Toss the survey, follow the profit.
It’s the secret about satisfaction surveys that every car dealer knows, yet manufacturers and the public have no clue it exists: People who pay good profits to purchase their cars are almost always forgiving on their customer satisfaction scores. Conversely, those who love spending hours negotiating until there’s not a penny left in profits, no matter how well that dealer handled their transaction, typically give the worst survey the dealer gets that week.
It’s a simple reality: Customers who are basically happy people give decent if not great surveys, even when they are undeserved. And those who are basically unhappy, those who don’t trust anybody, hand in poor surveys, even when they are undeserved.
Last week I discussed a certain high-end luxury car that had a large number of major mechanical issues. The basic truism about human nature explains why no one seems to have pounded either their dealer or their vehicles for all the repairs that were needed on those customer surveys. Instead, that luxury car and its manufacturer often appear near the top of the list when it comes to exceptional customer service and quality. Even my friend, who verified those problems on his car, simply said the dealer service department was great at getting him in and out and fixing things fast.
Come to think of it, last year Americans bought over 17 million new vehicles, and another 50 million were recalled for various problems — and yet satisfaction scores stayed fairly constant. Still, some newer satisfaction surveys that manufacturers send out continue to feature questions skewed toward casting dealers as somehow not quite as good as the customers insist they are.
Now, one might ask why a manufacturer would want to see its dealers as not being the best of the best. The answer is that today, they often pay dealers cash incentives based on how their customers rate their service departments.
I have just such a survey in hand.
The first four questions ask about this dealer’s service department: Getting the Car in for Service, Quality of Service Advisor, Quality of Work Performed and Length of Time to Complete the Work. The customer replied ‘Excellent’ to the first three questions and Very Good to the last one, specifically pointing out that his 4-year-old Mustang was in the shop for less than 90 minutes, start to finish.
But the interrogation goes on: The pick-up process from service, vehicle report card, follow-through on commitments, and even the inane “Do you love your dealer?” Here the customer assessed the pick-up process as Good, follow-through as Very Good and ‘somewhat agreed’ that he or she ‘loved their dealer.’
Now, when a customer writes Excellent over and over again, then says they mostly love their dealer, one would think this dealer and his service department must be one of the best in North Texas. And you’d be right. The problem is that the manufacturer scores that near-perfect service satisfaction survey as only a 58. And, as that dealer confided to me, “Don’t know about you, but when I was in school 58 meant you were failing.”
In the end, the measurements that all of these surveys yield have become meaningless. A few truly horrendous dealers still remain in Texas, but they know how to get around the system to make their surveys look passable. And if their volumes are high enough, the manufacturer couldn’t care less how they conduct their business.
Meanwhile, the majority of car dealers handle their business in a manner far superior to most in the auto industry I joined in 1973; yet their customer satisfaction scores are no higher today than they were when the modern survey industry was created 36 years ago. One thing is for sure, if I got a 58 score on a near-perfect survey, and thus was cut out of my factory incentives, my manufacturer would be hearing from me daily.
Maybe all of the dealers should get together and create their own survey on how good their manufacturers are — maybe scoring quality and how car manufacturers handle their business — and then post those results with the media.
Believe me, you’d have manufacturers suing to keep that survey’s findings from every seeing the light of day.
© Ed Wallace 2016
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.