Apple has moved from last to first in a US PC customer satisfaction survey.

The survey shows improvement in customer satisfaction levels across the industry in the US, and improved technical support seems to be part of the matrix, a study released yesterday by the University of Michigan reveals.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) measures the attitudes of consumers in several different categories, including PCs and online Web sites, on a scale from zero to 100. For the second quarter of 2004, the PC industry posted a score of 74, which represents an improvement of 2.8 per cent compared to last year and a level the industry hasn't achieved in four years.

Overall customer satisfaction with the PC industry has rebounded as vendors have focused on support and ease of use, said Claes Fornell, professor of business at the University of Michigan Business School and director of the ACSI.

Happy customers buy again

Apple and Gateway recorded the largest improvements in customer satisfaction. With a score of 81, making a 5 per cent improvement in each of the last two years. Apple's customers are the most satisfied of any PC vendor measured in this index.

Apple's success comes from a focus on innovation and improving tech support, Fornell said. Just about every other PC vendor received technical support scores that were less than the scores they received for the quality of their products, but Apple was the only company that received high marks for both quality and support, he said.

"A company that improves in customer satisfaction tends to perform better financially by generating more repeat business, which leads to greater profits and higher stock price," said Fornell. "Sales of Apple computers are up and its stock value has improved more than 50 per cent over the past year."

Gateway's standing has improved based on its acquisition of eMachines, Fornell said. The company's products are now seen as having greater value because of the addition of eMachines' low-cost desktops and notebooks, he said. Gateway received a score of 74, in line with the industry average.

Dell, HP, others

Dell's customers were only slightly less satisfied than Apple's, according to the index. The PC market share leader received a score of 79.

HP managed to eke out slight improvements in customer satisfaction, but it remains below the industry average. The ACSI breaks out HP's scores for both HP-branded PCs and Compaq-branded PCs, and both were below the industry average at 71 and 69, respectively.

Fornell blamed the integration efforts following HP's acquisition of Compaq for its troubles in maintaining customer satisfaction. For some years prior to the merger, the separate brands led the ACSI, but both brands have not regained the scores they achieved in the late 1990s, he said.

The ASCI identifies about 250 customers of each PC vendor and surveys them on their attitudes toward that company.