It’s Time to Change the Customer Satisfaction Survey System

This article is a rant against those automobile manufacturers responsible for the creation and distribution of the biased, contemptible, and seriously flawed ‘customer satisfaction’ survey system, that is currently being gamed by car dealers everywhere.

The way the system is set up, auto manufacturers offer substantial financial incentives to dealers whose survey results show the highest levels of customer satisfaction. Sounds fair enough, right? Wrong. By rewarding dealerships with financial incentives, these carmakers have unwittingly encouraged unscrupulous car dealers to capitalize on the situation. They do this by pressuring their own customer service representatives and salespeople to obtain artificially high scores on their customer satisfaction surveys, by hook or by crook.

The result, of course, is a customer satisfaction survey process that actively dissatisfies customers. Here are some comments collected from people who have recently purchased a vehicle where these surveys were being distributed:

One Ford customer observed, “The problem seems to be more of upper management using this research as a way to beat down their dealerships. At least that was the impression that I received from the person begging me to give them all fives. But it could be that the car dealership is financially motivated to have higher scores and thus game the system. I actually sent Ford Corporate an email with my concern but never heard back from them.”

A loyal Nissan customer noted, “Whenever I buy a car, the Nissan salesperson reminds me that I will receive a survey in the mail, and that I’m supposed to return that survey with all fives (the best possible mark) or else their dealership will be dinged or knocked down some points, or whatever. I don’t generally return surveys anyway, and I certainly don’t when someone tells me what my answers should be anyway.”

One BMW customer complained, “The dealer came down the last $500 in exchange for a perfect survey score. The dealer was obsessed with [the] survey score, though maybe he would have come down to that regardless. My guess is that he holds the survey out until the end.”

The problem is not specific to a few brands, but seems to be widespread. One Hyundai dealer I visited recently has a large sign right by the service desk exhorting customers to give them the highest rating when the research firm calls. I know of a Toyota dealership that has a program that encourages customers to “fill out the survey with us, and we’ll fill your gas tank.”

When your competitors are gaming the system, what is a fair-minded, honest dealer supposed to do? If you take the high road and implement the survey properly (despite what your competitors are doing) you set yourself up to be compared to the falsified results of the unethical dealers, unfairly penalizing your dealership and your staff. Real change has to come from the car manufacturers, who need to rethink the financial incentives they’re offering if they want an honest accounting of how their dealers are serving their markets.

The situation I have described is so dire, it is actually a useful model of how not to design a customer-satisfaction system. If you are an independent dealer, I suggest you zig instead of zag—design a satisfaction program that will actually help you serve your customers better.



First, never offer any financial incentives to your staff based on the survey results. Doing so will always have the potential to corrupt the results, no matter how strong your corporate culture is. The most important thing in survey research is to gather authentic feedback about customer satisfaction. Incentives poison the well.

Second, don’t use survey results to measure employee performance. It’s more effective to share rich, relevant feedback with your service representatives so that they can serve customers better in the future. Their managers need to mentor them, not over-measure them.

Finally, don’t use numeric rating scales. Academic research has shown that numeric rating scales have low “inter-rater reliability”—in other words, what an eight means on a ten-point scale can vary considerably from customer to customer. Instead, I suggest using labels, making the most positive label something that is hard to achieve. For example: extremely likely, very likely, moderately likely, slightly likely, or not at all likely.

A customer-satisfaction program that dissatisfies customers and produces false information is an embarrassment to the sponsoring manufacturer. Tell them so.

Jeffrey Henning is the founder and vice president of strategy of Vovici, where he writes regularly on the Vovici blog. He is also the author of the eBook, “Survey Software Success”. For more information, visit www.vovici.com.

