(FORTUNE Magazine) – Forget gourmet ice cream. What really tickles America's taste buds is canned pineapple. Yep. You read it right. In one of the most comprehensive customer satisfaction studies ever done, the University of Michigan business school and the American Society for Quality Control found that Dole Food's humble pineapple rings and other packaged goods delight consumers like nothing else. To most people, Dole pineapple isn't a canned version of the real thing. It is the real thing--and at 59 cents a can, it's a bargain.

The second annual American Customer Satisfaction Index, on the following pages, looks at thousands of products and services--from computers and cars to movies and municipal police forces--purveyed by some 200 companies and government agencies. On a scale of zero to 100, Dole tops the 1995 list with a score of 90. Things go downhill from there to the Internal Revenue Service, dead last at 54. Between Dole and the taxman, the rest of the economy languishes: 73.7 is the national average--a barely passing grade that is 1.1% lower than last year's. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is the theme song of consumers who clearly believe the nation's companies are doing a crummy job of meeting their needs.

Many of the losers on the list are champs in both size and reputation. Citicorp has the most advanced ATM system in the world and a global strategy as ambitious as Coca-Cola's. But consumers find banking there anything but refreshing. Maybe they resent the long lines or can't understand the bank's home-banking software. They give Citi a score of 71, three points lower than the banking industry average.

Big-name newspapers scored poorly too, perhaps because fewer Americans read them today, and many of those who do love to hate the media. Gannett, which owns USA Today, plunged 12% in 1995, the most of any company on the list, to a paltry 66. To put that number in perspective, Americans gave the same score to their suburban police forces. Nordstrom, famous for taking shoppers by the hand, is not the crowd pleaser you might think, either: The department store barely broke 80. One woman had this to say in Women's Wear Daily of her experience with a Nordstrom personal shopper: "Never during our visit did she ask me how much money I wanted to spend, who my favorite designers were...or what fashion pet peeves I had."

Kids would surely have voted otherwise, but grownups gave a thumbs down to the country's fast-food outlets. The biggest surprise: McDonald's, which scored a measly 65, six points below Wendy's. Consumer Reports finds a real difference in quality between the two: McDonald's basic burger is a "thin, very salty patty that's smaller than the bun." Wendy's, by contrast, was deemed "fairly thin" but "tender," a "meaty patty that's larger than the slightly sweet egg bun." There's a clear message here for McDonald's and every other company that cuts too many corners to keep prices low: Consumers crave quality, and they'll pay for it. At one Manhattan Wendy's, a basic burger cost 22 times as much as it did at a nearby McDonald's.

Excepting companies like Federal Express, a service star that scored 85, the rule of thumb on satisfaction is this: The more contact a company has with customers, the lower its rating tends to be. In other words, give companies a chance to screw up, and they usually do. Airlines (69) and hotels (73) both scored below average. Even Southwest Airlines, widely praised for low fares and on-time arrivals, got a mediocre 76.

Why such dissatisfaction? One reason is that Americans are hard to please. Defect-free products alone don't make them happy. Nor does kid-glove service. Take cars. In the 1980s people clamored for technical excellence. They got it, and then they began whining about the miserable experience of buying and servicing a car. Addressing those problems has helped a lot: Cars, with an overall score of 80, are one of the bright spots on the satisfaction index. About the only thing keeping them out of the canned-pineapple range is price. A midsize car for $20,000 is just too expensive, says David Cole, director of the office for the study of automotive transportation at the University of Michigan.

But therein lies another problem--Americans have expensive tastes in cars, and costs have risen along with expectations. We now take for granted air conditioning, power seats, and beepers that unlock our car and guide us through the dark. Add to those comforts mandatory safety features and pollution control devices, and the result is a car that's beyond the reach of many. Cole says that 20 years ago, people had to work an average of 15 to 17 weeks to afford a car; today it takes almost twice the time--long enough to weigh on the good will of consumers.

Hidden in the automotive scores is a fundamental irony of market share: More share may mean less satisfaction. Put another way, niche marketers are more in touch with their customers' needs than mass marketers and therefore end up satisfying them better. Ford's Lincoln/Mercury division (84) is the highest-scoring U.S. auto producer on the list. But Ford has sold only 34,067 Lincoln Continentals this year. The Ford division of Ford Motor, by contrast, which scored 79, has sold 246,022 Escorts.

It's easy to understand why Ford wants to know whether its customers are as happy as those of GM. But what's the value of a cross-industry index that compares apples and oranges, cars and Coke, running shoes and cigarettes, the IRS and washing machines? "Companies need to understand that the men and women dealing with the bank, the gas station, and the IRS are the same savvy buyers of Dole pineapple," says Armand Feigenbaum, 75, a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, quality meister who has long pushed to raise the level of what America produces.

Stealing one of corporate America's favorite buzzwords, consumers have become zealous benchmarkers, carrying experiences from one part of their lives to another. If FedEx can speed their package across the country in just a few hours, then why should it take all afternoon for the neighborhood supermarket to deliver groceries? If Cadillac will send someone to service a car at 10 p.m. in a snowstorm, then why shouldn't computer companies be able to write an intelligible manual that will teach people to keep their blasted boxes from crashing?

