For companies looking to adequately gauge their brands' customer experience, they need not look any further than the customers themselves. No matter what tools and technology may be in place, direct customer feedback provides the necessary insight companies need in order to improve or sustain their current level of service, putting customers at the heart of every business.

As part of its sixth-annual "Customer Experience Index 2013", Forrester Research explores the customer experience quality of 154 large U.S. brands across 14 industries. From retailers and hotels, to airlines and insurance firms, this study examines which major companies are leading the way in the customer experience space and which brands fail to meet customer needs and expectations. The survey, which polled 7,506 U.S. consumers, asked respondents three questions: "Thinking of your interactions with these firms over the past 90 days… How enjoyable were they to do business with? How easy were they to do business with? How effective were they at meeting your needs?"

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Consumers were asked to rank each brand they do business with based on these three areas—value, ease, and "enjoyability"—each one a 1 to 5 scale. To calculate their CXi scores, Forrester then subtracted the percentage of customers who reported bad experiences from the percentage reporting good experiences for each of three questions to find every brand's average score.

The following statistics highlight how these major brands measure up and which companies are leading and lagging in customer experience:

  • Sixty-one percent of brands received ratings of "OK," "poor," or "very poor," marking only minor improvements over 63 percent in 2012. However, "OK" brands outweighed "poor" or "very poor" brands, indicating an overall shift in the right direction.
  • For the fourth year in a row, retailers (82) and hotels (79) had highest average industry scores, while TV service providers (58), Internet service providers (57), and health insurance providers (56) came in at the bottom.
  • Within the banking industry, USAA scored 85—seven points ahead of the next best, SunTrust—signaling its superior customer experience. HSBC and Fifth Third tied for last with 53.
  • Southwest Airlines led the airline industry with a score of 81, while JetBlue Airways followed close behind with a score of 78. United Airlines landed at the bottom with 54.
  • The gap between industry leaders and laggards widened to 22 points for investment firms as Vanguard set a new high with a score of 83 and Wells Fargo Advisors hit a new low of 61. The gap between wireless service providers also grew to 22 points, up from 12 in 2012, as US Cellular jumped from 73 to 77 and T-Mobile dropped six points to 55.
  • Marshalls, the discount retailer, surpassed all brands across industries with its score of 89. In fact, the top four companies overall—Marshalls, Courtyard by Marriott, Sam's Club, and Target—exemplify the upward trend for dominant value brands, which account for 10 of the top 13 companies.

Key takeaway: Though the economy remains unsteady, value brands continue to stand strong and gain momentum by delivering high-quality, consistent customer experiences no matter the industry. As noted, 10 of the 13 top-scoring brands are considered value brands, showing their distinct prominence and leadership in the customer experience space. Their success rests not only on affordable goods and services, but also on enjoyable experience that has fostered future loyalty. Forrester highlights that these CX leaders will also benefit once the economy begins to improve, as they will bounce back faster thanks to the customers that stood by them during the downturn and will continue to support them. As for those whose CXi scores have lagged, they must be patient and believe in the long-term power of customer experience. They must implement CX programs and nurture their efforts no matter how slow progress may be, for it's this persistence that will help them remain competitive in the future.