Editor's note: This report has been updated to correct the number of years Mercedes-Benz has topped the study.
Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, Volkswagen Credit and Citizens One Auto Finance ranked highest in retailer satisfaction in their segments in J.D. Power's 2018 U.S. Dealer Financing Satisfaction Study.
For Mercedes-Benz Financial, it was the fourth straight year atop the annual study, which was released Monday. The study, based on responses from 4,476 dealers between April and May, measured dealer satisfaction with noncaptive, mass-market and luxury-brand lenders.
Among mass-market brand captives, Volkswagen Credit ranked highest with a score of 956 on a 1,000-point scale, moving up from No. 2 in 2017. This year's runner-up was Subaru Motors Finance at 928. Third was Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp. at 901.
In the luxury brand captive category, Mercedes-Benz Financial was No. 1 with a score of 976. Audi Financial Services, at 944, and Infiniti Financial Services, at 942, rounded out the top three.
Citizens One Auto Finance took first among noncaptive lenders, at 921, with TD Auto Finance second at 917. Chase Automotive Finance finished third at 869.
In a separate floorplanning segment, TD Auto Finance took first with a score of 994, followed by Mercedes-Benz Financial at 989 and Volkswagen Credit at 984.
Respondents in this year's study put a premium on their relationship with their lender's credit staff and sales reps -- the lender relationship was the heaviest-weighted driver of satisfaction across all lender segments the study measured. Dealers want prompt and capable responses from the lender as swift problem resolution is becoming critically important to closing deals.
"The credit desk is where the dealer calls to get action. Any changes to a transaction, or a variety of types of questions that dealers have, will be speed-dialed to the credit desk," Jim Houston, senior director of the Automotive Finance Practice at J.D. Power, told Automotive News. "If I can get ahold of somebody when I have a problem -- and that problem is resolved on first contact -- that's the highest satisfaction I can have."
When lenders tell dealers how best to reach them for nontraditional questions, resolution time decreases, Houston said. Dealers scored their lender experience higher on average when credit staff is readily available for questions. Satisfaction dives 163 points when dealers are unable to consistently reach the credit staff.
"You need to make sure you're available when dealers do business," Houston said.
Lenders also should document dealer preference and develop appropriate and personalized communication procedures with dealerships based on those preferences, Houston said. For instance, some dealerships prefer to be contacted daily by their lender on the phone, he said, while others report that quarterly in-person visits work better.
For captive lenders representing mass-market brands, dealers list the relationship with credit staff ahead of the provider's offerings, the application and approval process and the vehicle return process.
According to the study, dealership staffers try to contact captive lenders' credit desks on average four times a day. Of those occasions, dealers report getting iffy responses about 36 percent of the time. Meanwhile, noncaptive credit staff are unavailable 48 percent of the time, dealers reported, though they try to contact those lenders less often -- 1.6 times a day.
Relationships are important for lenders in a fragmented financial landscape in which dealerships can afford to be picky.
The top 10 automotive finance providers combined only have 45 percent of the market share, the study says, while the remaining 55 percent is made up of lenders with individual market share of 2 percent or less.
Lender variety gives dealerships options, but lenders and dealerships would benefit by being more selective, Houston said. Instead of pushing themselves to work with as many dealerships as possible, lenders should establish and nurture relationships with dealerships that fit their credit risk tolerance.