How Not to Talk to Customers

customer-survey-excellent-check-280x216As I learned to drive, my father not only braved my initial road experience, he also tried to teach me about the way a car functioned.

He opened the hood of our 1969 Buick Le Sabre and pointed out areas where you add fluids.  There was a carburetor and a radiator.  He even showed me how to change a tire. 

Dad’s goal was admirable.  He wanted me to be able to do minor maintenance myself.

To no avail.  Any time someone opens the hood of a car, my brain goes MIA.

In my teens I mastered high school BC Calculus well enough for college credit and learned French by living in France for 6 months.  But car engines baffled me then and still do now.

What do I know about car maintenance?  Change your oil every 5,000 miles.  And independent car repair shops are cheaper than dealership service centers.

Once in a while I set aside the second maxim out of convenience: the local dealership is closer to home than my trusted mechanic’s shop.  I go to the dealership occasionally for an oil change.

But the dealership is working to deter me from giving them even that little bit of business.

Every time I pay, I receive a slip with these bullet points on top of my receipt:






Did you catch the word ‘excellent’ mentioned (and bolded) twice?

I may not know car maintenance, but I do know marketing and marketing research.

Customer surveys are useless when you look to buy off answers.  Pre-empting responses like this taints results, discourages participation, and prevents you from learning what customers really think.

And that’s the point, isn’t it?

It’s clear to me that Honda must dangle incentives to dealerships to receive excellent on every measure of their customer survey.  This dealership doesn’t care how I feel about their service.  They care about racking up ‘excellents.’

If they cared, they would ask me how the service was while I was still there, and not put the onus on me to contact them only if something was less than excellent.

The irony is that Honda is trying to improve customer experience with these surveys and incentives, but the use of this slip achieves the opposite.

I leave the dealership feeling worse about them than when I arrived.

I trust them less because I have a tangible example of how they try to circumvent the rules with the parent company.  If they are flouting the rules in this area, where else might they be doing it when caring for my car?

As a result of this dwindling trust, I’ve never let them do anything more than an oil change to my car.  And my inclination to go there for oil changes is diminishing too.

Marketing is about getting potential customers to know, like, and trust you.  Customers buy once they trust a brand.  If you continue to deepen that trust by delivering what they expect or exceeding their expectations, customers will continue to buy from you.  And refer others to you.

Squander that trust and you lose not only the customer, but also potential referrals.  Moreover, a dissatisfied customer complains more than a happy customer raves.  You may lose potential customers before you know they exist.

Every part of the interaction with your brand contributes to the customer’s perception and image of the brand.  The way you answer the phone.  The cleanliness of the restrooms. The way you handle returns or complaints.  The surveys you conduct.  Every aspect reflects upon your brand.

This may sound scary, but it is actually a huge opportunity.  You have many ways to make your brand likeable and trustworthy in your customers’ eyes.

  • Treat customers as you would treat your best friend.  Make their experience with your brand special.  Get to know them.
  • Find out what matters to them relative to the product or service you provide, and deliver it.
  • Ask about their experience with your brand, and listen to their response.
  • Take responsibility for shortcomings.  (And take pride in praise!)
  • Act to correct mishaps and to compensate customers for any inconvenience.  Ensure they feel that they matter to you.

The most successful businesses listen attentively to feedback and act on it.  Companies that ignore customers lose business.

Just like the local dealership is likely to lose my business.

Thanks to my father, I am not a complete car ignoramus.  I’m off now to put air in my tires.

If you liked this post you’ll love the next one. Click here to have future posts sent to your inbox and to receive my free guide “The 10 Best Strategies to Differentiate Your Brand.”

This entry was posted in Marketing Insights, Marketing Research Tips, Marketing Tools & Tactics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to How Not to Talk to Customers

  1. Jean Gogolin says:

    Evelyn, you are so right about this. I’ve had Hondas for years, but i never go to the dealerships anymore for just this reason: I hate being pressured to give them “excellent” ratings. When will they learn this is a counterproductive tactic?

    • Evelyn says:

      Jean, I gather from your comment that it’s more than just the one dealership I go to that practices this customer survey persuasion. If that’s the case, it’s more than counterproductive. It’s a meaningless survey, costly in both credibility and cash. I wonder how much money they’ve spent on this and how many customers they’ve turned off.

  2. I love my dealership because the people know me, recognize me, are friendly and don’t try to sell me on services I don’t need. At one point they used to call me about their survey after service was provided. Then they must have gotten the hint that it wasn’t helping their situation, as Evelyn pointed out, because the calls and surveys stopped. If all companies could bring back the service provided by the “mom and pop” stores of old. Sigh…

    • Evelyn says:

      I’m so glad to hear you have a warm, trusting relationship with your dealership, Andrea!

