Why Car Salespeople Beg for Top Customer Survey Scores

The Simple Answer: Anything Less Than an A Is an F


When you're shopping for a car, the experience you have at a dealership can make all the difference. Edmunds.com Senior Editor Matt Jones worked for 12 years as a car salesman, Internet sales manager, and finance and insurance manager. He now highlights dealerships and car-selling best practices that make car shopping easy and enjoyable. Got an innovative dealership story to share? Contact him: matthewj (at) edmunds.com

In car dealerships, it's common to hear a salesperson ask — even beg — for a customer who has just bought a car to give him top marks in the customer satisfaction survey that will soon arrive. Here's why: The salesperson's pay, and potentially, the job itself, may very well depend on getting perfect 10s in this survey.

In car dealerships, it's common to hear salespeople ask — even beg — for customers who have just bought cars to give them top marks in the customer satisfaction surveys that will soon arrive. Here's why: The salesperson's pay, and potentially the job itself, may very well depend on getting perfect 10s in this survey.

Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) scores are an important part of everyday life at a dealership, and for good reason. Automakers want to hear from customers in order to gauge how well the franchise is doing in key areas, primarily customer satisfaction with the sales process. On the dealership level, these scores often determine future inventory. The better the score, the more likely a dealership is to get in-demand vehicles. Depending on the manufacturer, CSI scores also can affect the quarterly or annual bonuses it pays to the dealership, which are often essential to the dealership's bottom line.

If a salesperson does a bad job, he or she deserves a bad survey. But what should shoppers do if they feel good about the transaction but weren't blown away by it? The normal impulse would be to give a salesperson an 8 or a 9 rather than a perfect 10. But because of the scoring models used, an 8 or a 9 is essentially the same as giving the salesperson a zero.

With so much on the line for both dealer and salesperson, begging for high marks often becomes part of the deal. Some car shoppers know the importance of a good survey and use the CSI survey as a negotiation tool, promising great scores if the dealership will "sweeten" the deal.

The specter of a bad survey, meanwhile, can be enough to prompt a salesperson to turn down a car sale.

"If I had a really unhappy customer I thought would give us a terrible survey, I'd sometimes have to pass on the deal," a former sales manager with 20 years of experience told Edmunds. "I couldn't take the risk of a terrible survey. I hated missing a deal because of a survey, but it could take 15 perfect surveys to make up for a single bad one."

It's crazy, isn't it? And what's a car shopper supposed to do? Do you buy into grade inflation? Or do you give realistic scores, knowing that by doing so the salesperson who went the extra mile for you — but who didn't give you the car and didn't throw in an $11,000 Hermès bag for good measure — could suffer the consequences in lower pay or even the loss of a job?

I have some suggestions on how to proceed, but first let's look a little more deeply into how CSI scores work in dealerships.

Only a 10 Will Do

Just as receiving an A on a 100-question math test may not mean that the student answered every single question correctly, a top score on a CSI survey does not mean that the deal was perfect. In the eyes of dealers and carmakers, a perfect score simply means that overall, the car shopper was happy with the sales process and satisfied with the service received while doing the deal. You might think "satisfied" would equal a score of 80%-85%, leaving some room above that for "delighted" or even "deliriously happy." But that's not how it works.

A CSI target of 95% or higher is quite common in dealerships. And a cumulative monthly CSI score lower than the target score will likely take a salesperson out of the running for bonus pay, which can easily exceed a third of the salesperson’s total earnings. This threat of income loss is why salespeople, and sometimes managers, are so insistent on getting the highest marks possible on surveys. That is all 10s, and nothing less.

It doesn't take much to bring a salesperson's CSI score below the store goal. Imagine that a salesperson received seven surveys in a month. If six of those surveys had a 95% satisfaction score and just one 90% score, she'd have an overall CSI score of 94%. She missed that month's target. Should a salesperson receive too many 94% CSI survey scores in a given time frame, she might not only miss out on additional income. Her job could be in jeopardy.

Some shoppers will never give top scores unless they're asked to do so, which is another reason salespeople constantly ask for top marks. It is simply out of character for some people to give the highest review scores, perhaps thinking that giving a person or process top marks will remove an incentive to do better.

I once worked with a new salesperson who sold a car to his mother, who happened to be an elementary school teacher. His mother gave him 90% CSI score on the survey she filled out. Why? She believed that everybody can improve, including her son. What she likely didn't know was that that one survey may have stopped her son from getting that month's sales bonus.

When I was a salesman, I once received a bad survey from a customer because of poor treatment she received at a competing dealership. Although she and I got along fine and had a smooth deal at my store, there was very little I could do to fix the problem she had at a company I didn't work for. I ended up getting the bad survey.

Giving Feedback Without Slamming Good Salespeople

Car shoppers often have concerns they'd like to share with the manufacturers, and it's good that they have a means — the customer satisfaction survey — for doing so.

Within the survey, there are ways to voice complaints without affecting the salesperson's pay. At the end of CSI surveys, there is a comment section for the car shopper to address any concerns that may have come up while doing the deal. These comments do not affect the overall scoring of the salesperson. If a car shopper thought the music was too loud in the dealership, for example, saying that in the survey comment would likely be a better option than giving the salesperson an 8.

Tools like Edmunds dealer reviews are another way to discuss the good and bad aspects of the car-buying experience. These online reviews are visible to any potential customer interested in looking at them and are often prominently displayed in an online search for a dealership.

Reviews on the Edmunds site are honest shopper assessments and offer customers a chance to better express their feelings about the purchase experience using their own words in a public forum. More than ever, dealerships are aware of their online reputations and pay close attention to customer reviews, and they look to resolve complaints raised there. An added bonus to review sites is that other shoppers get to read about what your experience was like. That's something that doesn't happen with in-house CSI surveys.

And then there are some old-fashioned ways to give feedback. Write a letter to management. Or better yet, set up a meeting with one of the dealership brass. These routes will likely go further toward fixing a systemic problem at a dealership than any customer satisfaction survey ever would. From my experience, real change happens on the dealership level and not because a carmaker tells a dealer that the survey scores need to be higher.

Until automakers and dealerships find better ways to improve the customer service experience than the blunt instrument of the CSI, shoppers can help by offering honest feedback via online reviews at Edmunds and by writing comments in the surveys.

Finally, if you liked your car-buying experience and you don't want to penalize a salesperson who did a good job — even if you think she was a little less than perfect — go ahead and give her the 10. She probably earned it.