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Budget brand dealers impress consumers

Retailers and consumers both rank Lexus as the top carmaker, according to recent surveys. That suggests a direct correlation between dealer satisfaction with their franchise and consumer satisfaction with their local showroom: Happy dealers give good customer service; dissatisfied dealers give poor service – yes?

Well, not quite. Proton has almost fallen off the map in terms of how dealers value the franchise – a miserable 2.1 out of 10 in the Winter 2003/04 RMI dealer attitude survey (2002/3: 4.8). But the retail network is listed as the second best for 'consumer service satisfaction' in the recent JD Power report, just behind Lexus.

And BMW and Audi, two and three in the RMI survey, do not feature in JD Power's top 10.

But can Proton's survey results be explained by lower customer expectations? Survey critics claim BMW buyers expect more for their money and so tend to be hyper-critical of anything they consider is sub-standard, whereas Proton customers are more relaxed about the quality of service. Not so, says Proton Cars UK boss Brian Collier.

“Our customers have grown to expect a high quality of service and cheaper prices are not reflected in lower standards,” he says. “They want a more personal service than customers of premium brands and that's what we give them. Our dealers are the local hero.”

Take a closer look at the survey results and Collier's view is borne out. Proton is second for 'valuing the customer', emphasising the individual service its retailers give motorists, although it drops to third for service quality.

Proton's poor showing in the RMI dealer attitude survey is put down to frustration in the network caused by delays to new product launches. The Wira replacement, originally planned for launch in the first quarter, will now hit showrooms ready for the September plate change. Two new additions to the range should be on sale by March 2005.

“We have been investing a lot of money in the franchise behind the scenes, such as putting in place a new web-based dealer communication system, that will be of future benefit,” says Collier. “But the last 12 months and the next few are about building the foundations.”

Product quality is the crucial area for dealer satisfaction. It seems they can forgive most difficulties if the cars are good enough. The manufacturers that show the best improvements in the RMI listing are those launching new cars to critical acclaim. So, Fiat (Idea, Panda, new Stilo) rises from 4.2 to 6.7 points and AM carmaker of the year Mazda (6, 3, RX-8) jumps from 5.0 to 6.9. Both are buoyed by retailers' belief that profit potential will rise over the next 12 months.

A glance down the top 10 carmakers rated by dealer aftersales services reveals other surprises in the JD Power survey: Daihatsu at three, Skoda at six, Saab at seven. Slotted between are more familiar names, like Subaru in fourth – whose retail network always performs well – Honda at five and Jaguar in ninth. But of the top 10 performers, just four franchises – Lexus, Toyota, Jaguar and Mazda – are in the RMI's top 10. Five are in the bottom 10: Subaru, Skoda, Seat, Daihatsu and Proton.

That suggests there is actually little correlation between the value of the franchise according to the dealer and the standard of service they offer their customers. But JD Power ranks the aftersales service satisfaction by service quality, consideration for customers' time and whether the customer feels valued – and Lexus tops each listing. So does it believe satisfied dealers mean good customer service?

“If we can lead by example and allow our dealers to be profitable during the tougher days; if we can be honest with them about the future and walk the talk, then our dealer network will provide outstanding customer service,” says Karl Schlicht, Lexus GB managing director. “We provide the high quality vehicles, our retail centres deliver the rest.”

Schlicht clearly believes there is a strong connection between good manufacturer-retailer relationships and strong retailer-consumer relationships. And while he claims the JD Power survey is not one the company sets out to top, he places significant emphasis on the RMI results.

Lexus, which also tops AM sister organisation Sewells' Fleet Operator Attitude Survey for the third consecutive year, recently set up an in-house customer service questionnaire for its retailers, but does not use it to regulate dealer bonuses. Rather, the company asks its centres to solve problems based on verbatim comments rather than use a tick-box questionnaire. “We are also rated highly by dealers because we are sensitive to network continuity,” adds Schlicht. “We still make some adjustments and small increases, but we want the lowest dealer count per sales volume for any premium brand (bar possibly Porsche) to ensure our dealers are as profitable as possible.”

VW Group brands took a bit of a hit in the latest RMI survey. Even Audi, by far the best performer, dipped 0.2 to 8.7. Volkswagen dropped from 6.5 to 5.7, while Seat and Skoda fell to 5.4, from 6.8 and 6.7 respectively.

Skoda – ranked sixth in the JD Power 'overall service experience' list – has been shifting the emphasis of its media campaign away from “It's a Skoda. Honest” to “Skoda: it might earn you more respect than you think” as it continues to alter consumer perceptions. That approach hasn't been fully embraced by retailers. They rate product advertising at 2.4 points, down from 3.0 in the summer 2003 survey, and well below the 3.1 average across all manufacturers.

Do carmakers listen to retailers? No, is the resounding response from Citroen (1.7), Saab (2.3) and VW (2.3) retailers, against an all-dealer index of 2.9. They aren't alone. Sixty-three per cent of retail networks score below the 3.0 mid-point score, which suggests dealers are not confident that manufacturer senior management take into account their views before making business decisions. Chrysler Jeep retailers show the most concern – they sparked the biggest drop, 0.8 points to 2.5. In contrast, Lexus tops the list with a maximum 5.0.

Asked whether manufacturers exert a considerable degree of control over the retail business, retailers returned an average rating slightly up, from 3.8 to 3.9 – the worst scores in the survey. But it's interesting to note that those manufacturers accused of exerting the most control are also the ones that are among the most valued franchises. Lexus control is growing, up from 4.3 to 4.5, the second highest rating behind VW (4.6). It's almost matched by Audi (4.2), BMW (4.4) and Toyota (4.3) – each filling top five positions overall. So does carmaker control really matter?

“You have to associate the question on control with profitability,” says Alan Pulham, RMI franchised dealer director. “These franchises have both and that's fine – in fact you could say that some retailers are more profitable because there is greater manufacturer control. “The problem comes with the manufacturers that want to be controlling, but which aren't profitable. Every manufacturer wants to think they are BMW – but they're not. So they try to control processes and insist on costly investments, but don't deliver the profits and that's not a good basis for a partnership.”

It seems there is a parallel between satisfied dealers and happy customers. If so, think what could happen to sales if Daihatsu and Proton gave Lexus-levels of fulfilment to dealers.

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