Ward’s has learned Chrysler LLC may pare down its satisfaction surveys to two fundamental questions for dealership customers: 1.Would you buy another vehicle from this dealership? 2. Would you return to this dealership for service?

A source says those bottom-line queries would replace longer surveys based on numeric index scoring. Critics say the customer-satisfaction index system is flawed. Auto dealers have complained about it for years.

The National Automobile Dealers Assn. took up the cause in 2003, saying CSI surveys were too long, poorly worded, asked loaded questions and failed to account for customers – unhappy with some aspects of their purchased vehicles – taking it out on dealers by giving them low scores.

Another point of contention is the use of top-box scoring (deeming anything but top scores as unacceptable). Some auto makers, notably General Motors Corp., link survey scores to financial-reward programs for dealers.

Two Chrysler spokespersons, contacted Friday and today, had no comment on the reported survey overhaul. Dealers say it would be a welcome change.

“I think it will work,” Alan Starling says of the proposed survey format.

He is a St. Cloud, FL, Chevrolet and Cadillac dealer who, as 2003 NADA chairman, spearheaded the association’s effort to “fix” the surveys.

The condensed survey should include space for customers to provide comments, positive or negative, Starling says. “But you don’t need a 4-page questionnaire for that.”

“Do you know how many people don’t want to take the time responding to an 80-question survey? That is so far from reality. You hear only from people with a bone to pick or who have been incentivized at the dealership level. Either way, it’s an inaccurate reflection.”

Another former NADA chairman, Charley R. Smith, a New Mexico dealer, says: “Believe me, every entrepreneur wants customer feedback. But they don’t want flawed feedback.”

The simplicity of Chrysler’s potential new survey is appealing, says Tom Dobry, vice president-marketing for Lithia Motors Inc., a Medford, OR-based dealership chain with several Chrysler-brand stores.

“It’s a good idea,” he says of the condensed questionnaires. “Finding out whether a customer will return to the dealership for sales or service is what it’s all about in the first place.”

One Chrysler dealer says streamlining surveys would reduce the costs of tallying and analyzing mountains of data.

If Chrysler overhauls its surveys, it would be significant, but not a first step in that direction for the auto industry, says Michael Baker, CEO of the Bob Baker Auto Group, whose dealership holdings include a Chrysler-Jeep store in Carlsbad, CA.

Toyota (Motor Corp.) has consolidated their surveys,” says Baker, who also runs a Toyota store. “Toyota dealers don’t get a lot of survey feedback from the manufacturer. Instead, you get a green, yellow or red coding indicating the levels of satisfaction. Getting green is a criterion for getting the Toyota president’s award.”

The simpler the survey, the better, if it indicates whether a customer will come again, Baker says. “Toyota tries to keep it simple, and that’s what Chrysler should do.”

Starling speculates James Press is behind Chrysler’s effort to restructure its surveys. Press joined Chrysler last year as a co-president in charge of sales and marketing. Before that he was a high-ranking Toyota executive known for, among other things, his closeness with dealers.

“I’m very impressed with Jim Press and what he has done,” Starling says.

Although dealers often are the biggest critics of the surveys, some dealers have been rapped for manipulating results by encouraging customers to give them high scores.

Such “coaching the customer” can take different forms, from offering gifts of flowers and candy to making desperate pleas.

One Mercedes-Benz owner says, “After I had work done on my vehicle, someone from the dealership service department called and all but said she’d lose her job if I didn’t give them great survey scores.”

Coaching customers happens all the time, says Scott Waldron, president of Experian plc’s automotive division. “It happens to me.”

Baker opposes such outright manipulations but says it’s important for dealers to encourage all customers to return their satisfaction surveys.

Otherwise, results are skewed, because “in the dealer world, we know that a lot of people who return surveys are dissatisfied. It can create a lopsided impression,” he says. “That is why you need to urge your loyal and satisfied customers to return the surveys, too.

“You need to do it tactfully and ethically, but you definitely need to do it.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com