Thursday, September 3, 2009

Decoding Satisfaction – David Carlisle

If you only read one blog this year, read this one – it could save you a lot of money. It’s about unconventionally decoding the real messages from your dealer surveys by using a little time, some common sense, and very basic arithmetic.

I said “could.” I thought a lot about Steve Jobs when I was writing this. If Apple was a Service Operations division, and he was running it, he’d “think different.” Somehow Jobs can fight – and win – the battles with Apple’s bureaucracy and introduce things like the iPhone. He thinks it is OK to change how he thinks, how his people think, and how his customers think.

Bottom line is that most companies need to change how they think about their customer surveys. They aren’t beauty pageants. You can’t understand a brain tumor by putting on a swimsuit. In reality, your customer surveys are really more like CAT Scan machines. They allow you to see stuff that needs to be changed – if you are willing to see it. So, bear with me for a few minutes. Be a Steve Jobs.

I focused my research on the 2009 NASPC North American Automotive Service Manger Survey, taken by over 9,000 dealer fixed operations managers (20 different brands with a 40% response rate). The first question in the survey is the ultimate beauty contest question: Overall Satisfaction. Respondents can check one of five boxes, ranging from “very satisfied” (5) to “very dissatisfied” (1).

Who cares if dealers are happy or unhappy when they service customer vehicles? Most of the dealer contact during the ownership experience is with the service department. Honda’s “3 Joys” explains their success; it was published in 1951 and includes the joy of “selling” ( Let’s just all agree that having happy dealers is a critical component of a successful car company.

Other than feeling good or bad about the top line results, how can we best learn from the surveys? Which group of respondents should we focus on? Here’s what I discovered:

Very Satisfied Dealers are quite enthusiastic and checked the Overall Satisfaction box stating that they were “very satisfied” overall. However, many of them still have suggestions for improvement as they fill out the more detailed questions. That’s when they checked the “other”, less-than-very-satisfied boxes. These dealers are each manufacturer’s success stories; the final state of evolution. But when we study their responses in detail, we will get feedback that really only represents “tweaks” to what we are doing. With some luck, we may be able to detect future danger signals, but probably not much more. After all, these dealers are very happy with the support they get from their manufacturer. In medical parlance, if we were to triage our customers, very satisfied dealers are – the usual occasional cold notwithstanding – healthy and have really no reason to see the doctor … except for their annual physical to get a clean bill of health. Don’t waste your time looking for answers to your problems by over-studying this group.

Dissatisfied Dealers are the ones who gave you “very” or “somewhat dissatisfied” (1 or 2) on the Overall Satisfaction question. Over the years, I’ve had a theory (often echoed by clients) that these are the dealers on whom we should focus. I felt we could learn more by understanding what makes these folks dissatisfied, rather than focusing on the “satisfieds.” I was wrong. We really do need to understand what makes these dealers not-tick, but we need a different research vehicle to do that.

This is typically a very small group of dealers – usually less than 5% of total responses. Even the best run organization will have a small number of disgruntled customers, and the reward for making these folks satisfied may not be worth the effort of addressing all their issues. I’d characterize this fairly small group of dealers as embracing the attitude, “hey, a lot’s wrong here, but let me tell you areas that are the least screwed up.” Further, these dealers are dissatisfied for a lot of reasons, many not easily captured within the survey questions. We find precious few patterns within this group, other than a general sense that this group is really comprised of “lost souls” and that it will take a lot to bring them back into the fold. In triage terms, these are the “terminally ill” and there is simply not much you can do except let them “rest in peace.”

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that their responses are “junk” – it’s just that there typically are too few to learn a lot through the standard satisfaction survey. We may need a different approach here, such as targeted phone interviews, to unearth what really bugs the “dissatisfieds.” Are they “chronically” dissatisfied for no apparent and valid reason? Or did we really do/are we really doing something disastrous that sent/is sending them over the edge? In the meantime, don’t waste your time looking for answers to your problems by over-studying this group.

Neutral Dealers are the ones who gave you a neutral response (3) on the Overall Satisfaction question. After writing off the dissatisfieds, I had a lot of hope for this group. I got that one wrong, too.

Again, this group is small – the percentage of neutral dealers is usually only a few percentage points higher than dissatisfieds. Further, look at the chart for the three satisfaction groups’ responses (segmented based on “Overall Satisfaction”) to the “Overall Technical Support” question. “Technical Support” is the one area of the survey that gets the lowest scores from all 20 participating brands – it is pretty close to the heart of a fixed operations manager. The response patterns show that the “Neutrals” look a lot more like the “Dissatisfied” group than the “Satisfied” group. I found this to be true with most of the questions in the survey. In medical terms, these dealers already have “cancer” – in the triage, send them to oncology to be treated with chemo or radiation. Don’t waste your time looking for answers to your problems by over-studying this group … unless you have a very strong commitment for comprehensive and sustainable improvement.

