One of the biggest disconnects in the auto industry is how Toyota dealers can sell such great products yet have such lousy CSI scores.
It must be a brand thing because ever since Toyota Motor Sales launched Lexus in the United States, that luxury brand has ranked at or the near the top of the annual J.D. Power and Associates Customer Service Index. But the Toyota brand, which ranks at or near the top of product quality surveys, traditionally finishes much lower in CSI.
Until three years ago, the CSI score factored in the quality of the vehicle. That helped Toyota, but its CSI scores were still well below Lexus.
Then Power eliminated vehicle quality from the study, and rightfully so. Dealers had complained that the quality of the vehicle was out of their control and shouldn't be included in CSI, which measures how dealerships treat customers and is used by some factories as an important metric when it comes time to grant new franchises.
Toyota has languished below the CSI industry average ever since.
In the 2004 study released Tuesday, Toyota ranked 28th out of 39 brands. Lexus finished in 5th place.
To be sure, other automakers have luxury brands that outscore their mass-market brands. Lincoln finished higher than Ford. Acura ranked higher than Honda. Audi soared higher than the troubled Volkswagen.
But no where has the disparity been as pronounced for as long as it has at Toyota.
For years I've asked Toyota Motor Sales execs to explain the great quality/lousy CSI phenomenon. And while they were at it, to explain how a customer can be treated so well at a Lexus store then go next door to a Toyota store owned by the same dealer and be treated shabbily.
At first, the answers made sense.
It's because Lexus is a new franchise, they would say. You know, a clean sheet of paper. New culture. New buildings. New expectations. New way of doing business.
And we expect dealers to take what they learn at their Lexus stores and use it to improve their Toyota stores, the execs would say.
But Lexus was launched 15 years ago. You can't tell me no one has figured out the secret ingredient yet; or that dealers don't know how to treat Toyota customers as if they were Lexus customers.
On Tuesday, Toyota Group Vice President Irv Miller told me the high volume of cars delivered at Toyota dealerships on a typical weekend might contribute to the problem.
Toyota's low CSI score is an opportunity to improve, Miller said, and Toyota's dealership renovation program, known as Image USA II, might help. Nicer furnishings in the showroom and larger service areas ought to help dealers build good customer relationships, he said.
That sounds reasonable, I guess, especially the part about volume. Toyota's owner base is growing rapidly as sales soar. That means more vehicles per dealer that need service.
Maybe Lexus should pay attention. After all, these days the average Lexus dealership sells almost as many cars and trucks as the average Toyota dealership, and despite continually improving CSI scores, the luxury brand slipped from 3rd place in 2002 to 4th place in 2003 and 5th place this year.
Naw. It must be a fluke.