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.