We can all exhale now: The University of Michigan has just released the latest results of its American Customer Satisfaction Index (ASCI).

The index is well respected, because as it rates and ranks many service providers across the nation, it help us consumers zero in on the companies most likely to serve us well. It also gives an providers an incentive to boost their scores by making more customers happy.

Here are some of the top scorers, from a host of industry categories:

  • Among Internet brokerages, the average score was 79 out of 100, up 1.3% over last year and a whopping 9.7% since the first score in 2000. Earning top marks in the category was Fidelity Investments, with a score of 84.
  • Among banks, "all others" landed the top score of 80, to edge out Wachovia (NYSE:WB) at 79. Overall, banks saw their scores rise substantially from last year's levels.
  • Among Internet retailers, the group score was 83, with top-scoring Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) beating out eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY).
  • Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN) was the top department store with a score of 80, followed by Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) at 79. Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) and Costco (NASDAQ:COST) earned top marks among specialty retailers, with scores of 83 and 81, respectively. Despite these high scores, the department and discount-stores category saw their average score drop the most, down 1.4%.

You can check out all of the scores for yourself.

How to improve
In trying to figure out how various companies' scores rise and fall, I did a little exploring online to gather some tips for improving customer service. One blog recommended finding out what your customers expect from your business and being sure to deliver on those expectations. Another suggested having your employees become customers for a day, to get a hands-on sense of what your real customers experience.

There's a great danger in not acting to improve one's ASCI score. For example, lots of people think that American carmakers put out products inferior to Japanese cars. Lately, though, Americans' offerings are earning higher marks, but too many people are no longer paying attention and now simply assume that little has changed. Similarly, the maker of my computer has had a reputation for mediocre customer support, but when my hard drive was dying last year, I was impressed with the assistance I received.

Companies need to beef up their scores and get the word out about their improvements. Doing so will benefit them, their bottom lines, and their shareholders.

Fools speak out
National surveys and blogs aren't the only place you can get the skinny on various companies' customer-service practices. At the Fool's discussion boards, for example, I typed "customer service" into our search box and found lots of posts. I invite you to check them out.