Apple Gets High Customer Satisfaction Rating, Sued by iPhone User

Last Updated Aug 21, 2008 4:55 AM EDT

iPhone experience calls up anger from many users.There's an irony in this week's news for Apple. Abundant consumer good will is evident. Yet, there are signs that the company dangerously close to burning bridges with newer customers who never grew up in the Apple brand cult and might have little patience when things go wrong.

The positive was a customer satisfaction rating. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, which runs out of the University of Michigan, regularly surveys consumers about major corporate brands. In second quarter numbers for 2008, Apple had a score of 85 out of 100, tromping its big named rivals.

But there are a couple of caveats. One is that the ranking put Apple into the personal computer manufacturing camp, where the competition is low. ACSI no longer tracks its TV/VCR/DVD category, which was as close as it used to get to a generic consumer electronics grouping. Given that under 30 percent of Apple's sales came from computer-related equipment last year, you have to wonder if ACSI is talking to the right people these days.

The second caveat is that the data collection for this quarter ended June 30 -- after the wave of hype for the iPhone 3G and before the problems started to appear. So there was a maximum of good feelings and a minimum of reality. Those have been ending for many with the wave of screw-ups that Apple, and its customers, have experienced. Michael Arrington at TechCrunch had a different customer satisfaction score: four out of seven Macs he's purchased over the last year or so have failed in the "this has become an expensive paperweight" sense. Although he likes Apple products, his view was sobering:

They need to get their house in order or they risk alienating all these new customers they've added over the last few years. The new buyers aren't Apple fanatics and won't sit quietly as they try to access broken services via failing hardware.
The statement was prescient. At least one iPhone user has filed suit against Apple and is looking for class action status, alleging that the iPhone's performance falls short of advertising hype:
"One could barely turn on the television without hearing that the new iPhone 3G was 'twice as fast for half the price,'" reads the complaint. Immediately after the purchase, however, [plaintiff Jessica Alena Smith] noticed that the iPhone's data connection, e-mail, SMS, and other communications were slower than expected, and that the device only appeared to connect to AT&T's 3G network less than 25 percent of the time. She also experienced an "inordinate amount of dropped calls," according to the lawsuit.
Living and working around Birmingham, AL, she might have expected better as AT&T supposedly has good 3G coverage in the area. At least the iPhone case hadn't started cracking, as happened for many within weeks of purchase.

"Class action" is a term that makes many companies nervous, and for good reason. Run the numbers. If the company has sold 5 million of the new phones, a fraction of a percentage of customers who are dissatisfied could become a class of tens of thousands and a public relations nightmare, to say nothing of legal expenses. Apple might have to settle to avoid a messy and expensive court case, meaning repair or replacement of units at least.

To date, Apple has been trying to dig itself out out of the technical mess, and a new software upgrade "improves" 3G communications, according to the company. But customers are mixed in their response, with some finding worse connections to AT&T's 3G network after the upgrade. Maybe Apple had better keep its lawyer's number on iPhone speed dial.

iPhone image courtesy Apple Inc.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.