Getting Mo' Satisfaction

Going through the car-buying process -- many people regard this prospect with the same revulsion as being subjected to a Pauley Shore film festival. But while many people still hate buying a car, a new study shows that consumers are increasingly satisfied with their auto purchases.

For the third year in a row, the automobile industry matched its record-high score, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. In fact, the automobile index (at 80 in the most recent survey) is not markedly worse than more highly praised industries, such as household appliances (82) and consumer electronics (81); and it is noticeably better than the category score for personal computers (71). While the critics have decried the customer handling record of the auto industry, the fact is the industry average has always stayed within a three-point range, from 78 to 80, throughout the nine years the study has been conducted. The ACSI is published by the University of Michigan Business School's National Quality Research Center, which compiles and analyzes the quarterly ACSI data.

When it comes to winners and losers, BMW, Buick, and Cadillac once again scored the highest customer satisfaction with marks of 86, while several car brands, including Dodge, Ford, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Hyundai, registered the lowest scores, all at 78. Mazda and DaimlerChrysler's Jeep division showed the most improvement -- 4 percent -- with ACSI scores of 81 and 79, respectively. In contrast, scores for Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai declined by the same percentage.

Professor Claes Fornell, director of the University of Michigan Business School's National Quality Research Center, says that while the overall ACSI score for automobiles has not changed much over time, the difference between the highest-scoring and lowest-scoring automakers has shrunk from 18 points in 1994 to just eight points today. What this means is the former laggards have either changed their ways and drastically improved the satisfaction they have delivered, or they have exited the market. And since only Daewoo has entered the market and then disappeared during the Nineties, it is safe to infer that the back-of-the-pack manufacturers have tightened up their acts. While this behind-the-curve improvement has been taking place, the industry has stayed on a level plane for three years in a row.

"In other words, car manufacturers have not managed to increase their customers' satisfaction, but the ACSI has not deteriorated either," Fornell said. "The industry continues to score very well. Today, all car manufacturers deliver high levels of customer satisfaction, but the difference between them is fading."

Jack West, past president of the American Society for Quality, a co-sponsor of the ACSI, says that this holds true even when comparing domestic automakers with their international counterparts.

"When the ACSI started in 1994, the Japanese were well out in front with high quality and customer satisfaction scores, with European car companies right behind them," he said. "U.S. auto manufacturers trailed both, but today they have pulled just about even with the Japanese, while the Europeans now have a narrow lead overall."

To give credit where it is due, car companies and car dealers seem to be doing a good job of satisfying their customers. The big question is: can they satisfy you?

A student of the human condition, Tom Ripley frequently writes on satisfaction-related issues from his home in Villeperce, France.