Photo: Istockphoto

This article was first published in the fourth quarter 2016 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

A new survey of South Africa’s passenger car and light commercial vehicle (LCV) buyers reveals that three brands have cornered the market when it comes to customer satisfaction and loyalty.

I last bought a new car about seven years ago. It was a pleasant experience for a number of reasons: the salesperson was informative and helpful without being creepy; the paperwork was handled quickly and efficiently; and, most important of all, the car itself turned out to be rather good.

Taking my own advice, dispensed liberally over the years to readers of various publications, I had it serviced regularly and didn’t mutter loudly about “&%$# rip-offs” when the workshop presented me with the bill. Thanks to a mixture of sensible driving habits (I think I was born with “mechanical sympathy” for engines and other automotive components) and excellent service from the dealership, my mid-sized SUV* is still going strong. (* A prosaic but entirely satisfactory Nissan Livina. Don’t judge me.)

How about your wheels? If you recently bought a Volkswagen or Audi, recent research suggests that you’ve had a similarly good experience. In the latest Ipsos survey of customer purchasing and servicing experiences, involving in-depth interviews with thousands of people who bought new vehicles or had them serviced, Audi received a platinum award for sustained customer satisfaction in the passenger car purchasing and the servicing experience categories, having won gold awards every year from 2012 to 2015. The Volkswagen brand received a platinum award for the purchasing experience in the passenger car and LCV categories from 2012 to 2015.

Nissan South Africa also excelled, receiving a platinum award for consistent customer satisfaction with the servicing experience from 2012 to 2015, and gold awards for both the purchasing experience and the servicing experience in 2015. The results complemented Nissan’s LCV wins in the earlier 2015 Ipsos Product Quality Awards, in which the Navara Diesel Double Cab won gold for Most Improved LCV, the Hardbody Petrol Double Cab was voted Best New LCV, and the Nissan NP200 received the platinum award in the Three-quarter Ton category for Consistent Excellence.

A total of 23 000 customers were surveyed on their buying or servicing experiences and the study involved 15 automotive brands, accounting for 75 percent of the cars and LCVs sold annually through dealer retail outlets.

Ipsos said the results of the survey were subjected to four separate checks and balances (so-called “quality gates”) to ensure their validity.

When it came to the purchasing experience in the passenger sector, responses to a question about whether or not a vehicle was free of faults showed an improvement of 3.7 points (“the biggest positive mover”, Ipsos said). Despite some sterling performances, however, it wasn’t all good. Ipsos found that, although the rating for the purchasing experience had continued to rise in the case of LCVs, it had “flattened out” for passenger car buyers.

A question about whether customers felt appreciated by the dealer recorded an improvement of only 1.4 points, Ipsos said. “By far the worst situation arises in terms of … queries or problems when buying a car. Here the dealers were found wanting, with a decline of 4.7 points in the rating.” Against that, LCV buyers were in the enviable position of seeing improvements in all aspects of the purchasing experience. These ranged from the explanation of features and requirements (up by a modest 0.3 points) to appreciation of the customer by the dealer (up by 2.4 points).

Bottom line: the survey made it clear that customers liked it when they felt appreciated by the dealer, whether it was a car or LCV being serviced. “The provision of transport to the next destination when dropping off a vehicle for service is also very important,” Ipsos said.

The way they see it

To find out what good service actually is, I spoke to Geo Nel, the dealer principal at McCarthy Volkswagen in Parow, Western Cape, a multiple award-winner for customer service.

In essence, Nel says, he wants to leave all his customers with smiles on their faces – hence the appointment of a customer-care manager whose sole responsibility is dealing with customer issues and keeping them happy.

“My team – that is, the service manager, customer-care manager, workshop foreman and at least four pre-assigned sales staff – are there to greet the customers from about 7.30 am,” Nel says. “We might see anything from 30 to 40 people on any given morning. Once a vehicle has been booked in, a predefined process kicks in. Customers are called by a service adviser three or four times during the day with status updates, and we always follow up with a call the following day to find out if the customer is happy, and to resolve any issues. If there’s a problem, it’s managed instantaneously.”

Isn’t this a very labour-intensive and expensive process? “Yes, but you have to have the resources in place to deliver the service. It’s absolutely the only way to do it.”

Every Thursday at 10.30 am, his staff assemble for a customer satisfaction index (CSI) meeting. “All frontline service staff take part in a remuneration incentive programme in which CSI accounts for 50 percent of the weighting. In other words, there is a strong incentive to keep our customers happy,” Nel says. “At the meeting, we focus on what we did wrong and what we did right.”

How about the workshop rules? Are customers consulted before the workshop undertakes a major – and possibly expensive – repair? “Yes, we always keep the customer informed, and no repair is carried out without confirmation,” Nel says.

If customers ask the workshop to fit cheaper generic parts (or so-called “grey” imports), rather than more pricey, manufacturer-approved parts, will they do it? (To be honest, I already knew the answer to this one, which has to do with voiding the manufacturer’s warranty and the horrors associated with the dodgy quality of safety-critical parts).

“We won’t fit those parts,” Nel says, “but what we will do in some cases is propose a replacement from our more affordable economy parts range, which is aimed at customers whose vehicles are out of warranty. We will never fit a non-Volkswagen part, though.”

Are customers sometimes naïve about the costs of servicing and repairing a modern, sophisticated car? Interestingly, Nel says he finds today’s new-car buyers generally well informed about the technical, financial and other aspects of car ownership. Most have researched their preferred model long before they walk into the showroom.

Do the sales staff encourage customers to sign up for extended-service contracts – regarded by some critics as expensive and unnecessary? “Yes, they do, and these plans are most certainly not a waste of money. Most of our cars are sold with a service or maintenance plan, and by extending the period of coverage, our customers are shielding themselves from any nasty surprises. This gives them peace of mind and keeps bringing them back to my dealership,” Nel says.

How about product knowledge? Do the workshop staff have a thorough technical understanding of every vehicle in the model line-up and can the sales staff speak with authority about the attributes and capabilities of every vehicle on offer?

Volkswagen has a very intensive training programme, Nel says, and its workshop staff have access to sophisticated, extremely expensive diagnostics equipment to determine the cause of any problems. Sales staff receive online training, as well as regular, in-dealership product training.

The new-car handover process is done by appointment, Nel says, with at least an hour set aside to make sure the customer leaves knowing absolutely everything about their purchase. “Although it’s not required by the service plan, we follow up every sale with a free inspection at the 2 000km mark. This offers us an opportunity to interact with the customer and field any questions.” In the ensuing months and years, Nel says, the dealership works on the relationship with the ultimate aim of creating trust.

Do most customers try to negotiate a discount or some other “deal” to bring down the price? “Yes, across the board. In fact, for a variety of reasons, now is an excellent time to buy a car. Margins are being squeezed everywhere, leaving the buyer in a very good position,” Nel says.

* Alan Duggan is a freelance journalist and former editor of Popular Mechanics magazine.