Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Regular readers of this blog know I spend a lot of time discussing customer service. Public relations, after all, is about reputation management, and other than the quality of your product, nothing speaks more to your reputation than how you treat your customers.

I thought of this recently as I completed a customer satisfaction survery from Mazda after my wife and I had our Mazda 5 inspected at our local dealership. We'd already been prompted twice by the dealership to respond favorably to the survey -- once when my wife was called to tell her when the car would be ready, and once in a follow-up letter.

The ritual is similar when you buy a car. Either the sales person or the finance manager, or both, remind you how important it is that you check "completely satisfied" on the survey mailed to you by the manufacturer. I know someone who has been both a salesman and finance manager, and he says that auto companies deal harshly with dealerships when a customer reports being anything less than completely satisfied.

So auto dealers and manufacturers are very concerned with their customers' satisfaction, right? Wrong. If car companies really cared how dealers treated customers, they wouldn't demand that the answer to every question be "completely satisfied", and then use the results as a club against the dealership when they failed to measure up. It's bad management, and what it says to me is manufacturers aren't interested in real customer input, just the appearance of it -- like a suggestion box no one ever opens.

I also doubt that surveying customers so soon after purchasing a car is going to yield an accurate account of their experience with the dealer. Getting a car repaired is different; people are likely to have strong opinions about whether they were treated honestly, and they may know quickly if the repairs were not done correctly.

But a car is a major purchase, in which people are often emotionally invested, and they are likely to want to validate their decision. Thus, they are more likely to give favorable feedback before the glow of the purchase has worn off. (And that may be exactly what manufacturers have in mind.) Plus, buying a car isn't like buying groceries, and the difference goes beyond scale. When you go to a supermarket, you might not have any meaningful interaction with the staff until you go to pay -- assuming you don't use the self check-out aisle. You're not likely to abandon your groceries just because you are treatly poorly by the clerk.

On the other hand, practically the minute you walk into a car dealership you are greeted by a sales person, and if you're not comfortable with him or her, you just might walk out the door. So the mere fact that you decide to purchase a car from them conveys some satisfaction with the experience. If auto manufacturers and dealers really cared what you thought, they'd survey you six months, or a year, after you bought the car. Are you still happy with your vehicle? Did it do everything the dealer told you it would? What kind of service have you gotten from the dealer since you purchased the car?

That's how the system might work -- if it weren't a purposeful charade.

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