Yes Siree, a New Survey

It seems like there's a new survey out every week rating customer satisfaction. That impression is not wrong. Within two weeks recently, J. D. Power and Associates of Westlake, CA, arguably the industry leader in such surveys, released 14 survey-based studies, six of them involving the auto industry. Others included such disparate subjects as European hotel guest satisfaction and Canadian homebuilders.

It seems like there's a new survey out every week rating customer satisfaction.

That impression is not wrong. Within two weeks recently, J. D. Power and Associates of Westlake, CA, arguably the industry leader in such surveys, released 14 survey-based studies, six of them involving the auto industry. Others included such disparate subjects as European hotel guest satisfaction and Canadian homebuilders.

As a veteran automotive writer, I was surprised to receive a thick envelope from J. D. Power containing an 8-page small-print survey with 60 questions about my acquisition of an '05 Ford Focus Wagon.

Included was a crisp dollar bill as an incentive for me to fill out the form and return it in the postage-paid envelope. (Research indicates that including a dollar, even though it is small compensation for completing a lengthy survey, boosts return rates.)

I put off returning the form. Soon I received a postcard reminder as well as a telephone voicemail message, urging me to complete and return the survey.

The main reason I'd delayed was not because I dislike surveys, as many people do but because most of the questions simply didn't apply to my situation.

J. D. Power say they expect 35,000 to 40,000 returns to this survey. Since direct mail surveys traditionally get around 5% of returns, this would indicate a mailing of about 800,000 forms. The database is huge, then, but it's only a fraction of the 16-17 million annual new vehicle sales in the U. S.

Most of the questions dealt with dealer selection and customer reaction to the retail experience.

The survey was divided into eight sections of five to 15 questions each, ranging from “Shopping For Your New Vehicle” (two pages and 15 questions) and “Rating Your Selling Dealer” (1-1/2 pages and six questions) to personal questions.

However, the key question for this survey unfortunately was No. 46: "Did you purchase your new vehicle under an Employee Discount Program offered by manufacturer/dealer?" Indeed, my new Focus was purchased under such a plan.

Especially given the prevalence of such programs this year nationwide and always in centers of automotive employment (like metro Detroit, where I live) this should have been Question No.1, because so many of the questions preceding No. 46 dealt with the negotiating process, dealer and vehicle selection.

For example, No. 2 asked, “When you were shopping for a new vehicle, did you know the dealer's cost (invoice) of the make/model you purchased?” On a fixed-price deal, the question is simply not applicable.

Answering the questions required many purely judgment calls, such as age of dealership facility, whether the dealership was small, medium or large, and age of the salesperson.

In another section of the survey, I was asked to rate a J. D. Power list of competitive vehicles: Toyota Echo, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Accent.

This list made no sense since I was trading in an '02 Focus Wagon for an '05, and none of these models offer wagons. Further, the more likely Toyota competitor would be a Corolla rather than an Echo. Who knows what the question formulators were thinking?

And they didn't ask whether I rejected the alternatives because they were all "foreign cars." Or whether I was influenced by loyalty to my former employer, Ford.

Some questions could be answered by simple multiple-choice marking while others required ratings on a 1-10 scale. Finally, I was asked to list the price I paid and the amount and length of monthly payments, which required me to dig out the paper work.

Filling in the form was not worth the dollar bill incentive. But I like surveys, even when they present obvious flaws.

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