Everyone has a price. What's yours?
I ask because of the experience an Alexandria reader shared with me. Soon after she bought a new car in the spring, she received a letter from the dealer.
"The dealer laid a real trip on me" about the customer-satisfaction survey she would be receiving, she said. "Any rating below 'outstanding' -- including 'excellent' -- would be rated as failure and adversely affect the careers and compensation of the salesman and other personnel. For our convenience and instruction, a sample poll was enclosed, conveniently filled out to reflect 'outstanding' ratings in every category."
If for some reason she couldn't give an outstanding report, the dealer hoped she would get in touch before returning the survey. Also included were coupons for a free tank of gas and a free car wash.
"I'm sure I bought a very good car, one I don't have to lie about," said the woman, who -- fearful that things would be uncomfortable next time she brought her car in -- asked that I not print her name. "It just seems to work against the whole purpose of a customer satisfaction poll. . . . You've got a car dealer saying, 'We're number one.' Well, yes, you twisted arms and guilted your customers into saying you are. Or you bribed them into it."
Not so, said Gerard N. Murphy, president of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association.
"I don't find that troublesome either from a survey standpoint or from a business ethics standpoint," he said. The letter and the coupons are a way to encourage people to do something many of them might take a pass on: fill out a multi-page form.
"I might be incentivized to fill out the form if somebody gives me a free tank of gas or a free car wash," he said.
My Lovely Wife and I have received similar entreaties after bringing our cars into the dealer for service. (Never any coupons, though.) I guess we're supposed to find all the attention nice.
J.D. Power and Associates studied this phenomenon last year. It said that in only 6 percent of cases were customers coached by dealers on how to respond to these surveys. Most of those who said they were coached said it had no impact on their satisfaction, but their actual overall scores were substantially lower than those who said they were not coached. In other words, begging too much can backfire.
"Clearly, some dealer personnel are attempting to mitigate a problem they know they have," said J.D. Powers's Joe Ivers when the findings were released. "But the attempt is usually transparent and comes off as disingenuous. . . . While a few dealer personnel find creative ways to garner positive feedback, even when it's undeserved, the reality is customer satisfaction is driven by truly satisfying customers, not trying to influence their satisfaction surveys."
The Alexandria reader said she filled her survey out truthfully -- and didn't use the coupons.
"I cannot be bought, even today, for a free tank of gas."
Lorraine Leacock's Herndon garage looks a bit like a Costco warehouse: cases of ramen noodles, huge piles of candy, boxes of sunscreen. . . .
"One lady brought in eight pounds of Bazooka bubble gum the other day," said Lorraine.
In July, I wrote about Lorraine's efforts to gather comfort items for National Guard troops stationed in Iraq. She's a ballroom dancer/choreographer/gown designer/wedding planner who happens to be married to Brig. Gen. Edward A. Leacock, the Maryland National Guard's assistant adjutant general for Army. When she heard that service men and women were pining for things such as Oreos, yo-yos and paperback books, she vowed to get them.
The response has been overwhelming. The day the column about her ran, Lorraine didn't leave her computer for 17 hours. "Seventeen solid hours of e-mails," she said. "I couldn't answer them fast enough. It was absolutely mind-boggling."
Donated items started pouring in.
Lorraine has broadened her efforts. She heard from the handlers of bomb-sniffing dogs in Iraq that the pooches had needs, too: goggles for their eyes, protective coverings for their feet. And now she's responding to Hurricane Katrina.
For example, she's received donated school supplies. Some will be shipped to Iraq for distribution to Iraqi children, and some she's sending down south to Louisiana and Mississippi.
Last week, a truck loaded with 1,000 cubic feet of stuff -- medical supplies, ramen noodles, candy, crackers, water, Red Bull -- left for National Guard units helping with Katrina.
I asked Lorraine if she was worried she might be overwhelmed by the avalanche of donations.
"I was worried there for a while with the stuffed animals," she said. "It got completely out of control. "
In my column, I wrote that Lorraine wanted stuffed animals to give to the children of departing soldiers. She received some 4,588.
"And I'm not done counting," said Lorraine.
She's sending some of the stuffed animals to Katrina-affected areas for children who have lost everything, including their teddy bears. She's also planning a fundraising golf tournament for Oct. 31. (To see the sorts of things Lorraine is collecting, go to www.giftsforheroes.net or write firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Said Lorraine: "If people want to bring it, I will get it to where it needs to go."
But please: No more stuffed animals.
My e-mail: email@example.com. My address: The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.