Automakers & Car Dealers Should Survey Customers Who DON’T Buy and Other Car Buying Reflections


The world (especially the world wide web) is full of surveys. Tell us how we're doing! Your satisfaction is important to us! We see this so often, it's easy to become numb to it in our Yelp-ified world.

It's definitely a “first world problem,” but I've been shopping for a new car over the past few months and I finally bought something. I won't disclose what I bought, but it's replacing a 2004 Saab 9-3 that I've had for 11 years now.

The car shopping and buying experience has its frustrations – that's nothing new.

I test drove cars from six major brands from around the world. Some salespeople were incredibly helpful, while a few knew less about the vehicles than I did after just a bit of web research.

One automaker has had their 2016 models in dealer showrooms for three months, yet their website still only allows you to configure and price the 2015s.

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Lack of Follow Up = Losing a Sale

For me, it came down to a “final decision” between two brands. I had done the test drives and decided on features, so I asked each salesperson to give me a “final quote” that I could use to make my decision — Which car? Buy or lease?

The salesperson at Brand A didn't follow up with me for three days with a price. I called a few times and he was always “too busy” with another customer or an internal dealership meeting. I was leaning toward Brand B, but his lack of followup and lack of effort to try to close the sale was frustrating. Had I really decided on Brand A, I would have gone to a different dealership after that experience.

What You Want vs. What They Have

Car buying is STILL a game of finding the “best match” for what you want, rather than giving you exactly what you want. Ordering a car from the factory, getting EXACTLY what you want, still requires the customer to wait eight weeks. Next time I buy a car, I will definitely do that – the reasons for not planning ahead or not being willing to wait are complicated.

When I worked at Dell Computer from 1999-2000, we were famous then for the idea that you could order one computer or 1,000 computers and we could deliver them to you in five days, all custom built. Now, a desktop PC was far easier to build than a modern car… but automakers, particularly GM and Saturn, came and visited our factory in Texas as they dreamed about the “build to order car” that could be delivered in 5 days. They're still nowhere close.

It took about 3 minutes to assemble a PC and a few hours to “burn in” the software at Dell. A new car takes maybe two days to flow through the assembly plant. So why does it take 8 weeks of lead time to get you a custom-built car? I'm guessing the automakers don't do it because they don't have to.

Many car buyers will consider the tradeoffs and choose something that's “close enough” on the dealer lot instead of waiting for a special order.

The salesperson at Brand B knew his dealership didn't have exactly what I wanted. My choice came down to:

  • My first choice color of exterior and interior, but without the modern driving safety features…. or
  • My second choice of colors, but WITH the safety features I wanted

Both dealers told me how they decided to order based on what was popular (colors and features) LAST year. Ah, driving in the rear-view mirror. What happens when auto technology and new features are coming fast? They'll be stuck selling last year's technology on this year's models instead of being better at explaining and selling that new technology to the customers.

Not Having What I Wanted = Losing a Sale

The Brand B salesperson told me he could try to get my ideal vehicle transferred from a sister dealership in their corporate family. I then found the car that was a better match at the competing Brand B dealer across town. I asked the first dealer about the transfer… he had put time into helping me test drive and research the vehicle over a few months… but his instinct (or instruction) was to push what they HAD on the lot instead of taking more steps to get what I WANTED.

So, I decided on Brand B and went to the competing dealer across town. They got one of their easiest sales ever. But, they said it “goes both ways,” where sometimes they help a customer a lot and they end up buying from the competing dealer because of the inventory being there.

The Surveys

When I was going through the final paperwork at the second Brand B dealer, the salesperson gave me a little talk about the importance of their customer surveys. He asked nicely for me to give them a positive score. I've blogged about this before, this dynamic of begging for scores instead of just providing service that would make you want to give a top score.

He told me that he gets an incentive of an extra $200 per car if his survey scores are above an average of “3.65 out of 4.” Ah, arbitrary targets!

It's been about a week and I haven't received the survey yet. Maybe it's coming in the mail.

It's hard for me to judge THIS dealer because they only helped me with the final stages of shopping and purchasing process. The salesperson and dealer would lose a few points for, again, not really knowing the vehicle. As he was walking me through some features, he claimed that the on-board communications system (for safety and calling through your car) had “satellite calling” where if I paid for a set number of minutes I could “still make calls when my phone is out of range.” That's incorrect. I know for a fact that car has built in 4G LTE cellular calling… it's not a satellite phone.


So do I ding them a bit on the survey? It was generally a good experience… so I guess I'll give them a good score. I'm not convinced giving a non-perfect score would really improve anything.

