(This rant refers back to a rant from May 15 called “The Delicate Relationship between Branding and Customer Service)
Why would a marketer tell you that customer service is more important than advertising? Let’s start in your garage.
What kind of car do you drive? What does it say about you? If it’s not the cheapest transportation to buy, the cheapest to run or the absolute safest in its class then the chances are that you have been influenced by branding. Some automobile manufacturer has seduced you and convinced you that driving a Lexus, Hummer, Mercedes or Chrsyler 300 will make a statement about you, let you be the person you dream of becoming.
We’ve had quibbles with some of these advertisers here at the ThirdWay blog, but generally speaking we can say that car manufacturers understand that automobiles are more than the sum of their parts – that they are identity statements for their owners. And car advertising generally reflects the emotional nature of automobile purchases. However, if all of that good feeling is ruined the first time you visit a dealership, the advertising is wasted.
I happen to drive a four-year old Audi. I love the car. It is solid and fun to drive. Of course, to have a car in Manhattan, you have to love it because there is no imaginable financial justification to keep one otherwise, between the rent-in-Tulsa parking charges and sky-high insurance premiums.
In addition to building pretty good cars, Audi does some pretty good advertising, particularly in print. But I will say here and now that they might want to consider stopping. Why? Customer service.
What I’m about to relate probably happens to many of you at many dealerships for many different vehicles. As a society of car drivers, we are so inured to ill-treatment at the hands of dealership personnel (whether on the sales or service end) that we hardly make a squeak any more. But it cheapens the brands and erodes our loyalty.
The last time I brought my car into Zumbach Audi (our Manhattan west-side dealership) I made an appointment for 12:30pm. Knowing my car was going to have to stay overnight I didn’t want to arrive with the rush crowd at 7 or 8am and fight the crowds getting back to the office. It was about 95 degrees outside the day I dropped off the vehicle.
I first entered the dealership and saw a service manager who told me to leave his air-conditioned office and wait outside in the heat with my vehicle until someone could see me. Then he said “we’re on our lunch break,” as if I were to blame for showing up when nobody was around. Why did they give me a lunchtime appointment if there was nobody to help me at that time?
When someone finally came to take my car into the service area, I was hoping I’d be able to get back to the office without walking a mile from 11th Avenue to the nearest subway stop. I had been told previously that “loaner cars are only for undriveable vehicles,” (Undriveable? Isn’t any car that you leave at the shop undriveable by definition?) so I did not bother asking for a replacement vehicle. But Zumbach had proudly mailed out an excellent direct mail piece advertising shuttle service within Manhattan. When I asked about this I was told that the shuttle service ended at 12:00 noon. Instead, I was pointed to a notice on the wall of the service area saying that “Subway Tokens are provided for Transportation.”
I’m not an import-car snob, but I don’t think Audi would really want their brand positioning to be “just as good as the subway”. And I would be surprised if I’m the first person to walk away insulted, not asking for the $2.00 reimbursement. After all, the dealership surely made more money than that from me when they charged me nearly $400 for a new tire (neither mounted nor balanced but simply put into my trunk at my request) which I subsequently found for $220 at a tire store which was also in Manhattan.
All of this is a typical online rant – a dissatisfied customer screaming to the masses, I understand. It is important from a branding perspective because it reflects a larger trend in the industry.
Along with several other manufacturers, Audi is rolling back warranty coverage on its vehicles. Free maintenance may soon be a thing of the past. Yet we’ll still be told that nobody but the dealer is really qualified to maintain and repair our vehicles and given the complex mechanical differences and proprietary diagnostic on-board computers it may be true.
So I will say that as a marketer I think that the money spent on the great advertising (that fabulous viral campaign for the A-3, for example), the money lavished on customer retention programs and the wonderfully designed products are all a waste unless Audi takes back control of the dealer experience. It doesn’t help to get a flyer from the dealership explain the importance of “perfect” customer satisfaction scores and asking me to call them if I wasn’t satisfied. That is a subtle form of intimidation belied by the fact that when I tried to complain to the service manager about being overcharged for a tire while registering my car for the service visit he said “they don’t really listen to me.” At least he was telling the truth.
So for all of you with great brands and great advertising – be careful what you promise. Someone just might be expecting you to deliver.