By Vince Bond Jr., Crain News Service
DETROIT (Aug. 27, 2013) — Although U.S. light-vehicle sales continue to rebound, customer satisfaction with automobiles fell in 2013 for the first time in two years, according to a new report.
The American Customer Satisfaction Index, based on phone and e-mail interviews with 4,078 recent customers randomly picked between April 6 and May 22, found that customer satisfaction with automobiles and light vehicles dropped 1.2 percent to an industrywide average of 83, down from 84 in 2012. Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 100.
The index was started in 1994 and measures customer satisfaction with the quality of 20 foreign and domestic nameplates, along with other factors such as purchase price and the auto dealership experience.
Despite the drop in 2013 satisfaction levels, the industry's customer satisfaction score still tops the original baseline of 79 in 1994.
Authors of the study said the slight drop in satisfaction may be linked to previous improvements in customer satisfaction with the auto industry.
"Higher levels of customer satisfaction create greater customer expectations that auto makers are then challenged to meet—let alone exceed," the authors said today in releasing the report.
While the slight drop in satisfaction isn't "cataclysmic" for manufacturers, companies should still take note and be wary of waning pent-up demand and excess production, David VanAmburg, director of ACSI, said in an interview.
This is especially true for domestic auto makers, which are losing ground to foreign companies in perceived quality, he said.
European manufacturers ranked first with a satisfaction score of 84.7, followed by Asian auto makers with a score of 84.1, and a score of 82 for U.S. companies.
Among brands, Mercedes-Benz topped the survey with a score of 88, up 4 percent from 2012, followed by Lexus, with a score of 87, down 2 percent from 2012.
Third-place Subaru, Toyota and Honda—the highest ranking non-luxury nameplates—each scored 86—3 points above the industry average.
GMC, at 85, tied with Cadillac in fourth place and was the only non-luxury domestic brand north of the industry average.
Ford and Chrysler, which gained 5 points from 2012, tallied scores of 83, matching the industry average.
Mr. VanAmburg said it's unclear how Ford's decision to reduce the fuel economy rating on the Ford C-Max hybrid could impact next year's rating, saying only it wouldn't be "terribly helpful."
The index, he added, doesn't focus on a particular model.
Dodge and Chevrolet came in last with scores of 79, just below Jeep, with a score of 80.
If the U.S. market tightens because of lower consumer demand, competition from Toyota, Subaru and Honda could squeeze Detroit's General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group L.L.C.
Mr. VanAmburg said American companies will need to attract foreign-brand consumers with competitive pricing and a time-tested strategy: building better cars with higher quality and more features.
"The risk is what happens when that pent up demand is gone, and it certainly isn't going to last forever. It's going to run out at some point and you're going to drop back to more regular levels of demand," Mr. VanAmburg said.
"Right now, in the U.S. auto makers are churning out cars like crazy. There certainly is some risk there that, on the one hand, they could be stuck with a lot of inventory," he said. "On the other hand, even if they're not, what is there to build future growth on? Really, the only thing to build future sales growth on is to do a better job of satisfying customers.
"You've got win over some of those purchasers of Asian brands and European brands."
GMC and Chrysler had the largest percentage increases, both 6 percent. Buick—which scored 82—and Chevrolet had the largest declines, at 6 percent.
Recalls can also have an impact on an auto maker's score, the authors said. Frequent or highly publicized recalls often create customer dissatisfaction. Vehicles that were recalled at least once in the past year had an average score of 81 compared to a score of 84 for vehicles that were not recalled.
The American Customer Satisfaction Index was created by the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and is now produced by ACSI L.L.C.
ACSI tracks numerous U.S. industries and consumer goods and publishes results monthly.
The overall decline in customer satisfaction levels with the auto industry could be viewed as a glass half-full scenario.
Consumers may have been pleased with their previous purchases and now expect their latest vehicles to meet or surpass their expectations, Mr. VanAmburg said.
"As the industry has been doing better, particularly since the recession, we've seen higher numbers for many nameplates, and certainly for the industry as a whole. That tends to engender higher expectations in customers the next time they make a purchase," he said. "That can put a little pinch in customer satisfaction as the auto makers are challenged to keep meeting and exceeding those customer expectations."
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.