Motoring: Gavin Green

Skoda's emergence as top marque in the recent JD Power customer satisfaction survey may have raised eyebrows, spoilt a few stand-up comedians' jokes and given the headline writers some fun.

But we really should not be all that surprised. Skodas are now Czech Volkswagens, rather than a testament to the technical shortcomings of Communism. "The brand name from hell", as a marketing magazine once termed it, has now teamed up with the brand name loved by the brand gurus, so a good JD Power showing was always on the cards.

Yet it can't just be the VW influence. Look at the results in detail, and you'll find Skoda well on top and Volkswagen way behind, just above the industry average. Audi, VW's blue-chip brand, is a notch higher, still well behind Skoda. Clearly, then, customer satisfaction isn't just about good products. Are Skodas really better than VWs and Audis - or Mercedes- Benzes, BMWs and Toyotas? They are not.

But they do have very different dealers, and a big chunk of customer satisfaction is obviously to do with the selling and servicing experience. Skoda dealers tend to be small and family owned, and situated in rural areas. In short, they are old-fashioned garages. They know their customers by their first names - and if their buildings and facilities are out-of- date, then so are their standards of courtesy. A large number are ex-Rover dealers, ditched when the British maker pruned its dealer network.

Rover, along with most other major car makers in Britain, has been shedding small, rural, family-run garages in favour of big, multi-franchise groups. They can afford bigger sites in prosperous, highly populated areas. They can afford better equipment to service cars, including high-tech computer monitoring. They can afford quality carpets, nice furniture, pretty receptionists, highly trained salesmen, lots of demo cars, big signs in the latest corporate livery - and the dealer principal has enough spare time to be able to take the odd "best sales performance of the month" car company-backed prize to the Caribbean.

Car dealerships are now slicker, more modern and more professional than ever. Which is why many people would rather deal with the friendly little bloke down the road, whose father's father set up the garage - never mind that the receptionist is his mum, the carpet in the showroom has seen better days, and they serve tea in mugs not coffee from an espresso machine.

As further proof, another maker renowned for its small, family-run provincial garages - Subaru - notched up second place in the JD Power study. Rover, Ford and Vauxhall - whose names used to be part of any small provincial British town, before local garages lost the franchises - all came near the bottom of the table.

The move to larger, more "professional" purveyors of goods is not confined to selling cars, of course. The trend is just as pronounced in groceries and white goods. It's the way the world is going, and no amount of consumer surveys showing that most of us would rather deal with small, personal outfits, close to our homes rather than a long drive away, is going to change things. Fewer, bigger dealers suit the "think big" mindset of our business leaders.

Customer satisfaction - the holy grail of all companies - is only a goal if it fits within the narrow confines of corporate thinking. Modern customer satisfaction is giving the customer not what he or she really wants, but what the company is prepared to offer.

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