.
The Nunwood Customer Experience 100 is a new study based on a poll of 4,853 U.S. customers that ranks brands on four factors on a one-to-ten scale: Would you recommend them? How did they meet your needs? Were they easy or difficult to deal with? How did each company meet your expectations?
USAA had a score of 8.34. Second place was Amazon.com with a score of 8.29. Third and fifth place were Darden's Red Lobster (8.19) and Olive Garden (8.02) brands, while Charles Schwab (8.06) was between them at fourth. Forty of the Top 100 brands were retailers, while fast food restaurants and financial services companies each made up a fifth of the full list. Just seven hotels chains were in the Top 100.
Among other online retailers, Netflix (7.97) was sixth and Zappos.com was ninth. Southwest Airlines, at 7th place, was one of only four airlines to make the list. Eighth place was Krispy Kreme, which bested Apple Stores, which tied with Subway, both at 10th place.
Nunwood's chief strategy officer, David Conway, who is also the study's author, said in the report that respondents consistently talked about being treated as an individual by top brands. He writes that "the listening skills of the staff at USAA, the attentiveness of staff at Red Lobster or Olive Garden, the willingness of these staff to go the extra mile to ensure the highest levels of satisfaction" were huge influences on respondents and that firms that excel balance customer services with brand and communications.
"Winners create compelling and joined-up 'Branded Customer Experiences' -- not just great customer satisfaction scores, process or advertising," he writes, adding that customer excellence starts with culture not process, or even listening.
Leading companies, Conway says, look for prospective employees who show they have the capacity for a strong sense of identification with customers. "It starts with employee recruitment and commences from the very first day. For example, USAA new employees rapidly learn what it is like to be part of the military: dining on MREs, looking at the world from the eyes of a soldier in Afghanistan needing to wire money to a sick parent." And he gives the nod to Zappos, which famously scrutinizes prospects by asking the company-employed driver who picks interviewees up at the airport if the prospects were friendly or supercilious during the drive to headquarters.
"At Zappos, inductees spend weeks understanding the Zappos philosophy; at Southwest Airlines, team members learn to express their own personalities at key moments of truth. For all, the commitment is absolute," writes Conway.