Fulfilling customer needs is the most important mission in life for automotive suppliers. The company that successfully does it and consistently introduces useful new technology will have a long and cozy kinship with those who pay the bills.

So with the thousands of business transactions that occur every day in the auto industry, how is it that we hear so little about customer satisfaction? Are these relationships so well guarded that the only way outsiders can assess them is when word leaks of a major screwup or a "supplier of the year" award is conferred?

Some suppliers make a bigger issue of customer satisfaction than others, and some even hire psychologists when they're really serious. Yes, psychologists do more for the auto industry than provide stressed-out executives a shoulder to cry on.

Jeffrey Daum is a psychologist whose company has dug deep inside the organizational structures of several automakers and suppliers to answer that most pressing question: How well are we satisfying our customers?

He is president of Competency Management Inc. (CMI), a Grosse Pointe Farms, MI, company that, among other things, conducts scientific surveys - research tools that can declare, with 95% confidence, whether a customer is pleased with a supplier's work or whether a company's employees are satisfied overall with their jobs.

Methodology is everything when it comes to building and conducting the surveys, choosing the sample and interpreting the findings. A background in statistics is vital. Psychologists are good at asking the right questions to evoke useful information.

For instance CMI studied the recruiting of engineers for a major automaker.

"Normally you would talk to the people who accepted job offers, but we also talked to people who were made offers and turned them down," Mr. Daum says. "And we looked at the differences between the two populations to try to figure out what were the core triggers that got the people to either accept or not accept, because that is extremely valuable."

Customer satisfaction surveys for clients are conducted the same way.

"If you've done your sample properly, you will have people who are positive on your clientand people who are not positive, and obviously people in between," he says. "But what's really interesting is what differentiates between those people who think the world of you and those people who say, 'I'm getting another vendor,' or 'I've already gotten another vendor.'"

Top management at French supplier Valeo SA commissioned a customer satisfaction survey from CMI for its Wiper Systems and Electric Motors division. The mail survey was conducted in French, English, Japanese, German and Spanish and was followed up with personal interviews with Valeo customers in Europe and the U.S.

The four-page survey allowed respondents to agree or disagree with a number of statements that tie directly to Valeo's customer satisfaction - whether problems are solved in a timely manner, whether communications are promptly returned and whether engineering and sales staffs are knowledgeable and professional.

Mr. Daum was presenting the findings to Valeo management at annual meetings in both Europe and the U.S. in late July. Without giving away too much, Mr. Daum says Valeo management could expect a few surprises.

"They will receive strengths and opportunities," he says. "But there was no attempt on the part of management to sanction or limit the information that's in there because they really want to improve in some areas."

In the Valeo survey, CMI was able to devise a model that predicts, eight out of 10 times, whether a customer sees Valeo as a long-term partner. "To me, that's real important for a company to know," Mr. Daum says.

Building customer satisfaction surveys is tough work. One of the biggest challenges is designing them to encourage participation. Surveys conducted over the Internet, for instance, are troublesome because respondents concerned about confidentiality are more likely to give positive responses than tell the truth.

Likewise, employee satisfaction surveys tread a fine line when the client wants to differentiate between union and non-union workers.

Mr. Daum looks at automotive history - specifically, the failed launch of the Ford Edsel in the 1950s - to illustrate the importance of thorough survey techniques. He says market researchers blundered by asking potential buyers whether they thought their neighbors would buy the car.

"It never drilled down to whether the person they were polling would be inclined to purchase the car," he says. "So they got truthful answers ... but it wasn't the correct answers they needed to make the correct marketing decision."