ACSI Research Insights: Automobile Satisfaction and Recalls

Earlier this month, ACSI released its 2011 report on the Automobiles and Light Vehicles industry. The August ACSI Commentary focused on the difficult situation faced by U.S. automakers as they experience declining customer satisfaction, while the Japanese automakers gain in satisfaction and the Europeans maintain their lead.  Here we offer a few additional research insights gleaned from the ACSI study, focusing on the effects of automobile recalls. The ACSI customer satisfaction survey asks all respondents to the auto study to indicate whether their car has been the subject of a recall since the time of purchase, providing the data that allows us to investigate the impact of recalls on satisfaction.

Over the last few years, a series of high-profile auto recalls (most notably, the massive, worldwide Toyota recall that began in 2009) have garnered significant media attention. What impact, if any, does the experience of a recall have on customer satisfaction? While it may seem obvious that a recall signals a significant quality defect and therefore depresses satisfaction, it is also possible that consumers have come to accept recalls (a fairly common event) as a normal part of car ownership.

Using a pooled sample of 2010 and 2011 data for all of the nameplates measured within the industry, ACSI data suggests that customers who have experienced a recall are significantly less satisfied with their car than those who have not. As shown in the first chart below, car owners who experienced a recall have an ACSI score of 79, compared to a significantly higher score of 84 for those who have not.

But the negative impact of a recall for an automaker does not end with lower satisfaction. Because there is a nearly 1-to-1 relationship between satisfaction and customer loyalty for this industry, these findings also show that recalls create customers who are significantly more likely to defect to a competitor the next time they purchase a car.  Again using a pooled sample of 2010 and 2011 data for all nameplates measured by ACSI, the data shows that customers who have experienced a recall indicate they are 4 percentage points less likely to remain customers of the same automaker when they next purchase an automobile, as shown in the second chart above.

There are two vital conclusions that should be drawn from these findings. First, auto recalls, no matter how common, well-publicized, or necessary for public safety, have a negative impact on customer satisfaction for an automaker. As satisfaction drives behaviors like word-of-mouth, cross-selling, up-selling, brand image, corporate reputation, and so forth, the drop in satisfaction caused by a recall has a number of negative indirect consequences for carmakers. Perhaps more significantly, however, is the impact of a recall on customer loyalty. Customers who have experienced a recall indicate that they are significantly less likely to be retained as customers in the future. As current customers are generally “cheaper” customers for any firm (requiring fewer acquisition costs), the impact of a recall on loyalty represents a tangible and negative economic consequence for an automaker.