The diviners of all things related to quality, J.D. Power and Associates, just announced the results of their 30th annual Customer Satisfaction Survey for Auto Dealer Service. If you are thinking about purchasing a new vehicle, this is great information to know. Nobody wants to buy a new vehicle from a brand known for crummy service.

While the overall quality of newer vehicles continues to improve, new vehicles still require routine maintenance as well as occasional warranty repairs and recall service (Toyota owners now know this all too well). How happy you are with your new vehicle depends a lot on how happy you are with your servicing dealer.

To find out which brands offered customers the best after-sale service, J.D. Power and Associates (JDPA) surveyed 114,200 real people who owned 2005-09 models from every brand sold in the U.S. The company looked at five key measures for 2010:

  • Overall service quality
  • How the service experience was initiated
  • The experience with the service advisor
  • The overall impression of the service facility
  • The experience picking up the vehicle from a service appointment.

To make sure that the cost of the vehicle didn't cloud their results, JDPA grouped dealers into luxury and mass market brands.

Overall trends

Customer Service Index Study: Top 10

DealerScore
Lexus835
Jaguar810
BMW808
Cadillac806
Acura805
HUMMER804
Land Rover 803
Buick802
Saturn800
Lincoln798

Source: J.D. Power and Associates

Generally, there's good news in these numbers. The JDPA study finds that overall satisfaction with dealer service has improved between 2009 and 2010. This makes the 10th consecutive year of industry-wide gains. The composite average for all brands increased to 767 for 2010, up from 761 the year before.

Actions that customers positively responded to included the availability of convenient service appointments; being greeted immediately on arrival; the dealer knowing a vehicle’s service history; returning vehicles to customers all clean and shiny; and offering alternative transportation to customers leaving their cars for service.

While these courtesies may seem intuitive, many dealers do not provide them consistently. If a dealer addresses these points, customers leave happier (provided, of course, that the service performed on their vehicle is also executed properly).

Lexus Wins Again

For those who have owned a Lexus, it comes as no surprise that Lexus tops the quality charts again. While the average for all luxury brands increased to 813 points on a 1000-point scale, Lexus scored an impressive 837. Lexus also won the 2009 survey with a score of 835.

The top five brands that are above the luxury-brand average are:

Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz posted the largest improvement compared to 2009. Cadillac rose from 806 points to the number two position, leapfrogging Jaguar and BMW. The revitalized American brand posted a fourth-place last year. Mercedes-Benz rose from 789 to 805, but still failed to finish above the average for the luxury group.

These increases demonstrate a general trend toward improving customer satisfaction with dealership service. Bucking the trend was Volvo, with scores that fell from 767 to 763, ranking below purveyors of "common" vehicles; Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai.

HUMMER Tops Mass Market Brands

Scoring an impressive 815, the soon-to-be-gone HUMMER brand achieved a level above the average for luxury brands. For those who remember how HUMMER got its start, this great performance should come as no surprise. GM launched HUMMER as a luxury brand with special stand-alone dealerships that catered to buyers looking at the expensive (and now out of production) H1 models.

Now that HUMMER no longer sells a majority of luxury-class vehicles, it is grouped with the mass market brands. It's ironic, perhaps, that its existing dealer body performed better than eight leading luxury nameplates including Land Rover, Lincoln and Audi.

The six of the top seven mass market brands were, or still are, divisions of General Motors. Following HUMMER, the recently shuttered Saturn brand ranked an impressive number two, followed by Buick, and Chevrolet. MINI managed to take spot five, followed by Pontiac (also dead) in sixth, and GMC taking the seventh spot. Looking at this data, it makes one wonder whether GM made a good decision to cut Saturn and Pontiac. It appears that their dealers were doing a good job with customers.

Surprises

Toyota's score may catch some shoppers off guard while simultaneously confirming the feelings of many Toyota owners.

In the JDPA survey, Toyota scored only 746, behind even Chrysler and Mitsubishi. Toyota's score, however, was up slightly from 2009, when the company was still sub-par at 736.

According to Jon Osborn, Research Director at J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota's mid-pack performance is normal for the auto giant. Osborn made an important point when he explained more about Toyota's performance.

"Toyota dealers lead the industry in sales per franchise, so that means they have a huge volume of customers to deal with at every dealership," Osborn said. "Their survey performance tends to reflect the fact that they have service capacity issues."

Osborn went on to say that he didn't believe these scores showed a lack of focus on quality from Toyota.

Curiously, Toyota has the corporate knowledge in-house to do better. In case you didn't know, Lexus is a division of Toyota.

Trouble ahead?

Low scores could mean trouble for some brands, including Fiat-owned Chrysler and the up-and-coming Suzuki.

With a relatively old product lineup, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep dealers are forced to rely more heavily on service to help support their business's bottom line because of slow new-vehicle sales. Low service CSI scores mean more customers will go elsewhere for service, putting the dealerships under even more financial stress as they wait for new products to hit the market.

Suzuki hopes to grow its market share with models like its excellent all-new 2010 Kizashi sports sedan. Poor service scores hurt its dealers and the company's overall reputation. Neither of these outcomes is favorable in this competitive market. Suzuki needs to address its falling scores that were down to 693 from 702 in 2009. Unfortunately, Suzuki gets no extra credit for being consistent; the company finished dead last in quality in 2010 as well as in 2009.

What CSI means to you

“With service customer retention becoming more crucial than ever during the next few years. Dealerships must focus on not only providing superior levels of customer service, but also on enhancing convenience for vehicle owners and providing pricing that is more competitive with non-dealer facilities,” Osborn said.

What Osborn means is that car dealers need to earn your business in order to keep it so that they can come out of this recession financially healthy.

This economic reality should mean that good dealers will continue to improve. Furthermore, dealers who want to stay in business are highly motivated to improve your service experience so that you'll remain their customer, even as your vehicle drives out of its warranty.

Keep in mind that dealer service can vary widely, so if your experience with, for example, a local Dodge dealer is excellent, don't abandon them on account of this survey. Just be thankful your experience was better than customers of other similarly branded outlets.