The e-mail survey is "a very effective tool because we get the information really early and we get it directly from the customer," said Marc Trahan, VW Group of America's head of quality. "It's not filtered in any way."
Returns from the paper survey -- which was modeled after J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Study and was sent to customers 45 days after a purchase -- often came too late for VW to fix problems as quickly as it would like. So the automaker now sends e-mail surveys 30 days after purchase. Customers provide their e-mail addresses during the sale at the dealership and agree to be contacted by VW, a spokeswoman said.
The change in survey methods has cut feedback retrieval times from four months to two, and because VW now sends out more e-mail surveys than it sent paper surveys, and because the response rate is higher for the e-mails than it had been for the letters, the company said it has much more survey information available.
The e-mail survey, also based on J.D. Power's IQS, was trimmed to eight questions from more than 200 to avoid being "intrusive," Trahan said. If customers say they have a problem in a particular area, a drop-down menu enables them to elaborate on the problem.
Trahan said the survey helps VW work faster on the "softer side" of quality, covering design areas such as intuitiveness, ease of operation or Bluetooth connectivity.
Last year, survey feedback helped VW discover and resolve a problem with shuddering transmissions. Trahan said the company had a software fix on the market within two months.
Trahan mentioned another case in which owners complained about the 2013 Beetle's trunk lid being too high to reach once opened.
In response, Volkswagen told its Puebla, Mexico, factory, which assembles the Beetle, to replace the trunk's struts with those from the turbo version so the trunk lid would be easily reachable when opened. The turbo iteration had fewer trunk lid complaints.
Trahan said the company also did a "port action" to retrieve and fix cars in the delivery pipeline.
"The survey also helps us to capture complaints of customers who don't go for every complaint to the dealer to get it fixed," said Atay Tanulku, VW Group of America's general manager of customer quality. "It's an annoying problem, but it's not annoying enough to go to a dealer to get it fixed."
The VW brand's score on J.D. Power's IQS this year -- while better than in 2012 -- placed it No. 23 of 33 brands with 120 problems reported for every 100 vehicles.
Trahan pointed out that VW's quality has risen in the past three years and that the company wants it to improve to better than the industry average of 113 problems per 100 units for the 2014 model year. In 2010, VW's initial quality score trailed J.D. Power's industry average by 28, but the gap closed to seven in 2013.
Meanwhile, VW gained in J.D. Power's 2013 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (or APEAL) Study -- which measures how satisfying a new vehicle is to own and drive.
VW was the highest ranking nonpremium brand; the Passat was named the most appealing mid-sized car for the second time; and the GTI topped the compact performance segment.
With the feedback tool in place, VW is looking to further these improvements.
"You won't see any big leaps, but you're going to see continuous pragmatic improvement year after year," Trahan said. "Eventually, perception catches up with reality. And the reality today is the VW brand has really good quality."