Direct customer feedback is probably the single most effective way for an auto dealership to gauge performance and satisfaction among consumers in the marketplace, and the digital age is making it even easier to obtain, according to

According to a new study by Carfax, eight out of every 10 used-car dealers poll or otherwise collect feeback from customers regarding their car-buying experience. Customer surveys help dealers determine shopper demographics and attitudes, shopping behavior, and buying motivation.

"Responses are used to monitor and evaluate both product and service," explained Jay Markwood, Carfax's director of market research. "Customer feedback helps dealers tweak techniques, programs, and delivery for increased sales and consumer loyalty."

Markwood oversaw the Carfax study and reviewed dealer comments.

It should come as no surprise to anyone in the information age that an Internet or e-mail based system is the most affordable and potentially the most effective way to gather customer feedback, according to Markwood. Still, only 26 percent of the dealers surveyed indicated that they use or include an e-mail collection system to obtain feedback, while 76 percent use a more expensive combination of telephone and mail surveys to gather feedback from customers.

Statistics show that the per-call cost for a telephone survey can average $6, and the per-piece price for a mail survey hover around $2.50, according to Carfax; that can mean a substantial investment to the dealer.

Conversely, e-mail is virtually free and since it is less time- and energy-consuming for the recipient, results in a higher response rate from those being surveyed. One out of every two active used-car consumers polled by Carfax indicated they will respond to e-mail surveys.

In addition, turnaround time for e-mail and Web-based surveys is much faster than traditional mail survey methods, meaning dealers can react more quickly to customer wants and needs.

Another advantage of the digital survey, according to Carfax, is that survey length is not limited. The longer a telephone survey or mail questionnaire is, the higher the cost to the dealer. The cost of an e-mail or Internet survey remains virtually unchanged no matter what the length.

"Dealers want and need a feedback system that allows them to ask more specific questions about their customers' unique buying experience," Markwood said. "A longer survey allows for more detailed questions and responses, which 39 percent of the dealers surveyed indicated is 'highly desirable'."

What about the shopper who doesn't buy? Nearly three-quarters of the dealers in the Carfax study indicated they'd be interested in data obtained by and about visitors to their lots or Web sites from third parties such as Carfax. "By forging strategic marketing and research partnerships, dealers can acquire feedback not only on those who bought but those who didn't -- including why they didn't buy," Markwood said.