Monday, February 16, 2015

Open Letter to Car Manufacturers

True Customer satisfaction trumps sales volume

Dear car manufacturer,

Today all of the car manufacturers can’t stop talking about customer satisfaction, especially when it comes to satisfying the car buyer. They are aware, just as everyone is, that customers visiting car dealerships rank their treatment worse than just about any other retailer. The manufacturers have been aware of this problem for about 30 years. As a Pontiac dealer, I can still remember the first “CSI” surveys that were sent out. The surveys have changed quite a bit and the methodology has changed quite a bit, but essentially it’s the same. When somebody buys a car from a dealer, she is mailed a questionnaire, sometimes it’s emailed, and sometimes the customer is surveyed by phone. The same system is used for service customers. These surveys are scored for customer satisfaction and the dealerships are measured against each other. Typically a dealership is ranked numerically within his local market (about a 100 mile radius), region (geographic section of the USA like the Southeast) and the entire USA.

The problem has been that these surveys haven’t worked very well. Realizing this, the manufacturers have steadily increased the penalties to dealers with bad scores and rewards to dealers with good scores. The penalties can be quite severe, including a dealer’s franchise being terminated, putting him out of business. The rewards sometimes include cash, vacations trips, prestigious honor clubs and societies, and even priority consideration for another dealership location. Guess what? It’s still not working! The scores are getting higher and higher, but the customers are not getting happier and happier. How can that be, you say??!!

The dealers are finding ways to manipulate the survey scores to their advantage. The stakes are so high for a good customer satisfaction score, that “fixing the game” has become pretty much S.O.P. with many car dealerships. This is especially egregious because the honest dealers, who go about improving their scores “the old fashioned way”…treating his customer better, are made to look bad relative to those who are cheating on their scores. In fact, sometimes you actually see dealers who don’t treat their customers very nicely getting higher scores than those who do! As if this wasn’t bad enough, manufacturers sometimes “look the other way” when a large volume dealers has a “CSI problem”. In awards, contests, and honorary societies, the manufacturers sometimes award “discretionary” points to bring a large volume dealer’s percentage score up to an acceptable level. I don’t have to tell you how demoralizing this is to those honest dealers who earn their points fairly. This sends a dangerous message to all of the dealers when they see sales volume trumping customer satisfaction in the priorities of the manufacturers.

The fact is that the manufacturer’s focus on customer satisfaction surveys has intensified to the point where most manufacturers’ executives care more about the numbers than the customers. They tell the dealers to “get those numbers up” which doesn’t necessarily correlate with “treat your customers better”. In a recent Automotive News article, an independent survey company found that 36% of car buyers said the salesperson asked for a perfect score and were asked to allow the dealership to address problems and complaints internally, rather than report them to the automaker. There are also instances of offering a free tank of gas or other perk for a good survey or bringing the blank survey into the dealership for the salesman to fill out. One manufacture recently caught a lot of dealers who had furnished phony email addresses for their customers so that the customer satisfaction survey would come to the dealership instead of the customer’s home.

Here is my recommendation to the car manufacturers. You can keep the surveys, but let them be used only as an information tool for improving the way the dealers treat their customers…no penalties or rewards. Replace the surveys with the “proof of the pudding” for customer satisfaction which is how many customers who buy a car from this dealer come back to buy another from the same dealer? Also, what percentage of the customers return to that dealer for service after they buy their car? What more do you need to know? Customer loyalty is the bottom line, plain and simple. If you must use a survey, use an independent survey company who surveys the dealers’ customers when he doesn’t know who is being surveyed or when it’s being done. The hardest thing for a manufacturer to do is to make customer satisfaction to trump sales volume, not the other way around. The manufacturers will find, if they have the courage to do that, the will “have their cake and eat it too”.


Earl Stewart


  1. That's a great point. As a salesman for an Asian manufacturer who would give huge incentives for each vehicle sold, 100 to 300 cash for the most popular models, but had to keep a 97 percent csi rating. Most new car commissions are about 200,so this additional "spin"money means alot to salesman earnings. One bad survey that may have glowing reviews about your service and experience, but may have a few 7 or 8 scores with questions that do not pertain to the actual sale. I.e. a question asked is the selection of inventory, the appearance of the bldg...none of those are in a sales guy's control, and the worst is when they put the wrong answer down simply bc they forgot getting a tour of service or whatever...I hate the whole idea of it bc it doesn't mean better service, and an inordinate amount of time is spent hounding and cajoling the customer for a good survey. Considering a 9 is a failing mark, it's unrealistic that am honest answer will earn the 10 no matter the excellent service or experience

  2. Typically, surveys have far too many questions that are overly subjective in nature;" were the chairs comfortable", for example. Additionally, this should be a satisfaction survey not a profession survey. A scale of 1 to 10, or even 1 to 5, allows for too much variance. Manufacturers and dealers insist on a satisfaction rating in the high nineties. In the real world, the only place you have 99% satisfaction is it a North Korean election. Survey questions should be a simple yes or no, were you satisfied.

  3. Paul...very well said and I totally agree.


Earl Stewart On Cars welcomes comments from everyone - supporters and critics alike. We'd like to keep the language and content "PG Rated" so please refrain from vulgarity and inappropriate language. We will delete any comment that violates these guidelines. Oh yeah - one more thing: no commercials! Other than that, comment-away!