verything about cars today revolves around customer satisfaction. Companies talk about being customer driven. Dealers talk about repeat customers. Research companies try to sort out who's best at satisfying customers in many ways. For companies, the thinking goes: A satisfied customer will buy again, and send us other buyers.

No consumer wants
to criticize someone
across the table.
Studies and more studies
J.D. Power and Associates, Agoura Hills, Calif., probably the leading automotive marketing research firm, studies much more than just "customer satisfaction." It does some 20 studies a year of auto consumers. From initial quality, interior quality, and seat quality, through sales satisfaction, owner loyalty, and buyer motivation, to roadside assistance programs, vehicle dependability, and shopping services, J.D. Power and Associates puts you and other buyers under scrutiny. In the automotive sector, it also forecasts trends and conducts dealer studies.

Six of the company's studies are more important than others, having been around for more years: Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI), Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI), Initial Quality Study (IQS), Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL), Vehicle Dependability Index (VDI), and Service Retention and Usage Study (SURS). Clearly you and other buyers are cooperating in this scrutiny.

CSI "evaluates the one-year owner's perspective on product reliability and repairability and on dealer service performance." SSI looks "at the entire sales process" because "overall customer satisfaction begins with the consumer's initial buying experience." That's how J.D. Power and Associates describes two of its major automotive studies.

It finances the surveys and sells the results to interested parties. As Chance Parker, director of product research at J.D. Power and Associates, describes it, "We don't have any guarantee that someone's going to buy when we start the project." The company, however, also makes proprietary studies for "virtually all the manufacturers."

Its studies have two important parts, according to Parker. They all address a need in the automotive industry. And regular repetition of the studies gives the industry a tracking tool for progress. The studies are "the kind of information [the manufacturers] need to improve."

The studies and their results are aimed at consumers only indirectly. When companies learn how to satisfy customers, then customers benefit.

Source of the studies
J.D. Power and Associates conducts its surveys by mail, with 100,000 to 150,000 forms for each study, six to eight pages long. About one-third of the people respond. Respondents typically take 30 to 40 minutes to complete each one. The questions primarily are objective, meaning you pick the best answer among choices. However, people get a chance to sound off, too, because there's room to make comments.

Stephen H. Craft, marketing department fellow at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., calls that response rate "a good, solid return that reflects on the name recognition value of a company like J. D. Power and Associates." Other researchers who enjoy high returns on their surveys are universities and the federal government.

Not all of its studies, though, have their own questionnaires. IQS and APEAL "piggyback" on the same survey, while CSI and SSI are "stand-alone" studies, Parker says.

For comparison, there's the dealer "satisfaction" card. The salesperson gives it to you during a transaction, looking for instant feedback. Craft calls these cards "basically useless" in measuring customer satisfaction. "Nobody wants to criticize someone across the table. People need time to remove themselves from a situation and reflect on it before making a judgment."

In any study, rigorous researchers need to be alert for "socially desirable answers." All respondents tend to give them, experts say, when they're uncomfortable with who's doing the research and whether they can count on confidentiality. That's another value of a professional research organization.

      Researchers need
      to be alert
      for "socially
      desirable answers."

Valuing independent research
Consumers, too, are skeptical of organizations doing their own ratings. They like to see independence: Consumers Union rating everything under the sun, AAA evaluating hotels and motels, and Michelin grading restaurants. Consumers Union doesn't sell appliances or cars, AAA doesn't run hotels, and Michelin has no eateries of its own.

"A third-party researcher makes all the difference in the world," Craft says. "When an objective group does a study, it's hard to ignore it."

Reacting to the studies
Being near the top of any reputable ranking is not easy, warns Craft. If a company is a close second, its course is less clear in identifying what's keeping it from being No. 1. The strategy to go that final step can be much harder to establish when a company already is doing so much right.

For those who don't rank well on satisfaction, what's left? Companies low on the customer satisfaction scale can try to compete on price. But, Craft says, satisfaction is so well accepted as a measure of company performance that it's "almost impossible to compete on price if you're marketing-deficient in satisfaction."

Nevertheless, J.D. Power and Associates' Parker cites Volkswagen and Volvo, at the bottom of the alphabet, who also were near the bottom in product quality. "They have made great strides over the past five years," showing that companies can change. Being at the bottom doesn't have to be forever.

Loyalty studies are
a more sophisticated
benchmark than
just "satisfaction."
Touting the results
J.D. Power and Associates announces the top 10 companies on its list when it completes a study. Why not the whole list? "Our belief is that customers need to focus on companies that do well," says Parker. The entire ranking in a study, though, finds its way unofficially to the Detroit Free Press.

Companies that finish first in a J.D. Power and Associates study love to mention it in advertising. Do they take liberties with the results? Parker says, "No." Before conducting a study, the company decides what claims can be advertised. It retains the right of approval over the claims, which are "very specific and prespecified."

For consumers to ponder
Craft advises that studies like J.D. Power and Associates are "aggregates." Many dealers, many models, many needs are represented in a study's results, but individual customers deal with only one dealer. That dealer, the manufacturer's local representative, may be better than most or not so good. When buying a car, you're buying more than a nameplate.

"We just try to provide a little bit more information that consumers can put in their pockets" when shopping for a car, Parker says. "If nothing else, those [studies] are something that consumers should think about."

Craft calls customer loyalty studies a "more sophisticated benchmark" than just "satisfaction." Customers demonstrate satisfaction when they spend their money in the same place again.

From your point of view, so what? Parker's answer, "People don't realize our studies aren't based on people from J. D. Power and Associates sitting around deciding what car is best....[They] are the voice of the average customer. It's just their feedback to us."

Still, Craft's view is different. "I don't know that strong national satisfaction numbers could overcome a negative report from a neighbor who owned the car. People remember their cars."

      "I don't know
      that strong national
      satisfaction numbers
      could overcome a negative
      report from a neighbor
      who owned the car."

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.