These days it would appear that the only “flipping” involved in the automotive sector is that involving the bird. With the hangover of both a series of seemingly endless recalls and an unprecedented bailout still not completely over, consumers are more skeptical and wary than ever before of an industry that seems hell bent on breaking promises en masse.
And yet there are glimmers of hope. Ford. A forward thinking and progressive Hyundai. A resilient and gritty General Motors (ever thought they’d be considered a challenger brand?)
And then of course there’s the fact that people still need a large piece of tin to get them from point A to B. No beaming any time soon, Scotty.
That said, this is a business that understands being turned on its head all too well. Quite literally flipping a gas funnel might not exactly be the worst thing in the world, especially as we usher in a new era in automotive led by a greener and socially conscious fleet of hybrid and electric vehicles.
Perhaps now would be a good time for the automotive sector to put their collective feet on the proverbial gas pedal of customer centric service and give itself a complete overhaul or redesign of the customer experience.
Instead of “ending” all outreach efforts at the point of customer purchase, why not use this moment of truth to kick relationship building efforts into high gear? For some reason, most auto brands become goldfish the moment their customers drive out of their showrooms with their new leased car. Out of site. Out of mind. Instead of waiting three years in the wishful and borderline delusional hope that their customers will come waltzing back in order to facilitate a painless and quick swap, why not think of the three years of time that elapses between purchases as the beginning of a journey; an ascension of a summit if you will – where the “climb” is quite possibly as fulfilling as reaching the apex itself?
Sherrill Freeborough, the owner of two Saturn dealerships in Lansing, Michigan, was known as the “Saturn Lady” based on being a “different kind of dealer” known for her deep-seated commitment to both her employees and her customers. In the wake of the Saturn brand’s discontinuation, she is migrating over to a Hyundai dealership and hopes her customers will follow her. Think she’ll be successful? People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care…
The traditional marketing and sales funnel focuses all its time, effort, energy and budget on the wrong end; but what if we flipped it on its head and focused on building the kind of momentum, credibility, rapport and trust that is inherently “sticky”, sharable, buzzworthy or viral? Here are just a few thought starters drawn from the Flipped Funnel as to how an auto brand – led by the human face behind the brand, led by the salesperson – can not only keep the relationship going, but growing as well:
Acknowledgment – everything from courtesy follow-up calls to period check-ins; calls on birthdays; updates on new accessories, technology patches. And then again there are the two most powerful words in the English language, “Thank you” (there’s also I’m sorry but that’s another story for another day). The other day I went into a local bank to apply for a loan. My contact made a point to introduce me to the owner of the bank. When last did you meet the owner of your local dealership? Do you even know who they are? Or more importantly, do they even know who you are?
Dialogue – Does your local salesperson have a Facebook page? Maybe they should? What about the brand itself: are they active on Twitter? Does that even mean anything? More importantly how do they escalate or route queries or concerns to the right and relevant parties?
In the automotive world, there is a gaping chasm between sales and service (support). This needs to change. Not only should sales and service be connected and integrated, but I would argue that sales needs to lead the relationship itself. Think of the salesperson as an Executive Sponsor of the relationship. Part of this process will involve a bold and dramatic restructuring of bonus and compensation plans, together with a redistribution or prioritization of time allocation and investment.
As per the new rules of customer service in Flip the Funnel, customer service is not only about solving problems; and it can be a revenue generator: when a customer comes in for a routine service (especially in the final trimester of their lease), why not have a brand spanking new model waiting for them as a loaner?
Incentivization – we’re now moving from the “retention” part of the flipped funnel to the “new acquisition” phase. This is where a business can be grown from the inside-out, with the power of word-of-mouth that recognizes that customers are the true influencers; and not some irate and disgruntled, gown-wearing blogger with a big audience. What would happen if every customer were rewarded in some way by creating a video review of their vehicle? Is there currently a referral program in place that recognizes the persuasive efficacy of a credible and authentic recommendation? When a potential customer is interested in a vehicle, how much more effective would it be if they could connect directly with a “fleet” of past and current customers “just like them”?
This is where the final phase of the funnel kicks into high gear: Activation in the form of a customer centric branded community which connects not only prospective buyers with existing ones, but more importantly connects current customers with “fellow customers”; employees with customers; even employees with fellow employees. A place – or space – that delivers against real passion; that’s more about the journey and less about the destination.
I’m still waiting for my invitation to an advanced driving school or the ability to take my car on a real race track. I’m still waiting to be transported beyond a functional product or a gushy, emotional brand to become part of a connected experience. I’m sure as hell not going to get this from a monthly customer magazine.
I'm still waiting....
I believe that customer service (or servicing customers) will ultimately be THE difference that separates the winners from the losers in the coming years. As loyal as I am to my Audi, I can’t rule out the possibility that one day I will give my business to the company that wants it the most and that offers me something over and above the MSRPE (Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price, whereas the E stands for Expectations, but it can also stand for experience).
- Invest in the time between purchases, not the purchase time(s); recognize the power of the returning customer; all customers are equal, but some are more equal than others.
- Qualify and quantify the networked effects of word-of-mouth and deploy a “recognize and reward” customer activation program that values and monetizes referrals.
- Upgrade customer expectations based on loyalty, tenure, value and influence: transform advocates to ambassadors. American Express has “member since”; American Airlines has “million milers”; what kind of status is afforded to automotive customers?
- The Voice of the Customer has never echoed so loudly in the automotive sector; the next generation of cars may be born from the driver’s seats of your own vehicles; close the loop and integrate your most innovative customers’ sentiment, ideas and innovations into the very R&D process that powers your brand.
- And above all…NEVER forget the power of retention. When times get tough, turn to your customers for support, understanding and patience. By communicating “early and often”, there never has to be a “crisis” in communication in this industry again. Never.
In an industry that is fixated on technology – now more than ever before – the opportunity to turn convention on its head has the unique potential to breathe some life back into an otherwise tired and under duress business. It all begins with human beings that service other human beings; after all, we might buy cars, but what we truly buy into is the passion of those who are behind them.
Related article: How Toyota can Flip the Funnel