American Customer Satisfaction Index and the Economy

The ACSI Measurement Model

If you are not familiar with the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), it is a unique organization that engages in “national cross-industry measure of customer satisfaction in the United States,” as well as user satisfaction with public agencies:

This strategic economic indicator is based on customer evaluations of the quality of goods and services purchased in the United States and produced by domestic and foreign firms with substantial U.S. market shares. The ACSI measures the quality of economic output as a complement to traditional measures of the quantity of economic output.

In addition to its extensive coverage of the private sector, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) benchmarks citizen satisfaction for a multitude of federal agencies and departments, as well as two high-usage services of local governments (police and solid waste management). In 1999, the federal government selected the ACSI to be a standard metric for measuring citizen satisfaction. Now, over a decade later, ACSI coverage of federal government continues to grow. All told, the ACSI measures citizen satisfaction with over 100 services, programs, and websites of federal government agencies.

For both government and private-sector measurement, the ACSI uses customer interviews as input to a multi-equation econometric model. Customers’ responses about a government agency are aggregated to produce its ACSI benchmark, thus results are specific to each individually measured organization. Because most agencies do not deal in economic transactions in a strict sense, the ACSI government model includes outcomes appropriate to the public sector in lieu of price-related measures.

See the full ACSI benchmarks and reports for all industries (including government) here.

Why does this matter?

The most obvious use of the ACSI econometric measurements is to provide a field poll assessment of the mood of the marketplace. It almost functions like backend support for marketers. But more interesting is the potential tie to economic activity:

ACSI’s time-tested, scientific model provides key insights across the entire customer experience. ACSI results are strongly related to a number of essential indicators of micro and macroeconomic performance. At the micro level, companies that display high levels of customer satisfaction tend to have higher earnings and stock returns relative to competitors. At the macro level, customer satisfaction has been shown to be predictive of both consumer spending and gross domestic product growth (click image for enlarged view).

ACSI National Q12015

It is interesting to compare these results with a general reading of the overall economy, such as the U.S. Economy in a Snapshot by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where the assessment of consumer behavior is that “spending remains tepid.” This is in agreement with an article (contrarian tone) in the Investor’s Business Daily by the ACSI’s founder from earlier this year:

Despite a flurry of good economic news, the U.S. recovery, while better than just about any other country at the moment, will not gain much momentum unless there is a substantial increase in consumer demand.

Following the February jobs report, which showed better-than-expected employment growth, many economic commentators contend the economy is poised for sizable expansion in the near future, perhaps by as much as 4% or better…But neither is likely unless consumer spending strengthens substantially. In fact, spending growth probably needs to double in order for the economy to take off.

What is particularly interesting is the correlation the IBD makes to consumer satisfaction and meager wage growth. We can understand wage growth and discretionary income, but the link to consumer satisfaction may not be as easily recognizable:

Except for nondiscretionary spending, which only increases proportionally to population growth, consumers need a reason to spend and the means to do it. Recent data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), which measures the quality of economic output from the perspective of the user of that output, show that customer satisfaction in the U.S. is down for a fourth consecutive quarter.

It is not that consumer standards or expectations are now higher somehow. Rather, consumers are finding the shopping and consumption experience less satisfying. Too many companies have been unable to create a satisfied customer, which, according to the late Peter Drucker, is the fundamental purpose of business.

The article concludes, from a different perspective that until there is pent up consumer demand, the modest gains (at best) are what will continue.

The Marginally Attached – A Look at the Five Largest States

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines marginally attached in simple, straightforward language:

Marginally attached workers
Persons not in the labor force who want and are available for work, and who have looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months (or since the end of their last job if they held one within the past 12 months), but were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey. Discouraged workers are a subset of the marginally attached.

Discouraged workers
Persons not in the labor force who want and are available for a job and who have looked for work sometime in the past 12 months (or since the end of their last job if they held one within the past 12 months), but who are not currently looking because they believe there are no jobs available or there are none for which they would qualify.

For the purpose of illustration, the FRED graph below has the top five states  selected (which accounts for more than a third of the nation’s population), showing the trend of marginally attached workers for more than a decade.

The trend lines show the inherent headwinds since the beginning of economic recovery in June 2009. The still “on the grid” numbers of the marginally attached and discouraged workers has hung on much longer than a decade ago. What’s more, six years into recovery, not one of these states has returned to its pre-recession level of the marginally attached:

Marginally Attached-Pre-Recession

This could be due in part to an aging population as well as population shifts and growth in general. This also illustrates why for so many, the recovery has not felt like a recovery. The reality is, jobs are being added as illustrated by the decreased levels of the marginally attached from the corresponding peak levels by state (peak levels were between July 2010 and October 2011):

Marginally Attached Percentage Below Peak Levels

PBS American Experience: Silicon Valley – The History, Sociology, Timing and Sometimes Luck that Started a Revolution

If you think the history of the silicon chip is a cure for insomnia, think again. Two quotes (or as close as I can remember) say it all, the first, regarding breakthroughs. “Breakthroughs historically do not just happen. They are a product of when the time is right, and the time has come for such a thing.” So on the one hand, we can strive for excellence and push for a culture of creativity and this will certainly produce positive results. But especially in the case of a radical and essential breakthrough, one that we would look back on as disruptive to a system, technology, culture or business, the convergence of events is just as important as the components driving the change.

From the PBS Introduction:

Led by physicist Robert Noyce, Fairchild Semiconductor began as a start-up company whose radical innovations would help make the United States a leader in both space exploration and the personal computer revolution, changing the way the world works, plays, and communicates. Noyce’s invention of the microchip ultimately re-shaped the future, launching the world into the Information Age.

