Auto dealers are getting better at customer service, but they still have a long way to go.
Four consumer studies released in the last three months report high customer satisfaction with dealerships and with the sales process in general. However, some analysts warn that the results may be misleading.
The most recent survey shows more than 40 percent of new-car buyers reported an improvement in the way they were treated at dealerships since they last purchased cars. And only 8 percent of customers were unhappy with the sales experience, a figure that is in sync with other retail businesses.
The study was conducted by Yankelovich Partners of Norwalk, Conn., for the National Automobile Dealers Association.
MORE GOOD NEWS
Three other studies support some of the rosy results. Those studies were done by Strategic Vision, a San Diego research firm; J.D. Power and Associates, an Agoura Hills, Calif., research firm; and Consumers Union, the Yonkers, N.Y., consumer advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.
The Consumers Union study gave dealers some of the highest marks. Depending on the make, 74 to 96 percent of customers were satisfied with the sales process, according to the survey.
The study NADA commissioned said 79 percent of customers were happy with the dealership; 77 percent were happy with the sales process; and 80 percent were happy with their salesperson. When customers deal with one person - generally the salesperson - throughout the sales process, satisfaction jumps to 90 percent.
A closer look at the statistics shows the high percentages can be misleading, said Len Sherman, a partner at Andersen Consulting in New York. Those percentages combine people who said they were satisfied or very satisfied.
'It is very common in the car industry to take the two top categories (satisfied and very satisfied) and add them together. You get superior customer treatment only in the 'very satisfied' category,' Sherman said.
Some analysts say the surveys fail to draw fair comparisons between dealers and other retailers. The NADA study asked customers to rank shopping at dealerships along with shopping at other high-ticket retailers.
Dealers rank fifth among six retail businesses, but the scores were close, said Jake Kelderman, NADA's executive director of industry affairs and strategic data.
But Jeremy Anwyl, president of Marketec Systems, a Santa Ana, Calif., research firm, said dealers should be compared to highly regarded retailers such as Wal-Mart and Nordstrom.
'Dealers have improved, but the change has been incremental,' said Anwyl.
Ramsay Gillman, NADA president and chairman of Gillman Cos. in Houston, believes that dealers have been more responsive to their customers, particularly as the retail environment gets more competitive.
But Sherman said dealers still do not measure up to large, successful retailers such as Wal-Mart when it comes to retail productivity.
He said: 'Whether you look at sales per square foot, inventory turns or employee profitability, the average auto dealer is way behind where they need to be to run with the best in the business.'