What's up with the customer satisfaction surveys that dealers are mailing me...pre-filled out?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2002

Dear Tom and Ray:

What's up with dealer customer-satisfaction surveys? After I get my car serviced, the dealer sends me a four-page, already-filled-out survey identical to the one Honda is going to send me -- with "excellent" checked in every box. The dealer tells me that if I can't check "excellent" on every item, I should call his customer service manager. Should I play along with this? Does Honda really think its dealers are all perfect? What's the point of the survey if it tells you what results it wants? -- Rob

RAY: Great question, Rob. Over the past 10 years or so, car companies have become obsessed with the notion of customer satisfaction. That, in itself, is not a bad thing.

TOM: And a whole industry has sprung up to measure this quality called "customer satisfaction." J.D. Power and Associates is probably the best-known of the bunch.

RAY: Anyway, to encourage their dealers to improve customer satisfaction, car companies started putting some teeth in the survey results. In some cases, they based executive pay increases on customer-satisfaction scores. The executives, in turn, used customer-satisfaction scores to influence dealer allotment -- how many of the desirable, or highly profitable, cars a dealer gets to sell each month.

TOM: So with all this stuff riding on their customer-satisfaction scores, is it any wonder that the dealers don't want to leave anything to chance?

RAY: It's against the rules for them to literally fill out the survey for you and sign your name, but they'll do everything short of that to get good scores.

TOM: The intent of the mailing is to influence your opinion, and also, if you're not satisfied, the dealership wants you to call it first to give it a chance to make you satisfied.

RAY: Or, barring that, convince you somehow that your lousy experience must have been at some other dealership, not this one. And if that doesn't work, it wants a chance to send Tony Soprano to take you out before you ever have a chance to check "pretty good" on one of its surveys.

TOM: So our advice would be to fill out the survey any darn way you want. Suggesting that you put "excellent" in every category makes the survey meaningless. It's like a kid who tells the teacher: "Here's how I'd like to see my report card filled out. If you can't give me all A's, please call my father, the mayor."

RAY: If your experience really was excellent, then, by all means, say so in the survey. That'll reward those dealerships that really do go out of their way to provide excellent and honest service.

TOM: But if your experience was average, mediocre or downright lousy -- if you weren't treated well, your car wasn't ready when they said it would be, or you were surprised by the final price of the repair -- then say so in the survey and send it on in. The results are obviously important to the dealer. And getting lousy marks will give those dealerships that need it an important message: You can't cover up bad service one customer at a time. ... It's time to shape up, guys.

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