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Tying Compensation to Customer Satisfaction—A Slippery Slope

Posted by Marty Murk on Wed, Apr 27, 2011

Recently, my wife and I purchased a new car, trading away my old beater for a fresh new ride.  It was a big deal in the Murk household.  We went on endless test rides, popped in and out of a bunch of dealerships, and generally did our best to explore all of our options.  While lengthy, the purchase process couldn’t have been less memorable.  And that’s just what we had hoped for.  We asked questions and the sales representatives politely answered them. Then we bought a car.  


End of story, right?  Nope.Customer satisfaction research

I think we all understand the utility of the post-sale survey, particularly as it pertains to durable goods.  As a researcher, of course I’m okay with participating.  In this case, my experience was unremarkable.  But guess what?  That’s just what I wanted.  Under normal circumstances, that’s what I would have told them.

Instead, what I got was a perversion of the research process – something motivated not by genuine interest in feedback but by sales rep compensation and dealership profitability.  When you tie research results (an impartial discipline) to a sales rep’s compensation (something they feel anything but impartial about), it’s a recipe for disaster and a great way to anger an otherwise happy customer.  And that’s how I felt.  Angry. 

Here’s why:

  • A few days after we bought the car, I got a voicemail from the dealership: “Hi Mr. Murk, please remember to fill out our customer satisfaction survey and return it at your earliest convenience.”
  • Me:  “Hmm, I haven’t even gotten it in the mail yet, but I’m in research, I’ll dig this.”
  • Voicemail from dealership (less than 12 hours later): “Hi Mr. Murk, this is just a friendly reminder to return your customer satisfaction survey as soon as possible.”
  • Me:  “Hmm, 2 calls before it even arrived.  That’s weird.”
  • Voicemail from dealership (3 hours later): “Hi Mr. Murk, just calling to see why you haven’t returned our customer satisfaction survey.  If you’ll be giving us ANYTHING less that ‘completely satisfied ratings’, call me back first so that I can rectify the situation.”
  • Me:  “They’re gaming the system!”
  • 7 voicemails from dealership (spaced about 20 minutes apart):  “Mr. Murk, we need to talk.  We NEEEEEED your top ratings.  Don’t you love us anymore?  Call me ASAP.”
  • Me: “That’s weird, they are starting to remind me of an ex-girlfriend I had and that ended badly.  I am definitely NOT filling this thing out, I can’t reward such behavior.”
  • 7 voicemails from dealership (spaced about 20 minutes apart):  “I’m sorry, baby.  Please just fill this thing out.  Just say you were completely satisfied and you’ll never hear from me again.”
  • Me:  Now I’m scared.  So I relent, and fill dang thing out.  And now I’m ANGRY at the dealership. 

I’m not naïve enough to misunderstand their intentions, though.  In fact, I’m guessing the coupling of feedback with compensation started with the best of intentions.  The manufacturer wants the dealership to care about creating happy customers, so they incent dealerships with discounts on the invoice for quality customer satisfaction ratings.

As researchers, we take pride in the art behind what we do.  It’s our job to remind companies that the whole point of customer research is to listen to customers, not just drive a number.  It’s hard not to be a little insulted when you see research being used in any other way.

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Posted by Marty Murk. Marty is a Senior Project Manager on CMB's Retail and e-Commerce practice. "Cheapness" runs through his blood and he still can't believe he chose a new car over a used car.

Topics: customer experience and loyalty, retail research