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Always focus on the customer

Jun 10 2018 10:21
Casper Kruger

Casper Kruger is the managing director of Ford Motor Company Sub-Saharan Africa (Supplied)

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Since I climbed into the driver’s seat as managing director of Ford SA in April last year, my core area of focus has been to modernise and streamline the retail arm of our business, using new tools and techniques to unleash innovation. I am here to make an impact, to shake things up a bit, as I believe there is still so much potential for growth.

I have been working closely with our dealerships to align operations with our company’s global best practices, which includes customer centricity.

The customer-centric way of doing business is about much more than just offering good service. It works on the premise of providing a positive experience for your customer, both before and after the sale, to drive repeat business. So no matter how many challenges your company may face or how much competition muscles in on the marketplace, customer loyalty will ensure your brand’s longevity.

The fact is that much has changed. Buying behaviour has changed; the type of customer we’re dealing with has changed; the way customers buy cars has changed; the way dealerships are viewed and the way customers interact with dealerships have changed. There’s no one consistent consumer behaviour.

It was like that 20 or 30 years ago, when you phoned and made an appointment, or you walked into a dealership. But millennial and Generation Z customers – now in their teens, 20s and 30s – grew up with or are growing up with smart devices and high-speed internet, so they’ve got a different attitude to people my age, who still want to have a more tactile experience in the dealership environment.

Consumers are also more discerning than ever before. They have become less trusting, and more critical and suspicious of the companies with which they choose to do business. Before making a purchase decision, they will ask family, friends and colleagues for opinions and recommendations. Much of this takes place publicly on social media, and consumers are not shy to make their voices heard. Complaints and compliments are aired with confidence and authority. This has changed the balance of power between consumers and brands. Consumers now inform brands and dictate how companies do business.

Traditionally, dealerships saw selling a car as a one-off transaction. They didn’t really care where the customer went from a service perspective. But retaining customers throughout the value chain is far more profitable and key to sustainable growth for business.

I envisage the dealership of the future to have more service facilities and less showroom space. From both a convenience and investment perspective, it makes sense.

To ensure repeat business, however, dealerships will really have to cultivate and nurture relationships with customers to keep them coming back – to have their car serviced, to buy parts, to trade in their car or to buy their next car. Otherwise, they’ll stop doing business with you and go somewhere else.

The service centre is a space where there is potential to overachieve. When you have bookings for about 20 customers coming in tomorrow morning, you have a golden opportunity. You already have their vehicle identification numbers, so the next phase is to personalise the customer experience. Your customer is stuck there in a queue, so you go and say hello. You must greet them by name because you can’t have a relationship with a person if you don’t know their name, so you start there.

Welcome the customer back to the service centre and take the time to get to know a bit about them. Gather this data and keep a record. Understanding who your customer is as a person, not just a number, gives you the chance to build a relationship. Maybe, if you build a strong enough relationship, they will come back.

Always remember that customers don’t like surprises, they don’t like inconvenience and they don’t like change. They like consistency, routine and reliability – it’s reassuring and it instils a sense of trust in your brand.

It goes without saying that, to make this all work, you need to attract the best talent and limit staff turnover. The reality is that employees have become less loyal, especially in front-line sales positions and the direct customer interaction environment. Turnover is a big challenge for the local auto industry. Your employees need to understand that they are the custodians of your brand. They need to be trained to see things from the consumer’s perspective, and must be equipped with the skills and knowledge required to meet and exceed customer expectations.

Companies also need to be more agile and proactively manage their reputations online. A few years ago, it was unheard of for a dealership to have someone managing its social media, but in the always-on culture of today’s world, you need someone to flag the urgency of a query or complaint. Customers expect an immediate response – they want to be acknowledged and heard. They want their pain points to be efficiently addressed and effectively resolved. If a company only responds two days later, the customer forms an opinion about the brand based on that interaction.

Remember, a brand is not a product – it is merely a perception and an emotion held in a consumer’s mind. So if emotion powers a brand and customer experience is how consumers perceive their interactions with a brand, then these perceptions can make or break a brand.

Customer centricity in today’s age is a requirement, not a competitive edge. It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a have-to-have. If you aren’t customer centric, you are irrelevant. You will be pushed aside. But by going above and beyond to deliver on your brand promise – listening to your current customers and addressing the needs of the consumer of tomorrow – your company should be able to stand the test of time.

- Kruger is managing director of Ford Motor Company Southern Africa BRAND FAITH

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