Standards are standards. But does it make sense to apply the same ones to federal agencies as to public companies? The IRS will never please us the way a single M&M does. (Mars, with a score of 89, was a close second to Dole.) And why should the agency give a hoot about a bad report card from its captive audience? Actually, says David Mader, chief of management and administration at the IRS, there is good reason to care: "If we can't create a system that meets customers' needs, then they may no longer participate voluntarily." Last year that failure to participate--i.e., not filing a return or underreporting income--cost the government an estimated $120 billion.

Though consumers tend to shrug off lousy service from monopolies, they don't like to be taken for granted. The U.S. Postal Service has figured this out, and under the leadership of Postmaster General Marvin Runyon, its score rose 13% to 69, the largest percentage increase of any entry on the list (see box). The light is also going on for the utilities industry, now in the throes of deregulation. Central & South West Corp. in Dallas is making serious preparations for the day when consumers will be free to pick their utility the way they now choose their clothiers. Of the 19 large utilities in the index, Central & South west scored the highest at 82; at the bottom was Chicago's Commonwealth Edison (68). Why so huge a gap? Rates explain a lot of it: Chicago residents pay an average of 11 cents per kilowatt hour for their electricity; folks in Texas pay 7 cents.

But service also counts. Central & South West Chairman E.R. Brooks says the wake-up call came for him after Washington ordered the breakup of AT&T and deregulated the natural gas industry. "I realized we needed to start building customer loyalty," he says. He began a pilot project in Laredo, Texas, that gives 2,500 Central & South West customers a little more say over their monthly bills. Each family is supplied with a control box it can use to decrease energy consumption during peak hours, when electricity costs the most, and increase it when rates drop.

Consumer neglect cuts right to the bottom line. So does coddling. Investors who skim the cream from this index might profit smartly. Wharton accounting professor David Larcker analyzed the 1994 list and discovered this: While the S&P 500 rose 2.7% over the six months beginning in August 1994, the companies in the top quartile of the satisfaction index rose 5.3%. Confining one's investments to the highest-scoring food, personal care, and tobacco companies would have delivered even more satisfying returns. A portfolio consisting of Dole, Hershey, Clorox, H.J. Heinz, Procter & Gamble, American Brands, Pepsico, Dial, Coca-Cola, and Sara Lee would have beaten the S&P by nearly 15 percentage points during that period.

Since loyalty pays off only when consumers go to repurchase, the index may be an even better predictor of stock prices than it is a reflector of past performance. So perhaps it knows something about Nike and Reebok that isn't yet apparent in their financial performance. Nike, widely recognized as the better managed of the two companies, has sprinted ahead in both market share and revenue growth. Its stock was recently trading at an all-time high of $61 a share, while Reebok's has been languishing in the low 30s.

Yet consumers voted the other way on satisfaction. Between 1994 and 1995, Nike fell four points, to 78, while Reebok jumped five points, to 80. By looking closely at the components of the scores, Claes Fornell, a University of Michigan economist and godfather of the index, concludes that Nike's customers are more price sensitive than Reebok's; in other words, they don't think they're getting their money's worth.

Another of the list's seeming anomalies involves the long-distance phone companies. Their raucous advertising wars would lead you to believe that price is what people care about most. Wrong. MCI has traditionally offered the best deals around, but with a score of 75, it's losing the popularity contest. Sprint, which charges a flat rate of 10 cents a minute during peak hours, surged 5.1% this year to 83, the same score as AT&T. Communications analyst Brian Adamik of Boston's Yankee Group says that what consumers most want when they pick up the phone is a superior connection. Brand recognition, good customer service, and billing convenience come next--all ahead of rates. Says Adamik: "From its earliest days, with ads that let you hear a pin drop, Sprint has had a leading-edge image."

Sprint works hard to build loyalty once it lands a customer. Stay with it for a year, and you get a 10% refund on your annual bill. Its service reps are trained to smile when they talk to customers "because it shows through in your voice," says Lisa Carter, who works in the Sacramento call center. "We also use the word 'I' a lot when we speak. I make sure to say things like 'I understand what you're saying.' I never use words like 'policy.' "

Carter's most challenging service call came from New Mexico late one night in August. A man called to ask about the 100 free minutes Sprint was offering new customers at the time. Then the conversation shifted. "He said he was really depressed," recalls Carter. "He said he was facing surgery the next day and was afraid he wouldn't make it. He said no one cared about him, and that he had a gun to his head. I kept saying 'There must be someone out there who cares about you.' " He finally mentioned a name in Ohio, and Carter managed to track down his stepsister. Says Carter: "I got a call from the woman later saying, 'I can't believe you went out of your way to find me.' "

Ultimately, a business is worth nothing if it fails to satisfy its customers. Sometimes the needs are as urgent as those of Carter's caller. But usually people will settle for being thrilled by the technology, seduced by the price, and transported by the taste. What they don't want is to have corporate America kiss them off. Or put them on hold. Or call them UBD (user brain-dead, dummy), the acronym one major computer company reserves for its unsophisticated clientele. American consumers are nothing if not activists. If they feel mistreated, they walk. Even worse, they talk. Research shows that people tell only eight friends about a truly satisfying experience. Deliver one bum ride, though, and more than 20 people will hear about it.