      Run well and in touch with their customers in person, dealerships don’t need a survey to let them if they are doing well. And incentives based solely on survey ratings risk shifting the focus to the survey and not the customers.

  3. Marty says:

    I filled out a survey about our local postal service. We had been having trouble with receiving other folks mail & our mail being delivered elsewhere in our neighborhood. And I said so on the survey. I was contacted by the local post master who told me all his problems with hiring people and how he would be in so much trouble if I didn’t change my “poor” rating. It was appalling. Being soft hearted, I filled out a new survey and gave the poor man his “excellent” rating. I told this story to all my clients who asked me to create customer feedback vehicles. And we always discussed how the results will be used. I have also resisted any requests to identify unhappy customers in anything but the aggregate (and I was asked many times). So my message is Respect the customer feedback professionals like Evelyn!

    • Evelyn says:

      It’s so easy for organizations to see customer surveys as a panacea and use their ratings to assess performance instead of inform it. I too have had those same conversations about not revealing the identity of unhappy customers. Now I have the conversations upfront with clients so that they understand how the assurance of confidentiality is the only way respondents feel free to say how they really feel. And that knowing how they really feel is the only way the organization can improve.

      I hope the Vermont life is treating you well, Marty!

  4. Graphics To Go says:

    Evelyn, the begging for no less than perfect survey feedback from car dealerships burns me as well. Why don’t they just send the survey, and find out what people really think, period. Here’s a good use of a survey: recently I visited an assisted living facility for my mother also named Evelyn. Two days later i received a survey asking me what i liked, what i didn’t, what were my plans, my needs. And a separate thank you note from the Marketing DIrector who conducted the tour. What a great way to find out who’s a potential customer, who’s got other plans, and what kinds of features a customer might want to see in a facility. I give them A+ for effort.

    • evelyn says:


      So glad to hear you had a good survey and service experience with the assisted living facility you were scouting out for your mother (love her name!).

      The car dealerships, and many other organizations I have found, are misusing customer surveys to assess job performance. Surveys were always meant to inform companies about their marketing and operations so that they could know what was working well and make adjustments where needed. They were never meant to be job assessment tools, though. When they are used to assess performance, employees and franchisees are motivated to influence the ratings rather than focus on the customers. The problem lies with the parent company incentive systems and until they change them, we may continue to see the begging and prompting for perfect survey feedback.

      A few people have told me they simply refuse to answer those surveys, knowing how the data will be used. (I’ve even heard one person say that repeated bad scoring can get someone fired.) I intend to decline to answer too. Maybe if customers rebel against the system, the companies will get the message.

  5. Rachael says:

    Great example, well written piece. To add to the car example, I recently purchased a new Subaru. The salesman explained that I would be receiving a survey in the mail and that only 10s (or whatever the top score was) counted to corporate as “good,” and that everything else is a fail. He said something to the effect of, “So, if you’re one of those people who think eight or nine is a good score, it will only look bad on my report.” He then went on to recommend that I not return the survey is my scores were no 10s. Sad but true.

    • evelyn says:

      Thanks Rachael – it is sad but true. And foolish too. You probably left feeling less than fabulous about the dealership when they should have been selling you on their service. Service is where they make most of their money, not on selling cars.

  6. Ira Bryck says:

    last time I bought a car, the inept salesman said if my evaluation doesn’t have the highest score, he could lose his job– I decided that if that was at all possible, I would have mercy and not return the survey

    • evelyn says:

      Love your merciful approach, Ira. I too believe it is the best way to respond to these inappropriate performance mechanisms.

  7. Daniel Yi says:

    I hate dealerships. Honda of Downtown Los Angeles scammed me by selling me a used vehicle as certified when it wasn’t, only to find out 4 months later that it had a $2000 power steering issue. Honda soon denied ever selling me a certified vehicle, because I was foolish enough not to check the papers.

    I may or may not have given them a good review when I first purchased the vehicle. If I did, I wish I can take it back. If you go to their Yelp page, there are so many negative reviews that didn’t even make the cut because they were all filtered out by Yelp.

  8. Evelyn Starr says:


    I share your distaste for dealing with dealerships. I believe that not all of them are bad or out to swindle you, but most of my experience buying a car has involved needless games and a couple of scams. The only time it was good was when we had a personal friend in the business, and then it was a great experience. He no longer owns the dealership.

    Have you tried calling Honda’s Corporate Headquarters? I encountered a bait and switch at a different Honda dealer than I mentioned above when I was buying my first car 20+ years ago. I ended up buying a Honda from a different dealership, but called the Corporate Office and complained. I found out shortly thereafter that the person who had pulled the stunt had been removed from selling Hondas at that dealership.

    In the end, the kind of ruse that you experienced costs the dealership more than it makes. Upset customers share their story of misfortune more than twice as much as satisfied customers rave. And with services like Yelp around, anyone who cares to do a little research upfront with avoid them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Captcha question *