Car PR pros voice doubt over consumer poll

ANN ARBOR, MI: A new study showing declining customer satisfaction with US auto brands isn't going to prompt new PR offensives from Detroit, said auto PR executives.

ANN ARBOR, MI: A new study showing declining customer satisfaction with US auto brands isn't going to prompt new PR offensives from Detroit, said auto PR executives.

Rather, they questioned the validity of the study and contended their PR has been effective in attracting buyers to their brands.

The latest Customer Satisfaction Index produced by the University of Michigan business school found that US automakers continue to lag foreign competitors when it comes to customer satisfaction.

Jason Vines, VP of Chrysler group communications, said other surveys have shown growing customer satisfaction with Chrysler products.

"I have a problem with the report and how they generalize. We know what makes our customers happy. It's hot cars," he said, noting the success of the new Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300C.

David Reuter, manager of Ford car communications, agreed with Vines.

"We certainly find the study interesting, but it doesn't correlate with a lot of other studies," he said. Ford has been working with its dealers for the past five years to improve customer relations, he added. "I think we are on the right path. The message we're trying to give is we're more competitive."

The auto industry average index score was 79; Pontiac scored a 79, Jeep and Chevrolet a 77, Ford a 76, and Dodge a 75.

American brands that scored above the average included Lincoln/Mercury at 86, Buick and Cadillac at 83, Saturn at 81, and Chrysler, Oldsmobile, and GMC trucks at 80. But most of those brands saw a drop in satisfaction from the survey's results a year ago.

Japanese manufacturers that a decade ago were seen by consumers as quality leaders today are viewed as offering more value in products, said Claes Fornell, the Michigan business professor who oversees the survey used to create the index.

The almost-constant rebates American makers have offered during the recession to keep selling product are giving consumers the perception that American cars are not worth what they're priced at.

"When you use discounts, rebates, and price promotions, there is always the possibility that it backfires in one way or another," Fornell said.

The Customer Satisfaction Index, which was compiled from data gathered in telephone surveys of 80,000 consumers in the second quarter of this year, also looked at customer satisfaction levels for personal computers, appliances, e-businesses, and news organizations.

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