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Can car dealers meet customer expectations?


People fall in love with cars, not dealerships, on the whole. But usually the only touchpoint they have with the brand they’ve fallen for is with the local garage or dealer where they bought it.

And that dealership is often an independent franchise business. Its motivation and objectives may even be counter to those of the brand it represents, according to customer satisfaction monitor JD Power.

Mark Lendrich, who in 2016 led JD Power's research in the car industry, highlighted a significant gap between car companies and their dealerships. He emphasised the importance of building personal relationships and prioritising existing customers. 


The survey found that nearly two thirds (61%) of customers had to wait to be greeted when they arrived at a dealership. Yet this very basic point of politesse can improve satisfaction by 48 points. That might not seem like much in a survey where car makers could score 1000 points. But it represented the difference between Toyota in first place and Fiat in 21st.

As of 2024, there have been minimal improvements for many brands within the automotive sector. The UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) is now the national barometer of customer satisfaction and found that automotive came 6 out of 13 sectors in 2023 behind Retail (Non-Food), Tourism, Banks & Building Societies, Leisure and Retail (Food).

Disappointing when the UKCSI has found that almost a third of customers ( 31.3%) claim to prioritise ‘excellent service’ when purchasing goods or services, even if it costs them more.

Yet the automotive sector and it's retailers continue to underperform, echoed in 2021 analysis by Driver Power's Shopper Survey which found consumers criticisms of dealership staff account for three out of four areas in which their expectations were not met.

So in 2024 how does a car maker ensure its dealerships  are more typical of the brand they represent and adopt local marketing best practices? Doing what they say they’re going to do would be a start. Darren Young, business development director for the Customer Service Network, explained: “If one thing doesn’t happen, the next thing that doesn’t becomes a bigger problem. Even if these are all small things, the customer will start to make a mental list of what’s gone wrong.

“I’ve been trying to book my car in for a service. They’ve promised to ring me back three times and I’m still waiting. That’s a classic failing. If you say you will do something and then don’t do it, you are setting the relationship back a level or two. The most successful organisations follow up on all the promises they make.”

Douglas Stafford specialises in sending customers into car dealerships and then recording their experiences, what’s known as mystery shopping. The company’s chief executive Nigel Cook said: “When it comes to aftersales, training in handling customers comes second to technical knowledge. Really the training should focus on how staff can build relationships with customers. I would want someone in the dealership to know who I am and understand what I want when I take my car in.”

Personalisation of service is one of the keys, agreed JD Power’s Mark Lendrich: “Not all consumers are the same. Some want an explanation of what’s going to happen when their car is serviced and then to see all the work that’s been done. Others just want to drop their car off and pick it up later. The trouble is dealerships aren’t set up to individualise service. It’s a one size fits all model.”

That one size patently doesn’t fit all. The 2016 JD Power survey found the average score for the best manufacturer, Toyota, was 776 out of 1000. It was a point ahead of Honda and two up on Mercedes-Benz. It also found that when its satisfaction ranking is between 600 and 799, only 23 per cent of people are likely to return to that dealership.

Caroline Murie from customer service expert Walton Murie thinks the solution is to go back to basics: “Businesses can operate in their own little bubble. They simply need to take the customer’s point of view.” It’s a fundamental that the JD Power survey results suggest many car dealerships would do well to follow.

It's not all bad news though. For those looking for inspiration, an automotive brand that really understands the importance of looking after customers is Suzuki. Once again proving themselves a top brand in 2024, achieving the number one spot for automotive in the latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) . This marks their 8th time securing this title, outperforming 26 other automotive brands and ranking 15th overall among 270 organisations across various sectors. Customers were specifically surveyed on Trust, Experience, Customer Ethos, Emotional Connection, and Ethics.

Well done to Suzuki! Proof it can be done.

If you'd like to learn how car makers can ensure their dealerships are more typical of the brand they represent by building customer trust, our FREE White Papers will help with useful tips and advice. You can find out more about our FREE whitepapers here.

Or get in touch with us today to learn about growing your local business. You can book a FREE 30 minute chat here.

If you'd like to read more about Local Marketing have a look at our blog page 'Local Thinking' here: https://www.weareacuity.com/local-thinking-our-blog

James Foxall is a communications professional and copywriting specialist www.wordsmithmedia.co.uk 


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