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Keep the Spark Alive for Customers

Keep the Spark Alive for Customers Uwe Hook

The relationship between automotive brands and their customers often reminds me of bad comedies about marriage:

  • First act/dating phase. The couple takes meticulous care of every little detail: What shoes shall I wear? Don't I look too short in these pants? Is the cologne too strong? This shirt looks good. No it doesn't. Yes, it does. Why didn't I buy new clothes? We are being treated to a constant stream of candle-lit dinners, romantic weekends and the fridge seems to be overflowing with champagne and strawberries.

  • Second act/the wedding. Tiny, little cracks and imperfections seem to appear: the open mouth at dinner. The toilet seat issue. Dirty underpants on the floor.

  • Third act/the demise. Am I your servant? Did my pants shrink or did I gain 60 pounds? Our anniversary was yesterday? What's your name again?

Let's face it, automotive brands are good at dating: they treat you to candle-lit dinners, charm you, focus on you and can't wait to hear from you. Once you close the deal, however, automotive brands become the spouse that suddenly rediscovers a love for pork rinds and cheap beer, the husband that just wants to be left alone or the couple that stopped paying attention.

Marketers know that it's much harder to acquire a customer compared to keeping a current customer. Why then are they treating their customers so much worse than their prospects?

Why is a product brochure so beautiful, and the manual filled with errors and printed on the cheapest paper on earth? Why are brand sites so easy to navigate, and support sites feel like you just encountered the end of the internet?

That's how bad relationships and marriages feel and look like.

If we want to create loving and emotional relationships with our customers, we need to develop a plan to keep the spark alive. Here are my Top 10 ideas:

  1. Try to understand the personal and relational goals of your relationship. Modify them as necessary. At one point in your relationship, your customer might have been interested in resale value. Now they are more focused on innovative features. Change with the customer. Gather as many insights about your customer as possible. Listen to your customer. Understand why they are interested in your brand. Understand what problem your car will solve for them. Intercept customers through SEM by surprising them with life-stage SEM: if they search for baby strollers, serve up crossover ads; if they search for golf clubs, display your luxury sedan text ad. Test new ways of understanding why consumers are interested, then review, refine and test again.

  2. Identify your customers' interests and associate your brand with these interests. Align your marketing efforts by partnering with companies that are involved with personal interests like sports, hobbies, entertainment, et cetera. And invite your customer to those events. Spend time with them.

  3. Be willing to try something new, even if there might be some risk involved. Your customers want to be surprised, and will appreciate your attempts to relate to them in new and innovative ways, even if those ways might not always work out for you in the end.

  4. Participate in a weekly or bi-weekly evaluation of customer communications. Read what your customers have to say about you. Scan message boards, blogs and chat rooms. Research is good; real customer insight is much better.

  5. Build up your customer in front of other business divisions. Let's be honest here: Most customer service/call center divisions don't try to help customers, they try to avoid dealing with them. There's a reason why we have to hit '#' 15 times and enter insanely long verification codes and passwords. As marketers we need to help these 'consumer-avoiding silos' to move away from the dark side. Share your insights with these divisions and let them know that they are as important (often even more important) than the newest expandable or TV commercial. In the Service department or in Parts/Accessories it's much harder to be consumer-centric and keep smiling. But your efforts can help everyone keep smiling.

  6. Attend seminars on relationships every few months. Learn how others are developing better relationships with their customers. Internet conferences are important, but also try to participate in offline events and dealer gatherings.

  7. Turn off the television, radio and computer once a month and try to communicate with your customers in innovative ways. There are so many new channels offering techniques for more personal and involved conversations with your customer, that it's short-sighted not to take advantage of them: Offer VIP ride & drives; invite them by phone to a free oil change and inspection; send your customers tickets to concerts/events aligned with your brand message. A little gift goes a long way.

  8. Leave little notes or gestures to express your feelings for your customers; sometimes, it's the little things in life that make a big impact: the call of your sales manager three days after the purchase to check if you're satisfied with your decision or an email focusing on product features, offering more insights and an explanation of the new technology. It's even more impactful if you do this this without any upsell/cross-sell implications.

  9. At least once a year, contact your customers to say why you're so happy he chose your brand or service. No, I'm not talking about your monthly newsletter or new model email. I'm talking about a personal email from your sales manager, expressing elation about your purchase decision. No free oil checks, no free inspection. Just a basic letter or email expressing your appreciation.

  10. Pick a special day once a year to express how important your customer is to you. Pick an ordinary day (not determined by anniversaries or events) and make it a surprise. This could be a free basic service day event plus Starbucks and bagels. Or it could be a VIP invitation for the new model lineup presentation.

Clearly, the ability to get along with your customer, charm them over and over again is largely based on deciding to make it happen, and renewing that decision as often as possible. Use all your creative resources to connect with your customer on an ongoing basis.

I'll leave the last word to Oscar Wilde: "Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence."

Uwe Hook is director of interactive marketing strategy at Genex, and blogs at Uwehook.blogspot.com. .

Uwe Hook helps organizations increase business value through capturing the hearts and minds of today's empowered consumers/customers. He has worn many hats in his career, including creative director, business leader, media and marketing strategist,...

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