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The Truth about Automobile-Sales CSI (Customer Satisfaction Index)

Updated on May 13, 2015

Consumer Satisfaction Index (CSI) is the life-blood of the most businesses, including the automobile industry. In theory, it’s a great tool for both the industry and the buying public. With continuing buyer feedback, manufacturers make adjustments to improve products and procedures to meet customer wants and needs. The weakness in this system is that manufacturers put so much pressure on dealerships to persuade their buyers to complete the post-sale survey, that the surveys themselves become tainted and are therefore no longer an accurate CSI tool. Other dealership departments are also subject to CSI standards but this paper only deals with sales satisfaction CSI.

CSI and customer surveys have been around for a long time but it wasn’t until the development of the internet that they really hit their stride. No longer are the majority of car-buyers stubbornly loyal to a particular dealership or brand. The internet offers simple access to a plethora of data including brand details, price and even local dealerships where they can find the right vehicle. In the current environment, CSI ratings are often the buyer’s main focus when deciding on which vehicles to consider.

Customer Surveys

CSI ratings are based on post-sale surveys which are completed by the buyer and submitted to the manufacturer. Most surveys consist of several pages of multiple choice questions, and the buyer is asked to select the answer which most closely expresses their opinion regarding their buying experience. Typical response choices are “completely unsatisfied”, “satisfied”, “mostly satisfied”, and “completely satisfied”. Though most buyers think that “satisfied” or “mostly satisfied” are good grades, anything other than “completely satisfied” is a failing grade.

During the early years manufacturers didn't care how dealerships persuaded buyers to fill out their surveys, just as long as they were returned and considering the huge cash incentives available, dealerships began to “buy” perfect surveys. At one high-line dealership we offered a free oil change to any buyer that brought in their blank survey sheet so that we could explain any questions, after which we would submit the completed form for them. We saved them postage. What a thoughtful dealership we were! Other incentives from the dealership included free movie tickets, sporting event tickets, etc. We never gave out cash – that would be unethical!

As the internet took off and customers became savvier, the manufacturers began to prohibit dealerships from “buying” good surveys. Dealerships began to prohibit the sales department from coaching customers on how to fill out the surveys, and if they were caught doing so, the dealership would forfeit any quarterly CSI bonuses from the factory.

In fact at the last dealership where I worked we were told that any salesperson caught soliciting surveys would be fired. However with so much pressure and money involved, it wasn’t long before secret underground methods evolved. Management and salespeople don't speak openly about these peccadillos, but the practice continues.

Dealership Incentives

Dealerships are paid a quarterly bonus from the manufacturer based on their CSI scores, which are primarily based on post-sale surveys.The bonuses can be hundreds of thousands of dollars per quarter.These factory bonuses are a pool of money that sales managers often use to make deals that would otherwise not be possible. In addition to these monies, a high CSI score gives the dealership bragging rights.

Salesperson CSI Requirements and Incentives

The dealership is at the mercy of the manufacturer, and the salesforce is at the mercy of the dealership. Most automobile manufacturers have CSI spiff programs for those salespeople who are factory certified and whose CSI scores meet or exceed the the minimum standard. Certification requires the salesperson to pass a series of internet product knowledge tests. Typical factory spiffs range between $25 and $50 per acceptable survey. Dealerships usually have additional spiffs programs for salespeople who meet or exceed factory CSI minimums.

To the salesperson CSI is both a blessing and a curse, but more so a curse. Because of the importance of CSI, dealerships put huge pressure on the sales staff to follow industry and dealership procedures to the letter. With some dealerships excellent CSI is more important than the sale itself. I have witnessed on many occasions the dealership refusing to complete a sale because they were afraid the customer would bury them in the post-sale survey. Salespeople who do not meet the dealership CSI standards are eventually fired. During my career I have seen many successful salespeople fired for poor CSI.

Dealership Pressure on Buyers

The jobs and incomes of the sales managers and staffs are tied directly to CSI scores.When the guidelines were not so restrictive I would sit down with the customer at the end of the sale and explain what to expect in regards to the post-sale survey. In addition to what to expect in regards to questions, I would also inform them that anything other than the top response would be a failing grade. It’s not right, but that’s the way it is. I would then use the following statement:

“In a few weeks you will get a survey by mail or via email. If you are happy with the dealership and me, I will ask you to give us a “completely satisfied” on all of the questions and then submit the survey. That being said, I want to make sure that you can answer honestly, so if there is anything in the process with which you are not satisfied, or if there is anything else I can do for you, please let me know and I will make sure that you are completely satisfied”.

About ten years ago I sold a car to an older gentleman. I gave him the survey speech and he assured me that he was happy with everything and would take care of us on the survey. I also called him a couple of times after the sale to make sure everything was going well and he replied that everything was fine.

When I got the survey back I found that he had buried us. Needless to say I was not happy. I called to ask him what had I had done wrong and what had happened since we last spoke. He replied, “Nothing is perfect, so in order to get a perfect score you would have to lie down and let me wipe my feet on you”. Other buyers may fail to give a perfect score because of something over which the salesperson had no control, like maybe there was no coffee in the waiting room.

Buyer’s Obligations

The buyer has no obligations in regards to completing and submitting the CSI survey, but if he is satisfied with his buying experience then he should take care of the dealership and salesperson with a completely satisfied survey. If however the buyer cannot honestly answer with “completely satisfied” he should make sure that he is completely satisfied before he leaves the dealership. It’s a winning proposition for all of the involved parties.


In a perfect world CSI programs are progressive and beneficial to both the buyer and the seller. Unfortunately where there is room for graft there is usually corruption. The best intention programs are often derailed by unscrupulous manufacturers and dealerships and everybody is doing it.


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