It's impossible to avoid the debate around the auto industry (or more specifically the big 3 US firms) in the media. It's almost equally impossible to avoid an auto firm touting its latest win in the customer satisfaction rankings of JD Power. And yet, despite this apparent preoccupation with customers, many people see the auto dealership as the case study in how to game customer loyalty scores. How do we square all this away, and what lessons can be learnt for other industries?
You cannot help but be impressed by what JD Power and Associates has accomplished. More than just building a business, they have succeeded in branding customer experience. In the auto industry, they ARE the brand and the manufacturers make big play of their verdicts. The branding in the minds of customers is what has provided these awards with power, and marketing departments have been keen to take advantage of the opportunity.
But the experience for consumers has not always been as well served by this focus on customer satisfaction as a marketing weapon. The "car sales rep" is an iconic, if often unfair, figure of popular culture, synonymous with a particular brand of sales tactic. Their customer satisfaction survey, administered by the dealership, has a similar pride of place in the minds of many customer loyalty experts. Customers getting subtly (and not so subtly) leaned on to provide perfect scores does at least ensure that the dealer asks the question of the customer, but nobody would expect this process to generate good data, surely?
This combination of circumstances may be unique to the auto industry, but illustrates a risk with focusing on customer experience as an advertising experience, without necessarily making the investment in customer experience as it truly affects your customers. Now, I'm all in favor of loyalty leaders exploiting this advantage in the market. I do feel a bit queasy, however, when I see them advertising their apparent success; it feels redundant given that a genuine leadership position is often rewarded more directly with positive word of mouth than with an ad campaign. Furthermore, companies continue to advertise high "customer satisfaction" scores which represent such a weak measure of customers that they are little more than a sign of average performance.
Consumers, of course, would see the issue of loyalty versus satisfaction as splitting hairs. I would guess most consumers think of satisfaction as a meaningful measure, even if they ultimately don't act on it with their checkbooks. So marketing departments will continue to capitalize on a satisfaction message, even if they don't put in place the necessary internal processes to actually drive their operations around customer loyalty.
And this brings us back to the US auto industry. With major change a requirement for survival, let alone success, this time may prove a crossroads for Ford, GM and Chrysler to throw away their historic approaches and build a real solution that delivers an outstanding customer experience at the point of contact with the customer. In short, an operational approach to customer loyalty in addition to one driven by advertising opportunity. For that matter, all participants in an industy in crisis have that similar opportunity - break the rules and change the game. Who gets there first could be one of the indications as to who has the flexibility to innovate during these trying circumstances.