Cadillac  /  Cadillac
Cadillac posts a strong showing in the sales area because its sales force takes the time to assess customers and match them to the products that meet their needs and tastes.
updated 3/6/2007 1:45:10 PM ET 2007-03-06T18:45:10

In a service bay at Rasmussen Mini, a Portland, Ore., dealership, technician Brandon Vlaew’s legs dangle sideways out of a 2005 Mini Cooper as he wrestles with its dashboard assembly.

“This is something that the customer probably wouldn’t want to see,” he says, holding the dash top out at an awkward angle, wires hanging. In all, it’ll be about a two-hour job by the time everything’s back together — and free of charge to the customer — all for the sake of a dash rattle, Vlaew says. “But they’ll notice their rattle is gone.”

Actually, before even confirming that the rattle has been eradicated, the customer will probably notice that the car is sparkling clean outside and spot-detailed inside — part of the normal service experience at this Mini dealership.

“Even though that rattle is covered by the factory, we spend thousands of dollars a month covering things that aren’t covered by warranty” just to keep the customer happy, says Bob Wells, service manager at Rasmussen Mini.

When parent company BMW launched Mini in 2002, it shared facilities with existing BMW dealerships. But since then, Mini made a push for its own dedicated locations. Spokesman Andrew Cutler says that customer satisfaction really started hitting its stride after the brand’s dealership experience synchronized with the message that Mini was sending out in its advertising and its products.

“We really catered all aspects of the dealership experience to our target customers,” says Cutler. “And they’re a different kind of customer in that they’re very hands-on and technically tuned-in and want to know about their car.” He says that the brand now uses a single sales person through the entire sales process, and requires exclusive Mini service writers and service bays even when some of the facilities are still shared with BMW dealerships.

Some aspects of Mini’s dealership experience are luxury grade, despite the affordable price of the car. Stylish waiting rooms often have big-screen TVs with xBox gaming consoles, and loaners are now company-subsidized.

The new attention shows in J.D. Power & Associate’s annual satisfaction surveys. For 2006, Mini garnered J.D. Power Customer Service Index (CSI) scores that are the envy of many luxury brands, with a huge jump up to 10th place overall, even placing it ahead of BMW.

Our other dealership ranking includes only luxury brands, as opposed to this one, which includes all brands.

Mini isn’t the only non-luxury brand to have honed in on the dealership experience as a key selling point. GM’s Saturn has long differentiated itself at the dealership, and for years Saturn has been ranked alongside top luxury brands for satisfaction with the dealership experience, thanks to the brand’s no-haggle pricing policy, personalized customer service and top-notch facilities.

Other non-luxury brands with top satisfaction scores include Buick, with a robust dealership network that has fewer models to handle than in the past and an older demographic that’s typically less critical; and Mercury, which largely shares its dealer network with Lincoln, a luxury nameplate.

Mini and Saturn stand out because they set up their dealerships to meet or exceed customer expectations, says Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision’s automotive division. Customer service at the dealership level hasn’t always been the priority that it is today, he says, and it’s much harder to enforce new standards on a dealership body that’s already established.

But even for the top ranked companies on this list, don't assume every dealership has consistently good service. While dealerships are the “face” of the brand to car shoppers and each manufacturer does have corporate standards that all of its dealers must uphold, the vast majority of car dealerships in the U.S. are independently owned and operated.

“The dealer’s main job is to move metal, not build brand equity,” Edwards says. And that creates an inherent conflict because “the manufacturer is trying to build a lifetime relationship, but the dealership might just be looking to make its next sales target,” he says.

J.D. Power’s Tom Gauer says that dealers as a whole are getting better at respecting customers' time, but that this is still a major point of contention that separates the best from the worst. Dealerships with the highest sales satisfaction have gone to a single-contact system all the way through the sales process, which helps keep the customer from feeling passed off or ignored. This tactic has long been used at luxury dealers, but non-luxury ones are increasingly adopting it. At the same time, service departments have grown more convenient from a customer perspective and punctual. “Quick lubes really caught on because the customer knows the time frame,” Gauer says.

Over the past 10 years, Saturn's consumer-friendly strategy has raised standards for non-luxury dealer service and spurred other brands to improve, Strategic Vision's Edwards says. That means fewer sleazy sales tactics, less bickering about the price, more respect for your time and a more straightforward showroom experience. Provided the dealership respects the customer’s knowledge, a greater sense of trust follows as well, Edwards says.

When looking at satisfaction with the dealer experience on a brand-by-brand basis, some brands do stand well above the others in J.D. Power’s annual studies — and as we’ve revealed, they’re not all luxury brands. The firm’s annual Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI) looks at the ability of a brand’s dealerships to manage the sales process, from product presentation to negotiation, financing and delivery; the annual Customer Service Index (CSI) gauges the satisfaction of customers who have brought their car in to the service department during the first three years of ownership. The most recent surveys came out last November. The 2006 CSI is based on experiences with 2003-2005 model year vehicles, while the 2006 SSI is based on those who registered new vehicles in May 2006.

Other firms that look specifically at dealer-experience satisfaction include Strategic Vision, which polls buyers three to four months after their purchase as part of its annual New Vehicle Experience Study; and AutoPacific, which asks about it around the same period of ownership as part of its annual Owner Satisfaction Survey.

With approval from J.D. Power, we’ve ranked the top 10 car companies — luxury and non-luxury — with the best dealership experience by combining their SSI and CSI scores (which are both out of a possible 1,000 points, so the combined total is out of a possible 2,000 points). We start with number 10, Mini, and have included results from the other research firms to compare, contrast or draw insight.

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