By David Barkholz, Crain News Service
SANTA ANA, Calif. (Feb. 26, 2015) — A suit filed by Subaru of America Inc. alleges that a group of employees at a Subaru auto dealership in California regularly gathered on their lunch hours to falsify customer satisfaction surveys.
The employees at South Coast Subaru in California had given the auto maker bogus customer email addresses so that the surveys would be sent to the employees — not the customers — to fill out, the suit claims.
If the allegations prove true, South Coast Subaru certainly went rogue in its efforts to boost customer satisfaction scores. But the tale is about far more than one dealership. Subaru's lawsuit highlights friction between factories and car dealers over measuring customer satisfaction at dealerships.
Reforms are under way at some auto makers, but the problems are a long way from being resolved.
Auto dealers complain that factory customer questionnaires are long and tedious and that the feedback from the forms is slow to get back to them, particularly in the Internet age of instant feedback.
And many dealers and auto makers complain that the forms are too easy for dealership staffers to game, undermining the validity of the scores.
But the scores remain important because many factories tie substantial bonuses to them. For example, customer satisfaction is a key component for General Motors Co. dealers to receive quarterly bonuses under GM's Standards for Excellence vehicle sales incentive program.
South Coast Subaru representatives did not return phones calls last week from Crain News Service seeking comment. A Subaru spokesman declined to comment beyond the details in the complaint.
That a dispute over customer satisfaction surveys made it to court is rare, industry experts said. Usually, disagreements are worked out behind closed doors, said Mike Charapp, an attorney who represents dealers at Charapp & Weiss.
Almost since the inception of the surveys years ago, dealers and auto makers have jousted over the appropriateness of dealers appealing to customers for top scores, he said.
In its complaint, Subaru alleges that in September during the investigation it found that two named and 10 unnamed employees of South Coast Subaru of Costa Mesa in suburban Los Angeles had provided Subaru with phony email addresses for dealership sales and service customers so the surveys could be sent to the employees.
The suit alleges that 224 surveys were filled out by those employees in 2014, thereby boosting the customer satisfaction scores of the store and resulting in bonuses not legitimately earned.
The employees had the surveys emailed to them when real customers' closing documents either didn't contain an email address or had an invalid one, the lawsuit alleges.
The alleged actions constitute fraud, the suit said, and would put South Coast Subaru in violation of its dealer agreement with Subaru. The car maker is asking for unspecified repayment of dealership bonuses plus damages.