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13 Comments

  1. Avatar
    john doe January 30, 2015

    I am a sales consultant at a major automobile dealership and have been for many years.I couldnt agree more that the survey system needs to change. First let me explain why the sales people have to have perfect scores. Im going to use Nissans model as that is the one i am most familer with. Surevey scores relate to pay for the sales people and the dealership. To get the money from nissan the score for the sales person has to be 96.6 or higher and for the dealership around 97.0.For the dealership the get money quarterly and can be fifty , one hundered thousand dallars or more. its a lot of money.For the sales consultant that sells 20 new cars in a month that is about 4000.00 dollars from nissan. Most new cars are sold for very ,very little profit. most sales make less than an average of 500.00 today. (thats not including any profit made in the business office which the sales people dont get paid on) Most dealers pay 20% . Twenty percent of 500 dollars is 100.00. so if a sales consultant sells 20cars x 100 = 2000. so you can see why the sales consultant has to get the nissan money(or chevy,toyota,etc).if ,at nissan, the consultant in under a score of 96.6 the he/she doesnt get the money. Nissan survey questions are from 1 to 10. if you give the consultant all 9s the score is 90 and they dont get the money. So I totally agree the system has to change.I hate telling my customer that you are going to get a surveyand even though there are questions on there that dont apply to me( such as how comfortable was the office) if yougive me any score other than a 10 it can cost me more than have my income for the month. How would you like to be doctor and each paitient gets a survey and if they give you all 9s you get half your pay.How long do you think the doctor would put up with that.I told a customer once to never call me again because they cost me thousands of dollars for the one survey with 9s. The good news is nissan is in the process of making a change but it will take time.

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    David Lardner February 16, 2015

    I was very pleased with the service I received from Nissan in Warragul last month

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Fred G. Sanford April 29, 2015

      Would you give it like a 9?

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Jose Irrabarren August 21, 2015

    I could not agree more with John Doe’s January 30, 2015 comments. The survey system for ALL manufacturers MUST be changed. I agree it is very difficult to hold such a high score for sales, but at least customers are making a purchase that they WANT. I work on the service end and the scoring expectation is 920+. I don’t know any customer excited to go in for vehicle service and if they are not in for service they are in for a problem with their vehicle.
    Same thing for the service side….money is held back from the manufacturer and when this ridiculous target is hit…the dealership and the service consultants are paid out quarterly. No pay out means no money.
    You are not allowed to tell the customer to give all 10’s and many customers believe 8 and 9 scores are excellent scores. However, these are the scores that lower the average when you actually need 930+.
    As stated by John Doe, what the most frustrating thing for a service advisor is that questions pertaining to parking, car wash, facilities etc that you cannot control STILL counts against you personally.
    I wish there was a way to tell all customers, if are happy with your advisor please just fill the survey out with all 10’s.
    Until then, the survey system MUST be changed!

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Dave G. October 14, 2015

    I had this experience at the Toyota dealer in Seattle, WA. I give a 9 on one of the questions and my salesperson sent me a text message the next day expressing disappointment after i told him i would give all 10’s. I didn’t really understand what was at steak! INow that i do ……………wow! this is a crazy system I told the salesperson that i feel terrible and i do! This needs to change, someone needs to start a movement, this system serves no one.

    Dave G.

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Tony Jemmott January 29, 2016

    A service advisor was recently fired from Pat Pek Kia in D’Iberville, MS because of survey scores that had nothing to do with her, such as ease of location, design of the waiting too, skill of the technician, etc. Her personal scores were 9’s and 10’s, but she was terminated because at times customers just weren’t thrilled about the cost, or the availability of an appointment or whether the tech solved the car’s problem the first time. 10’s were really the only acceptable scores. Anything less was unacceptable. Surveys like this should not be used to replace competent management and employee development, but unfortunately, for my wife, the occasionally disgruntled customer cost her her job.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      M Kamiya March 28, 2016

      My husband got a 6.5 on a Mercedes Benz survey in January from a customer who was mad that she didn’t get her plates from the state. That was low enough for him to lose bonuses for the last 3 months! He might be able to recover by May. He earns $180 per car sold after taxes and we depended on his bonuses. Most of his colleagues have quit. When will this system change??

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    Dennis Harley July 19, 2016

    I’m appalled by this survey system. I recently had my 2011 Ford Ranger serviced and was happy with the service received. A few days later I received an on- line survey asking me assess my experience wth the dealership, I completed the survey being honest and indicating my satisfaction of service received. All of my replies were in the 8 to 10 range which I thought was fair and indicating my overall satisfaction. I found out later the the Service Manager received a very low score and will likely not be considerd for a bonus.