That leaves the “Somewhat Satisfied” dealers – the ones who checked off the “Somewhat Satisfied” box (4) on the first question regarding overall satisfaction. This is the goldmine that needs to be tapped into.

Let’s internalize what “Somewhat Satisfied” really means. Situation: a dealer service manager thinks about the very first satisfaction question on the survey that asks him/her about their “overall” satisfaction with the OEM. They conclude that things are good, but not perfect. So, they proceed to complete the remainder of the survey and paint a picture of strengths and weaknesses. They are not deliriously happy; not yet who-cares neutral and not just plain-old ticked off. They “think” when they fill out the survey and try to provide a response that is balanced and just.

We really want to listen to these dealers. If things don’t get better, they will slip into the neutral group and it will be very difficult to reel them back into the happy camp again. We have some slack with my top-box “very satisfieds” – We have very little slack with this group.

Do I try to move these dealers from good to great? Or, do I check some boxes myself, do nothing special, and let my dealers move from good to gone?

The red/ yellow/green chart deciphers the code of what both the “4s” (Somewhat Satisfied) and “5s” (Very Satisfied) are telling us. Three groups of dealers are represented: average of all dealers in the survey, “BIC” representing a best-in-class brand that did very well in the survey, and “WIC” representing a brand that was at the back of the pack.
  • In order to simplify pattern recognition, I normalized the survey scores using simple arithmetic – the details are in the italics at the bottom of the red/green/yellow chart.
  • Next, I shaded all cells that were less than 1.0 with red – these are areas of the business deemed by each dealer group to be more serious than Technical Support.
  • I shaded all cells of 1.0 or greater with green – areas deemed less serious than Technical Support.
  • All BIC and WIC red cells were changed to “yellow” if the corresponding “industry average” cell was red. My thinking was that red cells in the average group were indicators of overall “industry problems” and that OEMs should first focus on their own problems, then tackle the bigger industry issues.
  • I sorted the rows based on the “4” (somewhat satisfied) scores of the WIC brand. This allowed me to rank-order “issues” for each group by relative severity – the bigger issues floated to the top.
The WIC brand has a lot of issues that are bugging their “somewhat satisfied” dealers (which again confirms that this group is a goldmine), and a whole bunch of these issues cost a lot of money to fix: flat rate allowances, fairness of warranty payments, and loaner vehicles are at the top of the list. Knowing this brand quite well, all this makes a lot of sense. However, there are a bunch of important issues that are more policy-related and not budget busters. Many of the issues that are red for the 4s are also red for the 5s – so doing something to stop dealers slipping from good to gone also helps prevent the migration from great to good.

The BIC brand is interesting as well. The big issue their “Somewhat Satisfieds” have is with CSI Measurement – which is an industry issue for the “very satisfied” Overall Satisfaction group. There are a lot more red cells in the BIC “5” column – these are some nagging issues, tweaks that need some attention – but are not on the critical concern list.

  1. Focus mostly on what your Somewhat Satisfied dealers are telling you (and secondarily on what your Very Satisfied dealers are telling you.).
  2. Develop a prioritized list of “issues” for this group using the methodology I outlined above (or, email Harry Hollenberg at for a step-by-step description of what to do).
  3. Work from the top-down for your Somewhat Satisfied group of dealers. Then top-down for your Very Satisfied dealers.
  4. Focus on improving the most critical areas that are the most affordable within your budget.
  5. Find out what other things you are doing to improve dealer service satisfaction – find out where they are in the prioritized list – if they are low on the list, consider re-purposing the budget dollars to the more critical areas.
  6. Do this every year.
  7. Each year look at your “Neutrals” – they provide an early warning danger sign that should alert you that you are losing ground – never, ever, think that Neutrals are tolerable. They are simply more well-mannered Dissatisfieds, or are afraid to tell you what they really think.
  8. Talk to your NASPC survey steering committee member and encourage them to think outside the box at the next meeting. (a) They need to reopen a discussion of the reporting metrics for the surveys – if the “somewhat satisfieds” are the focus of our improvement efforts, won’t a “top-box” measure most accurately reflect our success? (b) Also, any discussion of changing from a 5 point scale to a 10 or 11 point scale is “muda” – there is a lot more opportunity to harvest more from what we already have with our current 5-point scale.

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