Dealer Unsatisfaction

DETROIT As a Florida auto dealer, many of Alan Starling's customers are retirees, people who are in no hurry when buying a car. A lot of them will spend the whole day with us at the dealership, says Starling, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. That's fine with us. Sometimes we buy them lunch. But such hospitality can reap unintended negative consequences if, on an auto maker's customer

DETROIT — As a Florida auto dealer, many of Alan Starling's customers are retirees, people who are in no hurry when buying a car.

“A lot of them will spend the whole day with us at the dealership,” says Starling, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. “That's fine with us. Sometimes we buy them lunch.”

But such hospitality can reap unintended negative consequences if, on an auto maker's customer satisfaction survey, a customer unwittingly indicates that the dealership transaction took all day.

“We could get marked down for not providing a fast delivery of the vehicle,” says Starling.

That failing to take into account regional demographic differences is one of the things wrong with the auto industry's customer satisfaction surveys, says Staring.

It's far from the only thing wrong.

The current system is broken after going virtually unchanged for 30 years, he says. “But it can be fixed.”

NADA is asking auto makers to meet with their respective dealers to discuss revamping the surveys that Staring says have become “counterproductive” and “almost obsolete.”

“Everything in the auto industry has changed for the better — except for CSI surveys,” Starling, a General Motors dealer from St. Cloud, FL, tells the Automotive Press Assn. here.

The issue first gained momentum during a dealer meeting in Washington D.C. in June.

“Everyone there agreed the surveys are flawed,” says Starling. “No one got up and said, ‘There's not a problem.’”

He says the surveys in their current form don't work as intended, have lost credibility with dealers and undermine dealer operations.

Among flaws he cites:

The surveys are too long. “How many people do you know like curling up at night with an 8-page customer satisfaction survey from an auto maker?”

Customers are inundated with them. “A lot of people suffer from survey fatigue.”

Customers unhappy with vehicle quality often take it out on the dealership when filling out the surveys.

Disgruntled customers are the ones most likely to return a completed survey, skewing results.

Many surveys are poorly worded and ask loaded questions.

Regardless, auto makers reward and punish dealerships based on their survey results. Auto makers do that using financial incentives, inventory preferences and opportunities to acquire additional dealerships.

“When CSI surveys started 30 years ago, dealers were told they wouldn't be used for rewards and punishments,” says Starling. “Now they are.”

When that happens, dealers end up chasing the scores, says Starling.

He says it's similar to when so much emphasis is placed on high-school students scoring well on Standard Aptitude Tests (SATs), the teens end up focusing on “how to take the test” rather than on true learning.

“When you tie customer survey scores to financial rewards, then you have people chasing the scores rather than pursuing true customer satisfaction,” Starling says.

A General Motors spokeswoman, reacting to such criticism, says “nothing can't be improved.”

She says GM has one of the shorter surveys, but may add questions relating to finance & insurance satisfaction at the dealership.

“We wouldn't do anything without input from our dealer council, however,” she says.

Starling says, “It's not that complicated. Or shouldn't be. I know when I sell a car if the customer is happy or not.”

Incoming NADA Chairman Charley R. Smith says customers miffed at auto makers often take it out on dealers.

He explains, “Say a customer buys a truck from me, and a couple of weeks later the auto maker puts a much more generous incentive on that vehicle than that customer got. Then he gets a survey. The dealership had nothing to do with the incentive, but the customer is going to take it out on us.

“Believe me, every entrepreneur wants customer feedback. But they don't want flawed feedback.”

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