Is Detroit falling behind the Japanese – again?
A survey released this past week showed that the gap in customer satisfaction between the Detroit automakers and Japan's top names has grown over the last year, even though Detroit's new cars are better than ever.
Meanwhile, General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) Chevrolet brand has fallen from above average last year to the very bottom of the heap.
The gap between Japan and Detroit is widening
The survey included about 4,000 randomly selected folks who had recently bought a new car. Last spring, ACSI asked them a bunch of questions to find out how satisfied they were with their cars and with the overall experience.
Among the findings:
- Toyota, Honda, and Subaru each scored 86 points, higher than every American brand included in the survey. Toyota's and Honda's scores have risen in the last year. Luxury brands Mercedes-Benz and Lexus were the only brands to score higher.
- Among American brands, Cadillac and GMC led with scores of 85, just one point behind Toyota.
- Ford (NYSE: F ) scored an 83, the survey average, as did Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY ) . Both scores were unchanged from last year.
- The Chrysler brand gained ground – it's now average – but Chrysler Group's other two brands, Dodge and Jeep, both fell.
- Dodge and Chevrolet tied for worst of the bunch. That was a big fall for Chevy, which was just ahead of Ford a year ago.
So what does all this mean?
Is Detroit doing too much at once?
Since the economic crisis, all three of Detroit's automakers have pushed hard to overhaul their product lines to make them more competitive with the world's best. On the whole, they're succeeding – but that push has come with a cost.
For Ford, new-car launches have proven to be a challenge. Last year's launch of the Escape was followed by several recalls in quick succession – and quality glitches slowed last fall's launch of the Fusion sedan. Both have since gone on to be best-sellers, but buyers of early models may have become frustrated.
Those kinds of things happen when factories are super-busy (several Ford and GM plants are working around the clock now) and automakers are scrambling to get their latest models to dealers. But if Detroit wants those factories to stay busy, it needs to get better about addressing these kinds of issues.
The survey's report explained that recalls in particular can have a big impact on customer satisfaction reports. Both BMW (NASDAQOTH: BAMXF ) and Hyundai (NASDAQOTH: HYMTF ) saw scores fall this year, and both had major recalls in 2013, it noted.
Is this really about the dealers?
But I wonder if there isn't another element of "customer satisfaction" with new-car purchases that isn't really addressed in the ACSI's report, which seems focused on "quality" as a key factor.
Consider this: Luxury brands were among the highest scorers in this survey. Mercedes and Cadillacs aren't necessarily more reliable than Toyotas or Chevys, in terms of problems with the cars themselves. But the experience a customer has when something goes wrong is very different at a Mercedes, Lexus, or Cadillac dealer than it is at a Chevy or Dodge dealer.
More and more, luxury-car dealers have focused on making their customers feel well cared-for, something that is notably lacking at many mainstream dealers.
I think if more Chevy and Ford dealers were to spend a little less time on herding new customers through the door, and a little more time ensuring that they're taking good care of the customers they have, those customers -- all of those customers -- would feel more satisfied with their experience.