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Exchanges' Customer Services Scores Tank -- Here's Why

If you were paying very close attention last week (or read Military.com Feb. 21) you might have heard that a new report says that the Exchange tied with WalMart for the worst customer service score in the nation in 2014.

Yikes.

A report says the Exchange ties with Walmart for worst customer service in the nation. What's really going on? http://wp.me/p1d7d0-8ms

That publicly released report looked only at Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). What it didn't show was that the scores for all of the exchange store companies -- Navy and Marine Corps -- AND the commissary also received scores that were substantially lower than in years past. And while AAFES was the lowest at 68, considered pretty bad by industry standards, if you compared their 2014 scores with 2013, things looked even worse. The Marine Corps Exchange, for example, dropped 13 points while AAFES went down seven.

Did everyone suddenly wake-up one morning and realize that they didn't like the Exchange after all?

No. The secret is in who they were asking to start with.

For the 2014 report, the people conducting the study started asking a different group of exchange users. In the past, according to American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) officials, they've surveyed retiree shoppers almost exclusively for their sample of 250 users per company.

This time? They made sure about half of those surveyed were active duty. As it turns out you, active duty shopper, don't like the exchange of commissary nearly as much as your retiree counterparts.

AAFES officials pointed out that it really isn't fair to compare 2013's scores with the lower one from 2014 to demonstrate a change within the company because they used two different methods -- all land line contact vs. email, mobile and land line -- to survey two very different groups of people -- retirees only vs. half retirees and half active duty.

And they are right. But what those scores can fairly demonstrate is the difference between how retirees view the shopping benefit from a customer service perspective and how active duty users view it.

We know from other studies, like this one, that both groups of people value having the benefit available. They don't want it to go away and they don't want it to take major cuts. (The Exchanges services all also told me that their internal surveys, which examine a much larger sample of customers all give them significantly higher ratings. You can read all about that in the Military.com story.)

But, logically, valuing the benefit and thinking the customer service is good can be two wildly different things.

According to officials with ACSI, younger people (in this case "active duty") always, ALWAYS give lower customer service ratings to stores than older ones (in this case "retirees"). It's not that we have higher standards, per se, it's that we have different, more stringent ones.

And if the new scores compared to the old scores tell us anything, it's that the Navy Exchange, Marine Corps Exchange, AAFES and Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) all aren't making the young people nearly as happy as they do the retirees.

Surprise? Not really. We know that retirees are willing to use the Exchanges and commissary simply because they can. Commissary insiders have, in the past, regaled me with stories about older retirees who drive three hours just to visit the Fort Meyer, Va. commissary  -- not because it saves them more than they are spending in gas, but because they shop there because they earned it.

It may  be another reason that Joint Base Lewis-McChord is home to one of the largest AAFES stores in the country on the McChord side. Thanks to the presence of a VA hospital, Madigan Army Medical Center and some pretty stellar weather and scenery, the area surrounding JBLM is home to huge numbers of retirees. And those people love shopping at that exchange. Why? My guess would be "because they can."

The ACSI scores also lend a layer to another interesting debate -- whether or not combining the Exchanges with the commissary is the solution to commissary cuts. If the scores are correct, and active duty users don't like any of the stores as much as we previously thought, is it worth keeping any of them around? Again, this report said unequivocally "yes" (and were the folks that most recently suggested combining them).

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