But it got me thinking… there are TWO dealerships out there that I spent A LOT of time with over the past few months. They have my name and contact info. They know (or suspect) that I didn't buy a car from them.

If the auto industry REALLY cared about improving quality and customer satisfaction, they would survey the people who did NOT buy a car. Why didn't you buy from us? How was your experience? What could we do better?

But, nope, they're apparently more interested in playing games, setting arbitrary targets, and incentivizing their salespeople instead of making sure they really understand the cars they are selling.

Oh, we should return your phone calls when you're ready to buy? Oh, you didn't buy because we order based on what was popular last year?

Is there a dealership that follows the “Good Jobs Strategy?” Maybe I'll try to use them in the future… and I'll plan ahead and buy exactly what I want.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Hi Mark.

    It is a pain to buy a car. Here in Mx is just the same. I went to a T Dealership but the sales person who attended me never called me to schedule a test drive. It doesn´t get any better for G brand or V brand. Slightly differences I have found. Probably because I was going to buy 2 months later and he needed to fill his rate at that month. I wish the same effort and efficiency they put at their factories, could be transferred to dealerships. Enjoy your new car!

  2. Hi Mark,
    Recently went through trauma trying to buy a vehicle. Since we live in a rural area, it takes a lot of planning to do our shopping. We planned our road trip of 450 miles which had 5 dealerships along the way. We knew exactly what we wanted (this was a used vehicle), so it boiled down to the best price, mileage and features.

    By the time we arrived at the first dealership they told us “oh no…someone sold it out from under me…but we have this other vehicle here…..”. of course, it was more expensive and nothing like we wanted.

    Dealer #2 had a decent vehicle but would not haggle on price one dime. Nor did they know anything about the features on the vehicle.

    Dealer three was scary. We spent 20 minutes waiting for them to FIND the two vehicles we chose. Once they found them (with our assistance), they brought them out for us to test drive them. Neither vehicle had been cleaned. At all. Nothing. One vehicle had dog droppings in it, and the second was covered with mud! They thought nothing of it! I was terrified to even sit in either vehicle. We left promptly.

    As we were driving to dealer #4 they called us and told us that the vehicle sold. At least they called. But still….

    On the way to dealer #5 the sales guy called us as he promised to make sure we were on the way. We told him we were 30 minutes away and he texted us exact directions to the dealer. When we arrived, the vehicle was front and center at the dealership, completely detailed and spotless. We went for a test drive, and found a couple of small defects. He brought the price down a bit without us even asking. He knew everything there was to know about this vehicle (even though it was not the brand that they sold as new vehicles at that dealership). An hour and on half later, we were driving home in a new vehicle.

    Prior to us leaving, he did mention a survey that would be sent to our email. He told us to be brutally honest, as this is how they improve the quality of their services. He called us later that night to make sure we made the 450 mile trip home safely. He followed up a week later to make sure all was well with the vehicle (and it was).

    Incredible contrast in these 5 dealerships. I wrote to the manager of dealer #3 and never received a response. Believe me, I have told at least 20 people to stay away from that dealer (a major American Brand dealer). I have also told that many or more people about the wonderful experience at dealer #5 (a major Japanese Brand).

    THanks Mark for a great story!

    • It’s a shame that a major purchase can be so traumatic.

      I shopped at three major Japanese brands. One had a salesperson who was new and still pretty clueless. The other two brands had better salespeople, but I just didn’t care for one brand’s product and the other brand was a finalist that I didn’t choose. That dealer had “haggle free pricing” that seemed about as good as a skilled negotiator would get.

      I ended up buying an American brand… not Toyota or Lexus, which might surprise people.

  3. Mark:

    I’m not so sure I am surprised about your purchase of an American brand. I used to be wedded to the idea of buying only foreign brands, but that was largely due to the better quality of the cars (consumer magazines, surveys, and personal experiences bore that out). Now, however, I have come back to American brands in a big way, and I have noticed a major improvement in the quality of the cars (not all, but certainly most of them).

    In some cases, the foreign brand sales staff was more attentive and knowledgeable about the vehicles they were selling. In other cases, they were not so attentive or knowledgeable. I have had the same experience with domestic brand sales staff. It appears that the common weak link is the sales force, and I’m not sure why dealerships don’t expend more effort to improve the quality of sales staff. I guess as long as targets are met, there is less concern about the details.

    The constant survey bombardment gets annoying. I service my car at a dealership, and they will call, send emails, and beg for me to provide them feedback on the service. Their biggest concern is that I will receive a “corporate” survey from the manufacturer and give the dealership a “less than completely satisfied” score. I agree with you that if they just spent the time treating the customers honestly, fairly, and with respect, the surveys would take care of themselves.


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