Business & Economy

Customer surveys are everywhere. Is that a good thing?

A sign in a Los Angeles Uber taken in July, 2016, asking customers to give a perfect five star rating.
A sign in a Los Angeles Uber taken in July, 2016, asking customers to give a perfect five star rating.
Lauren Osen/KPCC

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When Mark Davidson of Palm Springs was shopping for a new minivan recently, he was expecting pressure from the dealership when he was buying the vehicle, not afterwards. But that’s when he got the hard sell: to fill-out a customer satisfaction survey with only the highest marks.

"They impress upon you most earnestly that the survey is of extreme importance to them and that their compensation is based entirely on that survey," he says.

The salesman said, "'If we don’t get a perfect score, I’m hosed,"' Davidson recalls.

As it happens, he had a fine experience.

"He was perfectly helpful," says Davidson. "He was pleasant."

But that's not the point, he adds. He didn’t appreciate the guilt trip.

Even if he had been treated poorly, Davidson says, he would have been reluctant to give a low rating because he considers himself a nice guy and doesn’t want to get anyone fired.

"That’s the thing about these surveys," says Davidson. "We get them left, right and center. Everyone says they want your feedback, but it ultimately gives you a misleading [result]."

"A tsunami of surveys"

Customer surveys are not new, but these days they’ve become ubiquitous and frequently they come with pressure to give perfect marks, whether you're buying a car, taking an Uber or having a cable TV technician to your house.

"There’s no question there’s just a tsunami of surveys that’s overwhelming," says Fred Reichheld, a Bain & Company corporate consultant who’s credited with inventing the customer satisfaction survey 14 years ago to better gauge consumer loyalty.

Companies have long wanted to gather more feedback from customers, says Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business. What’s changed, he says, is that it's become cheaper to gather and analyze the data, and thanks to businesses like eBay, Yelp, Airbnb and Uber, people think nothing of being asked to give their driver or restaurant five stars.

It’s important for companies to measure the right things, and they should account for customers who are having a bad day, says Sundararajan, author of the book, "The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism." 

But overall, he says, surveys benefit customers.

"You’re signaling to employees that customer service matters," says Sundararajan. "Simply making people aware that their performance is being measured can have a positive effect on service."

Matt Jones, who sold cars in Southern California for more than a decade and now writes about the industry for, agrees.

He credits surveys for helping improve customer service at dealerships, which in turn leads to higher customer retention. That's very important in the car industry because it’s much cheaper for carmakers to keep their existing customers than attract new ones, says Jones.

Consequences for less than perfect scores

The pressure on salespeople to get perfect scores is intense, he says.

"I’ve seen people fired for having bad surveys, absolutely. If you give someone an eight or nine, you’ve essentially given them a zero." 

Jones says back when he was selling cars he would turn away customers he thought might be difficult and give him a poor evaluation.

When told about customers feeling pressure to fill out surveys a certain way, Scott Lawson, Director of Customer Experience at Chevrolet, says, "That’s not something we would want happening.”

"We want the customer's feedback to be honest and fair," he says. "If a customer tells us they’re dissatisfied, it’s not something we would blame an employee for. We want to understand their concern and take it seriously." 

Lawson says General Motors now uses advanced software to route customer comments to the appropriate division, so if for example someone mentions something they don't like about the Bluetooth system, the feedback goes to the engineers who work on that part of the car.

The pressure to get good reviews can lead to unethical behavior.

Last year, Subaru sued one of its dealerships in Santa Ana for falsifying hundreds of surveys. A group of salesman allegedly routed surveys to their own email addresses and gave themselves the highest possible marks.

Consultant and author Reichheld, who has been called the "godfather of customer loyalty," told Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal that he realized things have gotten out of hand when he recently bought a car and came under intense pressure to give the highest possible score on his evaluation. 

 "I called up the head of the company," he says, "and said, 'This system is well–intentioned but you have to change it.'"