Mercedes-Benz Is Tops In Shopper Satisfaction, But Tesla? Not So Much [UPDATED]

July 6, 2015

Updated with info from Pied Piper regarding Tesla. See below.

Today's auto market is a tough one for consumers. There are loads of great cars on the lots, and the differences between those from Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen, and most other mass-market automakers are disappearing.

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In that kind of environment, customer service is king. The way sales personnel treat shoppers can make or break a dealership. That's why studies like the Prospect Satisfaction Index (PSI) from research firm Pied Piper are so important -- and telling.

For the 2015 PSI, Pied Piper sent some 6,370 mystery shoppers to dealerships across the U.S. between July 2014 and June 2015. Those shoppers -- "prospects" in marketing lingo -- then rated the dealerships they visited on more than 50 criteria, including whether they offered customers a test drive, whether they asked how customers planned to use their vehicles, and whether they provided printed materials for shoppers to take home.

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When all the dust had settled and the scores were tabulated, the average score for all brands ticked up from 100 to 101 -- though as Pied Piper notes, even the top-scoring companies had individual dealerships that performed poorly, and low-scoring companies had dealerships that aced the test.

On the whole, though, Mercedes-Benz outpaced the competition, with a score of 112. Infiniti, Lexus, MINI, and Toyota rounded out the top five, boasting scores in the 105 to 110 range. With the exception of MINI, most of those -- along with BMW, Volkswagen, Honda, and Cadillac -- have scored above the industry average for the past five years.

And MINI could be en route to keeping its position at the top, since it posted one of the biggest year-over-year improvements, climbing six points from 2014. BMW, Lexus, Chrysler, Dodge, Lincoln, and Ram moved up, too, each edging up three or four points.

READ: 2015 Honda CR-V Touring: Quick Drive

At the other end of the scale, we find Tesla, with a very low score of 87. In its defense, however, Tesla is hamstrung by the many restrictions it faces on the sales front. Because of strict franchise laws, the automaker is still prohibited from actively selling cars in many of its showrooms; it can only share information and refer shoppers to the Tesla website for pricing and such. Until that changes -- and it is, slowly -- the cards will be stacked against Tesla in surveys like the PSI because it doesn't always operate full-service dealerships. (Important updates posted below.)

The other four brands in Pied Piper's bottom five, however, have no such excuses. Mitsubishi, Volvo, Land Rover, and Jeep all scored between 92 and 95 points on the PSI. Smart, Jaguar, and Cadillac could be joining them in the lower depths before long, since they posted the biggest year-over-year declines in their scores. Smart and Volvo tied for biggest missteps, both tumbling five points.

You can see how your favorite auto brand stacked up on the 2015 Prospect Satisfaction Index -- just have a look at Pied Piper's chart, embedded above. 

UPDATE

Via Fran O'Hagan at Pied Piper, we received some very interesting information about the way that Tesla stores were included in the 2015 PSI. Rather than attempt to paraphrase him, we've quoted some of his email to us:

You make a good point re Tesla operating some unconventional locations where sales are prohibited.  We did not mystery shop any of those Tesla locations.  Instead, we mystery shopped every single one of the Tesla locations nationwide where their dealerships can accept customer money and deliver a vehicle at that location. [emphasis ours]

The Tesla situation is very interesting to us…  Dealerships that sell proactively—think of them as doing everything they can to be helpful to a car-shopper—not only end up selling a lot more vehicles, they also end up with happy shoppers and customers.  On the other hand, customers don’t usually mind the 'museum curator' dealerships, with courteous salespeople who answer questions but do nothing to proactively sell.  The difference is that the 'museum curator' dealerships end up much less successful; selling fewer vehicles....

When we first used PSI to measure the Tesla dealer network two years ago, we didn’t know what to expect, and thought that possibly all of their dealerships would follow the same sales approach – maybe different from that of the rest of the auto industry.  What we found instead was that the Tesla dealer network is inconsistent:  

    • About 15% of the Tesla dealerships sell as effectively as any dealership industrywide.  In comparison, the similar figure for Mercedes-Benz is 39%.
    • But about 20% of the Tesla dealerships make absolutely no effort to help a Tesla shopper become a Tesla owner  The comparable Mercedes-Benz figure is 4%.

We assume that at some point the Tesla executives will wonder why some of their dealerships substantially outsell other Tesla dealerships, and try to encourage the poor performing Tesla dealerships to act more like the most successful ones.  From our experience, Tesla customer satisfaction will be highest at those top performing Tesla dealerships too…

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