COSTA MESA, Calif. — Digital auto loan applications can lead to improved customer satisfaction, but wide variance in the execution of the digital application process has created a significant performance gap between top and bottom performing finance sources, according to the J.D. Power 2017 U.S. Consumer Financing Satisfaction Study.

 The top-performing mass market and luxury finance sources rate significantly higher than the lowest performers (8.75 vs. 7.93 and 8.85 vs. 7.54, respectively, on a 10-point scale) in the most heavily weighted website attribute in the study: range of services that can be performed online.

“With such erratic approaches to digitalization, many auto lenders are failing to successfully capitalize on tremendous cost-cutting opportunities that have proven to boost customer satisfaction,” said Jim Houston, senior director of automotive finance at J.D. Power. “With some lenders varying widely on ease-of-use satisfaction scores for their digital offerings, a huge opportunity is going unmet by many.”

While the digital application channel generates significantly higher levels of overall satisfaction among both mass market and luxury customers, many are waiting longer for a credit decision than those utilizing dealer representatives. According to the study, just 30% of customers applying online received a credit decision within 15 minutes vs. 46% who filled out a paper application with a dealer.

The study also found that time given to make first payment provided the greatest impact on the onboarding experience. High-ranking mass market and luxury finance sources, for instance, performed highest on time given to make first payment, allowing an average lead time of 21.2 days for mass market customers and 18.4 days for luxury customers prior to first payment due date.

Driving the highest customer satisfaction were autopay and web-based payment services, with mass-market customers paying by hard-copy check significantly less satisfied than those using autopay (800 vs. 851, respectively, on a 1,000-point scale).

Lincoln Automotive Financial Services ranked highest among luxury brands with an 890 score, while Lexus Financial Services (875) ranked second and Acura Financial Services (855) ranked third.

Ford Credit ranked highest among mass market brands with a score of 857. BB&T/RAC (855) ranked second and Honda Financial Services (855) ranked third.

The 2017 U.S. Consumer Financing Satisfaction Study measures overall customer satisfaction in four factors: billing and payment process; onboarding process; phone contact; and website. Satisfaction is calculated on a 1,000-point scale. The study is based on responses from more than 14,500 customers who financed a new- or used-car loan or lease within the past four years and was fielded in July to August 2017.