Do customers really want an “experience” from automotive manufacturers and their dealers?

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to have an “experience” with my automobile dealer.  I don’t want my dealer to send me birthday cards, acknowledge my anniversary, or give me special gifts that reflect my personal preferences. I’m not even sure I’m open to periodic emails from the dealer or manufacturer because somehow “periodic” becomes every other day. I don’t want that kind of relationship with the company(ies) I purchased my cars from.

Yet automobile manufacturers seem intent on differentiating themselves based on “experience:”

“The need to deliver exceptional, truly differentiating customer experience has never been greater,” Steve Cannon,  CEO, Mercedes-Benz NA, Automotive News 1/21/13

“Lincoln wants customers to receive the kind of pampering, both at dealerships and online, that they would get at luxury hotels.” Automotive News 8/20/12

This is not new, the industry, particularly the luxury marques have been working on improving customer experience for years. These efforts were precipitated by the introduction of Lexus. When Lexus was introduced in 1989, the DNA of the luxury segment and the whole industry was re-arranged.

Customer service was re-defined.

Suddenly there was an automobile dealership where you were treated as a guest, where informed salespeople who knew the product inside and out could explain the benefits of the car, where F&I didn’t leave you feeling like you should be counting your fingers.  That was only the sales side. If you purchased a Lexus you were treated to home pick-up and delivery of your car when it needed to be serviced.  If you chose to go to the dealership and wait, you sat in a clean comfortable area with decent coffee and a TV to watch.  Most importantly you were informed what to expect, what was being done to your car and when it would be finished. For most customers things went exactly as planned.  Occasionally there were other issues and your service consultant would explain them, re-adjust your expectations and then meet them.

In the context of the automobile industry in 1989, this was truly remarkable.  The idea that dealing with a dealership could be a pleasant and that the customer would come first throughout an entire dealer network was nothing short of unbelievable. Lexus executed perfectly, differentiated their brand, sold a ton of cars and built a loyal base of customers.

Lexus truly redefined the expectation of customer service in the industry. Treating customers with respect and as intelligent human beings was no longer optional. Was it nice that the dealer would come and pick up your car for service, that the facilities were clean and comfortable, and the dealer staff professional? Absolutely.  But what customers really responded to was that the focus was on their needs.

Eventually the idea spread from the luxury segment to the industry overall. The manufacturers looked to the hospitality industry for help.  Personally, two brands that I worked with, took their dealers to Ritz Carlton to get “religion” regarding customer service.

Here’s my question, how much of an “experience” do people really want with their dealer and their automotive manufacturer or brand? The automobile industry is not in the hospitality business and no one wants it to be.  To put it another way, how much opportunity is there today, to truly differentiate and is it worth the effort? Will Lexus plus 10% make a difference?

I suspect not.

The manufacturers are overestimating their importance in customers’ lives. Most customers don’t want to be “friends” with their dealership. Most people I know aren’t interested in overly solicitous treatment from their dealership or the manufacturer.

People simply want to be treated fairly, with respect.  When there’s an issue they want to be told the truth about it, how much it will cost to be repaired or made good and how quickly it will be done. Then they want those expectations met.

In 1989, Lexus set a very high standard that was vastly better than the average manufacturer/dealer at that time and it created true differentiation for the brand.

Lexus identified true customer needs and met them.

Imagining or creating some incremental customer “needs” will not offer true differentiation.

Lexus +10% or even 20% won’t get it done. I don’t think there are enough automotive narcissists to justify the effort.

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12 Responses to “Do customers really want an “experience” from automotive manufacturers and their dealers?”

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  10. Regina says:

    I certainly wouldn’t consider a dealer or salesperson my “friend,” as much as they’d like me to. I think what’s most important in a dealer and their representatives is prompt and professional service, and clear communication.

  11. Cameron says:

    I think you’re right on point. You’re looking for tools that will enable you to engage the way you want to. That may mean never speaking to anyone at a dealership. The industry is trying to take what they want to do and make it more acceptable to you and then add a level of pandering that just doesn’t make sense within the context of car ownership. Wrong way around.

  12. Jake says:

    When I think about what made Lexus so good, I have to wonder whether what they did amounted to bringing the dealer experience into line with contemporary expectations of customer service. If they did that in 1989, auto companies should be looking to what they can do to bring the dealer experience into 2013, or better yet 2016.

    The fact that I have to talk to people on the phone to schedule service? Lame, so 1995. The fact that they want to get me in the dealership physically to negotiate? Stupid, I feel more confident negotiating with my computer in front of me.

    Basically, rather than trying to re-do Lexus’ remarkable 1989 achievement, shouldn’t they be trying to design their dealership experience so that it makes sense? So that it fits with how I want to do business? That’s what Lexus achieved then, and it’s what no auto manufacturer has achieved since.

    And the experience? That’s what happens when you drive the car. Obviously that has to kick ass.

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