Power Shift

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How J.D. Power & Associates listened to the “voice of the customer” and forever changed the course of the automotive industry

By Jason Carignan
From CSQ Magazine – Fall 2013

During Super Bowl XVIII in 1984, Subaru became the first automaker to advertise its J.D. Power rankings to consumers. While Apple’s now famous Macintosh ad, which ran during the same game, gets all the attention, it was the Subaru ad that legitimized a humble market research firm that was spurring the most sweeping changes the automotive industry had ever seen.

Founded in 1968 by Dave Power III, J.D. Power & Associates was one of the first independent, third-party research firms dedicated to listening to the voice of the customer. Over the next 45 years, Power’s revolutionary mission to measure customer satisfaction – and report the unvarnished truth of his findings – would forever change the auto industry and virtually every other manufacturing and service industry around the world.

Today, the idea of sharing our feedback with companies via a satisfaction survey is routine, whether via email, Facebook, on the back of a sales receipt, or even an ATM. In fact, it seems every company wants to be our “friend.” But, when Power mailed his first consumer survey in the late 1960s, the practice was virtually unheard of.

“It was like giving people a chance to vote for the first time,” says Power. “More than half of every survey we mailed came back completed. People would even include their own additional pages filled with details on the issues they were having along with photographs of the broken parts of their car.”

Dave Power spent four years out of college serving in the U.S. Coast Guard on an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. But the frigid Arctic waters and the icy-steel glaciers would prove no match for the cold reception he would later receive from the automotive industry he was determined to save.

In 1959, Power joined the Ford Motor Company as a financial analyst. While auditing the company’s sales contests and observing how business operated, he saw firsthand how broken the industry’s business model was.

“Market Research was completely self-serving at the time. It reported to Sales and was intent on defending operations not monitoring the true customer experience. Everyone looked the other way and product quality suffered as a result,” Power recalls. “I knew it was only a matter of time before the industry collapsed on itself.”

Power determined that the only way to save an industry that didn’t know it needed saving was to set out on his own. Along with his wife and four children, Power built an assembly line on the family’s living room floor in Calabasas and worked around the automakers by mailing his surveys directly to customers. The results revealed a slew of quality problems that were being ignored if not flat-out denied.

He took his findings directly to the automakers but was frequently blocked by the industry gatekeepers who wanted nothing to do with him or the data that could indict them. But Power’s no-nonsense personality and fierce integrity ultimately earned the trust of executive management; his customer data would influence how they managed quality and design from then on.

Having just completed a new book that chronicles his experiences with the auto industry, today Power devotes his time to a few business ventures and his family foundation which supports a number of local charities.

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