    I’ve filled out my last survey.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Charlie Webb November 20, 2016

    40 Years and still working for a dealership, my theory is when you tie an employees job or income to perfect surveys, you are literally destroying the fun out of working in the industry. Survey are great tools as listed below, however, when you put the stress and pressure on employees from surveys is literally STUPIDITY in most employees minds and hearts. RELEASE THE ROPES manufactures and dealers, you’re destroying culture and morale at most all dealerships!
    A dealership’s employees are its lifeblood. What lesson does this type of behavior teach these employees? — That it’s OK to kink the system, cheat the manufacturer and falsify reports for monetary gain. How do you hold these employees accountable for being honest to your business when you’re teaching them that it’s OK to be dishonest?
    Managers should be role models for their employees and set an example of the culture and morality of an organization. By teaching them that it’s OK to cheat the manufacturer’s system, you’re also teaching them that it’s OK to cheat ANY system, including yours.
    For any dealership to grow, it needs to be open to feedback – both positive and negative. The best dealerships use this type of feedback to identify and fix any friction that exists in the customer’s experience. Doing this then brings more revenue through greater retention and loyalty. Happier customers generally means more dollars coming in. Turning a blind eye to the reality of what is actually going on at the dealership and falsifying CSI surveys may provide the short-term benefit of OEM bonuses or stair step money. However, it will also taint your employees and drive away customers. And that will lose more revenue than any lost money from the manufacturer. Surveys ARE IMPORTANT, but stop the nonsense and let employees breathe and enjoy their jobs, positive energy will always be the outcome.

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Bob January 19, 2017

    Unfortunately, this will not change unless manufacturers quit holding money over the dealerships’ head. The surveys are used to determine how much money, if any, that dealerships get from the manufacturer based on the survey responses. Ironically, the manufacturer comes up with both the questions and the grading scale. You don’t even have to guess whose favor it is weighted in.

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    Harry May 04, 2017

    As a Ford customer, I am shocked to read this. After knowing how the survey results are used, I now wouldn’t consider giving anything other than 10/10.

    Reply
  10. Avatar
    common sense June 24, 2017

    The survey results need to go directly to the manufacturer and then be sent to the dealers anonymously, taking away managements scapegoats.This will prevent the dealers from pressuring individuals to the point of their employees manipulating the system. This will also force management to actually manage the dealership as a whole and not blame single people for problems that are ultimately caused by poor management. Here are two examples of bad survey response comments, how the dealer would handle it and then how it should have been handled:

    Customer – “There was still trash from the previous owner under the seat”
    Manager – ” Why didn’t you see that before you sold it to them?”
    In this case the salesman was held accountable for the detail depts failure. Mgmt should be talking to detail, not to the salesman. There is no reason a salesman should be expected to crawl under a seat and look for dirt, that’s what detail is paid for.

    Customer – “It shouldn’t take three hours for a simple oil change.”
    Manager- “Why didn’t you tell her it would take that long? Why didn’t you give her a loaner?”
    Here the service advisor is held accountable for a slow moving shop and questioned why they didn’t tell the customer it would take that long. The customers comment clearly states that no matter what they were told they feel it took too long. The reason for this is that they are correct. Management should be focusing on speeding up the shop, not expecting a service advisor to lie and make excuses.

    Reply
  11. Avatar
    Oneil Granger February 27, 2018

    I have been in the automotive industry for 36 years [ service side ] and when the CSI racket came out in early nineties, it has truly changed the industry & as stated earlier has taken the fun out of the dealership work day. There are to many answers to the questions. Either we did what we should have or we didn’t so it should be a yes or no answer. how often when someone ask you how your dinner was last night at such & such restaurant do you reply Truly exceptional or Completely Satisfied [ these are the 10 answers on 2 different manufactures surveys ] it does not matter what car company, they all have them. If we used yes & no questions and at the end leave a comment section that IS NOT SCORED by the Car Company you would get the praise & the problems that go on at every store. Isn’t that what we really want is honest answers & opinions from our customers? I really think CSI is going away & customer retention is the new measuring stick, I think this is a better way. after all if you don’t like your dealer why are you going back. We shall see.

    Reply

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