Furor Grows Over Dealership CSI Scores

By Chris Haak


Michael Karesh, an occasional contributor to this site and owner of TrueDelta, an automotive research firm, conducted a survey of his reliability survey participants last spring to gauge whether dealers were pressuring their customers to rate their salesperson and dealership with top scores in all areas on the customer satisfaction surveys that come from the manufacturer. I hadn’t seen the survey results until reading the August 27, 2007 issue of industry publication Automotive News last night (I’m a little behind!) and saw an article about Mr. Karesh’s research.

I think Mr. Karesh was onto something by conducting a survey about this. Not only did a major auto industry publication pick up on his work, but also today’s Autoextremist article was about what a failed system CSI scores have become.

In the past four years, I’ve bought two new vehicles, and while my buying experience was a positive one in both cases (I bought a Honda and a Nissan), it helps that I didn’t have to negotiate price, as a family member had a close business relationship with both dealerships and was able to get a great price for me. But toward the end of the delivery process, both salesmen mentioned the CSI surveys and that they need perfect scores, and that they’d be happy to address any concerns I might have before completing the survey. Needless to say, I gave them top scores.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has been pressured to do this. Dealerships’ allocations of popular models, their employees’ compensation, and even factory to dealer incentives are tied to CSI rankings. Even worse, manufacturers have set such ridiculously high standards (anything short of “excellent” is a black mark, when in fact, outside of Lake Wobegon, not everyone is above average, and certainly not excellent.) “Exceeds expectations” might be a difficult rating to achieve if the customer’s expectations are too high. And even if that customer’s expectations are exceeded once, would they not expect the same treatment when they buy their next car from that dealer, so the same level of service that exceeded expectations earlier might only meet the higher expectations the second time.

If every car buying experience was excellent or very good, then why are there so many horror stories out there? Hmmm…

TrueDelta’s research (with admittedly small sample sizes) found that at least 75% of all dealerships at least mentioned the survey would be coming, and many others took further steps such as allowing to preliminarily address problems before the survey (36%), asking for perfect scores without begging (28%), saying they wouldn’t get a bonus without perfect scores (9%), begging for perfect scores (9%), offering to watch the customer complete it (2%) or allow the dealer to complete it (2%), or offering a gift in exchange for a positive survey (2%). Note that these do not add to 100% because multiple responses were allowed. It also found that among respondents, Nissan, Hyundai, and BMW dealers pressured customers the most to complete their surveys with only the highest scores.

Further adding to the furor is that GM announced in the past week or two that some dealers had submitted “fraudulent” CSI surveys and those results would be ignored, and the dealer would likely be penalized in some way.

So let’s see: customers don’t like being pressured, dealers and salespeople don’t like having their livelihood tied to the whim of someone completing a survey who marks “very good” instead of “excellent” (or “meets expectations” rather than “exceeds expectations), and the manufacturers are suspicious of the process.

Part of my “real job” is working with employee compensation, and designing incentive plans to motivate employees to perform a desired behavior. I’d say that the current CSI system should be thrown out, because clearly begging, lying, and fudging should not be the behaviors that are encouraged.

Are there any other stories of dealer or salesperson pressure to give perfect scores out there?

Link to TrueDelta’s research on this subject: http://www.truedelta.com/pieces/survey_survey.php

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Since I’ve been selling cars for the past 6 years at 4 different dealerships, I can tell you that every dealer and every salesman at every dealer tries to game this system. And for the most part, their successful in those efforts.

  2. I’m not surprised to see you say that. Ironically, the more successful salespeople and dealers are at gaming the system, the less successful the system actually is!

  3. Does it surprise anyone that car dealers would do something dishonest? Not me!

  4. I bought a Volvo recently and those people are on me like white on rice about the customer satisfaction form. I had no idea it was so important to them. Same thing you mentioned in the article, nothing less than “perfect” will do on the form. It wasn’t perfect, it was really, really good, but not perfect.


  6. Recently leased 2011 Chevy Cruze which I love – and the experience was the first and only time I enjoyed the car-shopping process[as proof of this, the last 2 cars I owned were 14 and 12 years old when I replaced them]. Why was this time positive? Because I worked with an honest & professional salesperson and dealership. The process was not perfect but the problems that came up [only 2] were not things they could have controlled – and I wasn’t expecting perfection anyway. STUFF HAPPENS. I now know a lot about this famous [infamous?] customer surveys but knew nothing about them when I left with my car after delivery. When my survey arrived via e-mail, I filled it out and gave my honest views. Things were very very good but they weren’t perfect. And could never be perfect – there is always room for improvement. Was I shocked to find out that only COMPLETELY SATISFIED responses meant anything at all. Anything less hurt your salesperson and your dealership – and when neither could have done anything to make my experience better, this bothered me a GREAT deal. I called around to many auto dealerships in my area to find out that this is an industry standard, that all dealerships and sales staff loathe them – and they’re right to feel that way. I felt like I gave an “F” to a student who had produced A nd B+ work throughout the semester. There MUST be a better and fairer way to evaluate and reward performance than this.

  7. Moonstruck, excellent comment. I couldn’t agree with you more. The CSI score system is so absurd and unfair to all stakeholders.

    I had my 2008 Cadillac CTS serviced the other week, and on the heels of that, I got a letter from the dealership that had no less than five references to hoping that I was completely satisfied (in bold on the letter), then a few days after that, I got a voicemail saying that question #16 was particularly important for me to be completely satisfied – that it was like a “pass fail” for the dealership, and if there was anything that I could do that would make me less than completely satisfied, to please let them know.

    An unscrupulous person could easily use this system to blackmail their dealer into free repairs or something like that (and I’m sure it happens). The manufacturer doesn’t get accurate results, the customer doesn’t get the chance to honestly evaluate service; it’s just a really terrible system. It’s a joke.

  8. As an 18+ veteran in the automotive business, I can tell you that we are pressured when it comes to survey results. My manufacturer says they tie their survey scoring directly to J. D. Power’s ratings. So I guess the fault could laid the J.D. Power’s feet. We walk a fine line when it comes to getting survey results. We’re not suppoed to coach the customer, but we need to ask for a response. What we do is toe tell the customer a survey will be forthcoming and we’d appreciate their responding to it. “II hope I did an excellent job for you and your totally satisfied”.
    Customer’s are being over saturated with requests for survey’s. But again, it comes back to the companies feet, and J.D. Power’s rating all kinds of business for positive comments. As far as a car dealer being unique in “gaming the system, or “dishonest dealings”, I’d say look into your own industry or business and tell me how many of these holier-than-thou’s making these snide comments work differently to gain a raise or bonus, or keep their job position. The automotive industry has bent over backwards in recent years to clean house and satisfy consumers. If you find one that doesn’t match this, then go elsewhere and vote with your money that way.

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