When you're out to save the world, sometimes people will ask, “What on Earth are you doing?”

Dealer Alan Starling got such a reaction from certain quarters when, as the chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. in 2003, he spearheaded an effort to overhaul auto makers' customer-satisfaction surveys.

His gripe was they were too long. “How many people do you know like curling up at night with an 8-page customer-satisfaction survey from an auto maker?”

He also contended they asked loaded questions and got skewed results that could make good dealers look bad.

I called him to ask what he thought about Chrysler possibly boiling down its customer-satisfaction survey.

Starling, a General Motors dealer in St. Cloud, FL, likes the idea, but adds, “Maybe the story should be: ‘How long should a good idea take to gain traction?’ It shouldn't take five years.”

Yet it just about has in his case.

“My year as NADA chairman was wonderful but frustrating because of the reception we got about improving the surveys,” he says. “Several manufacturers acted like we were trying to blow up the road, when all we were trying to do was pave it.”

Some progress was made, he says. “But I expected great results instantly. Instead, we got good results over time. Some manufacturers listened. Some didn't. That was disappointing.”

The need to fix the surveys became apparent to Starling as a rising NADA officer attending various state dealer association conventions. He'd ask attendees what their main concerns were.

“The flawed satisfaction surveys were always among the top three concerns of dealers from around the country,” he says.

So when he became NADA chairman, he convened a dealer summit on the issue. It led to the association issuing a white paper with recommendations for fixing the consumer-satisfaction index system.

“We met at NADA's headquarters near Washington, D.C. About 30 very bright and successful dealers flew in from all over,” Starling says. “Several of them came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I hope this does some good.’”

He hoped so, too, as he and fellow dealer William Bradshaw, who would become NADA's 2006 chairman, began meeting with auto makers to pitch their cause.

“We gave them the white paper for free. In retrospect, we should have charged some of them $1 million; they would have valued it more,” Starling says.

He stresses dealers weren't trying to kill the surveys nor duck constructive criticism stemming from them. Dealers just felt there was room for improvement.

He remembers getting a fair hearing from some auto executives, such as Hyundai's Finbarr O'Neil, Honda's Richard Colliver and Toyota's James Press, who is now a Chrysler co-president.

“Dick Colliver said, ‘I like what you are telling us.’ Jim Press said, ‘I'm grateful you did all this, because it does need to be changed.’

“Tom Purvis, who headed BMW North America at the time, was also receptive. He brought in an expert on the subject, a German guy, who said their customers tended to be fastidious about their vehicles and so weren't necessarily turned off by a long survey. I thought that made sense.”

Ford, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz also were amenable and “did a good job of absorbing our suggestions and making modifications to their surveys.”

Other auto makers were less open to NADA's suggestions, Starling recalls. “They said, ‘You do your knitting, we'll do ours.’”

Surveys or no surveys, most dealers know if their customers are happy or not, he says.

“My customers don't hide their feelings under a basket. So please don't send me reams of survey results that require me to be a computer read-out specialist.”