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Customer Satisfaction: Reality and the Fantasy of the Surveys

Last month a letter arrived from the bank through which we had recently refinanced our mortgage. Our loan officer wrote that we would soon be receiving a survey about our experience. Included in the envelop was a filled out sample of the questionnaire and a personal entreaty to please fill in the “very much satisfied” category and not “very satisfied” which, according to the writer would be “treated like a NOT satisfied” in the tabulation of results.

Although the questions pertain to the mortgage, the form and substance is identical to the surveys received by new car buyers. I can’t wait for the press release that says J. D. Power rates Wells Fargo as the highest in customer satisfaction for mortgage financing. But just as the surveys that cars buyers fill out provide little information about their actual shopping experience and do not foretell their future vehicle preference neither will the bank get any real value from my survey input about my mortgage experience.

I will dutifully fill out “very much satisfied” even though not every aspect of the process was flawless. But then half the country was refinancing this spring so the problems I encountered had nothing to do with the loan officer any more than mechanical problems with a new car have anything to do with the car dealer who sold the car. I know how the game is played and I’m not going to mess up this guy’s career.

What was most important to me was that I got what was promised, a great deal in my book, and not that the bank was 24 hours late in getting the paperwork to my attorney. The rate and terms were all that mattered. The fact that I got a mortgage doesn’t mean that I now have a relationship with this bank. This was a one-time transaction on which the bank will make money. If there were a chance to get a better rate from another source in the future, I would.

Obviously the bank thinks that there is something to be gained from the survey information and it may only be the ability to claim that they are the best in customer satisfaction. But all that might mean is that they have the most skillful employees at manipulating survey results just like car dealers have done for many years. Are future customers going to flock to this bank or whichever company wins the “coveted” award for their mortgages? No, they are going to go where they get the best rate and deal just like car buyers have been doing irrespective of the dealer. Auto companies have been conducting customer satisfaction surveys for decades. The question they need to ask themselves is not whether there is value in knowing if their customers are satisfied but rather is that what the surveys are telling them. Have they done anything to change the customer experience in the showroom?

Probably not much. Customer car buying experience has improved because the retail climate is much tougher and no dealer can afford to mistreat a customer. Have the surveys helped car companies separate customer satisfaction into components of satisfaction with the car versus the car buying process? If that were the case then the auto companies with the longest support for these surveys would have the best products, right? But of course they don’t.

Right now all that these surveys seem to be revealing is how good a dealer’s sales and service personnel are at persuasion rather than how good the customers’ experience was and whether that has any value in shaping their future behavior. There may be real problems with some dealers but it isn’t likely that the current survey format is going to reveal it. Like every other area of spending, the industry has to get value for money including customer satisfaction surveys.

Maryann Keller is a veteran auto industry analyst and author of the books “Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall and Struggle to Recover at General Motors” and “Collision: GM, Toyota and Volkswagen and the Race to Own the 21st Century.”

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Sun. July 14th, 2024

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