The next quote, regarding timing and demand as they relate to the brilliance behind groundbreaking change. “Brilliant people exist all the time. It’s matching up a brilliant person in the right place, at the right time when people want what that brilliant person has to offer.” We can push and push for change or a breakthrough idea, but ultimately, the timing of that change must correspond with demand in order to harness the brilliance that will fuel the progress.

IBM’s Mysterious “Big Blue” Nickname

In honor of IBM’s conference call, I wanted to revisit the topic of the provenance of the nickname, Big Blue.

IBM's Mysterious Ubiquitous Name - Big Blue. Logo "bluing" courtesy http://howbehindwow.com/

IBM’s Mysterious Ubiquitous Name – Big Blue. Logo “bluing” courtesy http://howbehindwow.com/

I like urban legends not because they are believable, but because of what they say about human nature and sociology. Urban legends are also amusing not necessarily to believe, but they are fun to engage in (as if to believe) the idea of them being true, such as us humans ingesting eight spiders per year in our sleep.

A search for the provenance of the name Big Blue turns up very little historical documentation. Some say the term was first used in the early 1980′s, with the self-obviating point of the adjective big. But that doesn’t explain much. There are plenty of organizations with significant size, extent, influence, market share or intensity, and we don’t automatically add big to their description. The blue part seems to have no plausible theories at all. I have tried in vain to find the origins of this name, as I found myself instinctively using it years ago before ever realizing it was an ubiquitous nickname. I searched Google Books for the term and have been able to move the date back to 1975 with this mention. But the truth is, no one really knows the origin, including IBM:

How did IBM get its distinctive nickname, “Big Blue?” While the name came about organically, with no known single source, the first official reference in print to IBM as “Big Blue” was in BusinessWeek magazine:

“No company in the computer business inspires the loyalty that IBM does, and the company has accomplished this with its almost legendary customer service and support … As a result, it is not uncommon for customers to refuse to buy equipment not made by IBM, even though it is often cheaper. ‘I don’t want to be saying I should have stuck with the “Big Blue,”’ says one IBM loyalist. ‘The nickname comes from the pervasiveness of IBM’s blue computers’” (No. 1’s Awesome Strategy, BusinessWeek, June 8, 1981).

So there you have it. Isn’t that great, kind of mysterious and interesting? Or at least, it’s fun to engage in any of the possible explanations.

Population Shifts After Ten Years: 2002-2003 and 2012-2013

According to the U.S. Census, population shift has occurred for the following reasons:

Spurred in part by growth of the energy sector, some metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas in North Dakota and west Texas are now experiencing rapid population gains, while growth has slowed or halted for some formerly fast-growing areas in the South and West.

What you immediately notice are the dark green shaded areas (representing 3+ percent growth), many of which that were, of course, where the height of the madness was occurring during the real estate boom. Some of these areas were the southwest states and especially California (generally anywhere east of the San Andreas Fault). As well as selected areas in southern states, and even a few high-growth inland areas that saw a tremendous ramp up during the early to mid-2000s such as Idaho.

The last ten seconds of the video shows a contra trend, practically wiping out growth area by area in the same manner that it appeared ten years prior. Corresponding to the quote above regarding the impetus for the current migration in recent years, you see 3+ percent growth in North Dakota as well as the current popularity of Texas. Another very interesting shift is from the north western, Reno area of Nevada to the north eastern area of the same state. What was driving that growth?

At the risk of sounding a bit like Pudd’nhead Wilson for pouring over such things, additional data sets and customizable maps for metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas can be found here, the interactive map here.

The Sociology of Californians and Wealth Disparity

No matter what your background, leaning, or even possibly, previously held beliefs, there is no denying what many people sense anecdotally at a minimum, and now backed up by a growing body of data: income inequality is on people’s minds. Every economic forum I have attended in the last three years has made mention of this, whether the event was delivered by an economist, politician or business leader. The Field Research Corporation released a study with the following findings,

Majorities of Californians are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth in the state are distributed and believe the gap between the rich and the rest of the population is greater now than in the past. Yet, the public is divided about the extent to which government should try to reduce the wealth gap. In addition, Californians are evenly split when asked about raising the state minimum wage beyond its already scheduled increases.

Regarding the last section cited above, the results are exactly as expected when dealing with any public policy issue that involves the two major parties. Quite honestly, I think that is the part of the poll that most people are least interested in, due to the cynicism and general lack of civility in the discussion of public policy when either party stands to gain or lose as a result of an issue.

There is a very interesting note to this poll as it relates to U.S. born California residents versus foreign-born immigrants,

U.S.-born Californians are more likely to report dissatisfaction with the wealth gap and feel it is greater than in the past. However, they are less apt to feel that government should be doing a lot to try to reduce the gap, and a majority opposes increasing the state minimum wage beyond its already scheduled increases than the foreign-born public.

Foreign-born immigrants, on the other hand, are not nearly as dissatisfied with the way income is distributed in California and are less apt to feel it is greater now than in the past. Yet, a plurality supports government taking a more active role to reduce the wealth disparity, and a majority supports increasing the state minimum wage.

So there is an odd, inverse relationship of opinion among all respondents depending on where they were born and how they feel about the variance in income distribution. And that very same inverse relationship exists among the same respondents on the role of government in resolving this problem. In an interesting footnote to this discussion, the Field Poll found the same pattern to be true among the California Latino population, “majorities of California Latinos born in the U.S. say they are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed, while Latinos born outside the U.S. are more likely to be satisfied.”

The material point of the survey is the margin of majority who hold these views, cutting across a number of sociological backgrounds as shown in the table below:

Field Poll Income Inequality