Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. dealers aren't surprised their brands lead the industry in customer satisfaction for the first time ever, according to an annual report from the University of Michigan.
However, the overall industry underperformed in the study and the lackluster economy puts the Detroit Three's turnaround at risk, says Claes Fornell, a business professor who authored the report.
The overall score is 75.9, compared with 76.1 a year ago. Scores for Ford, GM and Chrysler Group LLC witnessed the smallest decline, while Japanese and Korean producers fell the most and gave Detroit its first lead in the study since 2000. As a group, European auto makers remain ahead of the rest of the industry.
“Although very few car makers improved this year, the domestic ones have either held steady or lost less in customer satisfaction compared to international competition,” Fornell adds.
Fornell remembers “not long ago” when Ford and GM were “clustered at the bottom” of the industry.
“We might be making the best car in the world right now,” claims Al Frisch, general partner at Highland Ford Lincoln-Mercury outside Chicago. “But people are just catching up to that fact.”
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus brand, a top performer in previous years, suffered a 4.5% drop in the index, a decline attributed to the auto maker's recall woes.
Dealers contacted by Ward's either dismissed the index or cried foul. A sales rep for one California-based Toyota location laughs off the results, claiming his store sold 60 vehicles last weekend. “More the week before,” he adds, requesting anonymity.
Louis Alfaro, sales manager at Cerritos Buick-GMC in Los Angeles, says Buick's performance in the study reflects an improved sales strategy and sexier product.
“We're trying to listen to our customers better,” he says. “That's who pays us. And Buick has restyled its vehicles. There's more awareness, and GM is putting some good programs out.”
John McEleney, former chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. and owner of GM franchises in Clinton, IA, says the downturn of 2008 and 2009 left his staff more appreciative of their jobs and more focused on pleasing customers.
McEleney also points to better product from GM. “We don't see any of the old squeaks, rattles and water leaks that were so difficult to fix before,” he says.
Chrysler, which continued to struggle in the U. of M. study with its Dodge and Jeep brands scoring at the bottom, has begun showing operating profits after its predecessor's bankruptcy, but no net income.