Buy a new car today and the odds are pretty strong that within a few days you will receive a phone call asking about the experience. Quite a few new-car buyers may also receive a slew of survey forms in the mail in the coming weeks, all asking for your emotional responses and opinions about that new car.
It seems you can't get your car serviced, buy a toaster or even visit a web site without having someone asking you to take a "short survey." At some point during that process, you will likely be asked to rate your satisfaction. That rating will likely fall on a 1 to 5 scale, possibly 1 to 10. If you're lucky, you won't have that uncomfortable parting conversation with the car salesman who informs you that if he does not get all fives from your responses, not only might he lose his job, but his kids could starve as well. Perhaps it's not that extreme, but we’ve all had experiences that have implied as much.
But even worse than attempting to tweak responses by concern for starving children is the very notion that someone is attempting to quantify our emotions. We’re all human beings with unique emotions and feelings that are, while occasionally insecure, definitively not measurable on any scale, and the last thing most of us want is for someone to pin a number on us. They can't really do that, can they?
It turns out they can and they do.
Opinion research is a booming field that is now part and parcel with market research for virtually all public-facing companies. Using in-house and third party surveys designed and written by everyone from the marketing staff to psychology PhDs with decades of experience, automakers want to know how people tick so that they can accurately predict what they will buy today, tomorrow and ten years from now. After all, if they are investing a billion dollars or more in a new model, they really need to “know their customers” if they expect to make any of that money back. And with customer interaction that begins with an ad campaign and then moves onto the dealership experience and ultimately with someone driving home a new car, there are lots of opportunities for customers to elicit emotions, giving them lots of opportunities to ask you questions about your experiences.
How To Write A Survey
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In order to honestly capture that emotion, surveys must be created in a specific manner so as to not be leading and to elicit honest responses. Carol M. Burrows, Customer Research Manager at BMW of North America, told AOL Autos, "The way a survey is constructed -- the way particular words are used -- is one way of capturing emotions."
Complex algorithms are then used when aggregating the survey results to give the researchers the most useful information. Dave Sargent, Vice President of Global Research for J.D. Power and Associates, agrees, adding, "We do spend an awful lot of time making sure the questions are easy to understand and aren't trying to lead the consumer one way or another. We have no vested interest in the outcome of our surveys, other than that they are accurate."
While on the surface, we can all hang our heads and know that we truly exist as just a number to the automakers, there is a bit more to this survey process than simply checking that "5, Most Satisfied" box on the form so that the salesman's kids will not go hungry. If the automakers don't get honest responses, then the information is useless. Unlike picking up a new toaster or, say, checking the latest news on CNN.com, buying a car is generally no easy decision and we Americans tend to be very emotional about our cars. As such, customers do tend to want their voices heard. As BMW's Burrows points out, "We're pretty confident that the people we select to participate in our research do speak candidly and honestly because they care about the product and they want to be heard."
Regarding those requests to "please give me all 5’s," the surveys are designed to ferret out such obviously solicited responses. Sargent notes that the sheer volume of J.D. Powers' responses, well into the hundreds of thousands each year, helps them obtain more reliable information, saying, "What we try to do is get enough different people rating the same vehicle that when we provide a score, it's a balanced view of that vehicle. What we end up with is the core of what people feel about this vehicle."
According to Alexander Edwards, President of the Automotive Division for consumer research firm Strategic Vision, a scale must have more than five points and the "anchors" on that scale must be more descriptive than "most satisfied" to "least satisfied" if you truly want to capture a customer's emotions. Edwards says, "You have to take the respondent to talk about things that go beyond satisfaction. So, in our top box, we have the words 'I love it' and in the second box we have 'I'm delighted.'" Ultimately, the bottom of their scale ends with "I hate it." Not much ambiguity there.
Who Fills These Things Out?
Edwards believes that capturing emotion requires understanding the customer, giving them cause to also study what type of person responds. Edwards said, "If you are looking at specific scalings for automotive ratings to really understand the emotional impact of the product on the customer, then you can begin to understand where that customer is going to be with their values and how they are going to make decisions in the future."
And that's the crux of seeking out your emotions. They are very valuable to auto manufacturers because they want to know the why of the where and how you are going to spend your money on your next car. That information is extremely valuable as they develop new models and even how they plan their marketing and retail sales operations.
Numerical surveys are but one part of market research that also includes focus groups, one-on-one consumer interviews and even plenty of research into competitors' customers and their level of satisfaction. Automakers pour billions into developing new models every year and the last thing they want to do is create a dud. According to John Watts, Senior Manager for Digital Marketing at Honda, "To completely understand a customer, you can't just look at the data. You have to have a face-to-face discussion with the customer to figure out how they use and interact with the product to know where they are really coming from."
Watts believes that the numerical surveys point their research in a direction, "And then you continue to dig... There's not just one single place you look for data... You have to talk to customers. You have to talk to the dealers. You have to take inputs from many different places. We wouldn't rely upon just one single input to make huge decisions."
While these surveys may tell automakers what they are doing right, they also tell them what they are doing wrong. There are countless examples of arrogance in the automotive industry from carmakers and even the most open-minded amongst us require a bit of humble pie to swallow bad news. But if researchers don't deliver honest results and give the automakers what they want to hear, we wouldn't have the cars we have today -- which is a good thing.
Although some consumers may balk at a longer survey, the specific results can sometimes spur worthwhile changes. One maker of an expensive luxury SUV found out that consumers were not returning to their showrooms because owners found it very difficult to open and close the liftgate at the back, particularly when the competition had either an easier mechanism or an automated gate activated by the key fob. It took a third-party survey to get them to wise up. But dissatisfied individual customers didn't need a survey to tell them that the other guy had a superior product. And that's exactly the sort of information they are lucking for when surveying customers.
If you don't like taking surveys, don't complain that the automakers are not building a car for you, or, I suppose, that you'd like a toaster in a color other than white. No, they won't bend over backwards for one person, but with collective results, they do get the message.