A man leases a new ML320 Mercedes-Benz sport/utility vehicle (SUV). The day he picks it up the salesman spends an hour cheerfully explaining every aspect of the vehicle and its operation to the man and his wife. The next day the dealership sends the man's wife a dozen long-stemmed roses, thanking them both for their business.
"Wow," says the man, a cynical automotive journalist. "What a shrewd move. This actually makes me feel a little less like a sucker for paying full sticker price for the first time in my life."
"These guys aren't stupid," the man's wife replies. "And these aren't cheap roses. It's really a nice touch."
A few weeks later a questionnaire from Mercedes-Benz North America Inc. arrives, asking them about their dealership experience. Was it nice? Did the salesman do a good job? Would they buy another vehicle from this dealership? "Gosh, you think they sent us those roses just so we would give them good marks on this questionnaire?" the cynical journalist asks his wife.
A few weeks after that another nice letter from Mercedes-Benz arrives thanking them for their business once again. Enclosed is a little gift: a phone card with 30 free minutes of calling time. Oh, and by the way if you should happen to be one of the owners selected at random by J.D. Power & Associates to receive their Vehicle Quality Survey, "please use it as another way to let us know how satisfied you are with your new Mercedes."
"Gee whiz," says the man, "Is Mercedes offering me a small bribe in exchange for a favorable evaluation on the crucial J.D. Power survey - or am I just too cynical?"
Whatever happened to the days when you could just buy something and be done with it? Now it seems even the smallest purchase triggers an endless stream of phone and mail surveys pestering you about the relative joyfulness of your purchase and ownership experience. Nowhere is this trend more prevalent than in the auto industry, where you have big ticket items and very high stakes.
Customer satisfaction surveys conducted by vehicle manufacturers can directly impact a dealership's bottom line: Dealers who score well on these surveys get larger allocations of hot-selling vehicles and qualify for numerous other perks from the manufacturer as well, such as electronic referrals of prospective buyers.
Quality ratings on the independent J.D. Power and Associates surveys can influence big swings in market share in highly competitive vehicle segments. That can translate into tens of millions of dollars in profits or lost sales.
A Ward's writer says an eagersalesman recently pressed a customer satisfaction cheat-sheet into her hands before she even signed the paperwork on a new Jetta. "Somebody will by calling you in a week, here's how we would like you to answer," he told her. She decided to shop elsewhere.
Likewise the cynical journalist - namely me - was put off when I received the "gift" from Mercedes and the hint to give them a good rating on the J.D. Power survey.
Pete Marlow, J.D. Power's Director of Corporate Communications, points out the letter carefully avoids any direct quid pro quo. He adds that Mercedes isn't the first manufacturer to try to subtly influence the outcome of its surveys, and makes it clear he doesn't expect it to be the last. Typically automakers resort to such tactics when they have a product that is not scoring as well as others in its survey segment, Mr. Marlow says. He was faxed a copy of the Mercedes letter, signed by Joe Eberhardt, vice president of marketing.
J.D. Power strongly discourages the "promotional" efforts by manufacturers and dealers to influence the outcome of its independent surveys, even though it has found they don't work, Mr. Marlow says.
"We have determined in our own follow-up surveys that while approximately one-third of customers are positively influenced by manufacturers and dealers interceding in the process, another one-third are offended by this action and the other one-third remain indifferent," Mr. Marlow says in a written statement.
Of course, if J.D. Power said these efforts did have an influence, they'd probably go out of business.
I like my new SUV a lot, but the initial quality has been a dissappointment. If I had received a questionnaire from J.D. Power, (I didn't) I would not have glossed over my problems with a fussy heater and various rattles just because they gave me some free time on the telephone. I don't think many other owners would have, either.
But does this "buttering up" of consumers cross the line into bribery? Mercedes says that's absurd. It just wants to encourage responses from people "whose expectations have been met" rather than those with "atypical experiences - good and bad." That's fine, I guess, as long as all Mercedes' competitors do the same.