Report: Detroit losing ground to imports in auto customer satisfaction. Why?


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The ACSI just released its August 2013 report on automobiles, based on interviews with 4K customers earlier this year. Domestic cars have slipped back after gaining ground in recent years.


  • Overall auto CSAT dropped slightly to 83, from last year’s all time high of 84
  • Domestic cars trail European and Asian cars, with the widest gap in 5 years
  • Luxury rules. Mercedes-Benz leads, up 4 points to a score of 88. Toyota’s Lexus slipped 2 points but retains the number 2 spot at 87, followed by Subaru, Toyota and Honda at 86.

Source: ACSI

This is not good news for Detroit automakers, because ASCI’s model has been found to be predictive of future sales.

As an American, I’ve been cheering improvements by U.S. automakers. Ford has made an impressive turnaround, without a government bailout I might add, and GM has made good strides too since the 2008 financial crisis.

But after a strong ASCI improvement in 2012, domestic nameplates have dropped back again with Ford the main reason for the decline.

What drives car satisfaction?

This prompted me to wonder, what is the relative importance of the car itself (quality, reliability, styling, features,…) vs. dealer experience (purchase, service) vs. price? I put that question to David VanAmburg, managing director of the ACSI, and here is how he responded.

Research shows that it’s vehicle quality first, then price, then lastly the dealer experience. This makes sense because for the most part the three facets of experiences also rank the same way in order of duration. In other words, the car is what the customer experiences on a daily basis throughout the life of the purchase, in many cases several years. The price may or may not involve financing, which has its own duration, often not the length of ownership of the vehicle, but a significant period of time nonetheless, reminding the owner of the cost.

The dealer experience is the most fleeting of the different elements–by definition it actually precedes the period of ownership of the vehicle as it comprises the exploratory and purchase experience, after which, apart from the occasional service experience, it simply does not factor much into the ownership experience post-purchase. This is the nature of durables products experiences, which by definition have long timeframes of ownership. By contrast, the shopping/purchase elements become much more important to the overall experience with retail, for instance, where one shops the same grocer or general merchandise store regularly and encounters service as part of each experience.

David’s response makes sense to me as a consumer, because when I’m in the market for a new car, I think mostly about the, um, car. The quality, styling, performance and reliability are all top of mind, and price is the filter for what I’m willing to spend.

The dealer experience is more of a tie breaker, to me. If you can find the car you want at more than one dealer, the best dealer wins. If a dealer sells multiple brands that are somewhat similar (think domestic dealers selling GM and Ford) then the dealer experience is more critical.

My “product first” mentality seems at odds with some Customer Experience (CX) proponents who seem to argue that the CX is the main driver of loyalty these days. I agree CX is important even to durable goods manufacturers who may undervalue its importance. And the CX is certainly critical to most retailers (including car dealers). But for durable products the “product” still reigns supreme.

So my advice to Detroit is simply this: Build better cars.

Anyway, that’s my take on it. What’s yours? In your most recent car purchase, was your choice driven by the car or the dealer?

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