Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
McDonald's just can't climb out of the customer-satisfaction cellar.
For the 20th year in a row, McDonald's ranks dead last in customer satisfaction in a national survey of patrons of 12 major fast-food chains by the American Customer Satisfaction Index.
Papa John's and Pizza Hut tied for first place — where Papa John's has ranked for three consecutive years. Two other pizza chains, Domino's and Little Caesars, tied for third place.
But after three years of better numbers, McDonald's customer satisfaction fell 2.7% from a year ago. The good news: McDonald's satisfaction is up nearly 13% from when the annual survey began 20 years ago.
"McDonald's has gone from being way lower than the nearest competitor to within striking distance of the rest of the industry," says Forrest Morgeson, director of research at ACSI. "The bottom is not where you want to be, but at least they're getting closer to the thick of things."
The survey of 4,572 customers, chosen at random and contacted via phone and e-mail, was done Jan. 13 to March 11.
McDonald's says it takes the results seriously. "We always listen to our customers and appreciate hearing feedback from them ... as it helps us improve and evolve," said spokeswoman Lisa McComb in a statement.
Why can't McDonald's break out? "With size comes a much more diverse group of customers," says Morgeson. "As your customers get more diverse, it gets more difficult to satisfy them all."
Another reason: McDonald's biggest fans typically are kids, not the adults ages 18 and up in the survey, notes Morgeson. "Remember, it's often the kids who insist on going to McDonald's."
Several other familiar chains took hits in the survey:
• Subway. Satisfaction rankings slipped 6% to tie for fifth place with Wendy's. Consumers showed concern about pricing, says Morgeson. Subway declined to comment.
• Starbucks. Satisfaction rankings fell 5% to a tie for seventh with Burger King. Customers are pleased with Starbucks' quality, but concerned about pricing, says Morgeson. "Serving our customers is our top priority, and we are always striving to exceed their expectations," said spokeswoman Linda Mills in a statement.
• KFC. It took the biggest year-over-year fall in the 2014 survey — down 8.6%. Customers are disappointed in both quality and pricing. "When you drop that much, you have to pay attention," says Morgeson. KFC says it is. In April, it rolled out a new customer-service platform to gather more "meaningful and actionable feedback," said Jason Marker, general manager of KFC U.S., in a statement.