iPhone waltzes into top spot of US phone satisfaction index, small carriers trump the giants

iPhone 4S side view

We know almost too well how smartphones perform in US market share; what we don't usually see is how happy customers are once the shrink wrap's off. Going by a newly-expanded American Customer Satisfaction Index, it's the iPhone that most scratches the itch at a score of 83. Despite having just been added, Apple was noticeably ahead of a three-way tie between HTC, LG and Nokia at 75. You might not want to look if you're a freshly-minted RIM executive: the BlackBerry made its freshman debut on the charts at the bottom, or 69. Big carriers have their own reasons to wince, too, knowing that smaller carriers like US Cellular and TracFone scored higher on the happiness meter than incumbents hiking service fees. While there's definitely some wiggle room for your own experience to have been better or worse, if you were an iPhone owner on a regional carrier in the past few months, you were statistically the most likely to be on Cloud Nine.

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Cell Phones & Wireless Service: Apple's Debut Changes the Game

Starting this year, the ACSI has expanded its coverage of the cell phone industry, adding another four companies to the roster of cell phone firms. Customer satisfaction with the cell phone industry (part of the manufacturing/durable goods sector) slips 1.3% to 74, while wireless service drops 1.4% to 70.

For many users, the advent of smartphone technology has dramatically changed what they look for in a cell phone device. Two smartphones makers, Apple and Research in Motion (RIM), enter the ACSI with very different results. At 83, Apple (iPhone) leads the field by a long shot, while RIM (Blackberry) lags behind as the least satisfying at 69.

"Companies with weak customer satisfaction often have weak stock performance," notes [ACSI founder Claes] Fornell. "RIM's sales are slumping amid a bevy of problems, from hardware and software issues to server lapses that have caused email and messaging outages. Over the past year, share price for RIM has virtually collapsed."

At 83, Apple's iPhone is a game changer when it comes to customer satisfaction. No other cell phone company has ever broken into the 80s. Apple's nearest competitors this year are three companies tied at 75: Nokia (+3%) and ACSI newcomers LG and HTC.

Motorola declines 5% to 73 and ties the aggregate of smaller manufacturers (-1%). This may be unwelcome news for Google as it hopes to make the most of its Motorola acquisition and widen the user base for its Android operating system. Samsung, another company that relies heavily on Android, backtracks 4% to a below-average score of 71.

On the service side, the aggregation of smaller carriers (such as TracFone and U.S. Cellular) maintains a strong lead at 76, despite a small downturn (-1%). All companies show modest ACSI declines except for AT&T Mobility. Last year, customer satisfaction for AT&T and T-Mobile tumbled amid merger talks. This year, AT&T recoups its loss (+5%), but only to tie T-Mobile (-1%) at 69. On the other hand, AT&T is now close to rival Verizon (-3% to 70), whose score has dwindled over three years. At 71, Sprint Nextel nominally grabs first place among the big carriers and holds nearly steady (-1%) following three years of swift ACSI progress (up from 56 in 2008).