It’s time to take the wheel, even if you’re not into cars.

We’ve all heard and read a lot about customer experience recently and how the study of and practice of CE Marketing has become an area of specialization and innovation. As I have spent a good deal of time centered in an auto industry perspective, I’m watching other industries shift their focus from product to consumer intangibles and wonder why the trend sensitive auto industry just can’t get on with it. That’s especially true of most high line luxury goods where informed brand differentiation can make the difference between success and failure. In fact, it’s the nature of nearly every industry where major purchases are driven by emotion and fashion over utility and price.

Another viewpoint stems from that of disintermediation where facilitators (in this case retailers) are being replaced by a direct connection of manufacturer to consumer. These days there are fewer intermediators as they are less likely to be perceived as adding value to the process, and thus bypassed. The biggest things standing in defense of the auto industry are protective state franchise laws, and the real need for bricks and mortar mentioned in my previous post. That value had historically come from the experience of buying, owning, and using a product facilitated by a retailer on a personal level.

One point is that cars, for the most part, and including nearly all brands are equally good dollar for dollar when comparing performance, quality, luxury, value, and reliability. Some brands take an alternate path and are favored for their emotional appeal, scarcity and appearance. But with customer experience through the interaction between manufacturer and buyer, those who can act as the bridge and facilitator of that experience appear to still have the power to sway hearts and minds. Sure, Customer Experience may begin on a manufacturer’s website during a search for stats and options, but the responsibility and opportunity of making someone feel at ease and in control of their time and decision making sits squarely in the lap of the retailer. In the auto business, that’s the franchised, yet independent dealer. Indeed, the perception gap created by the manufacturer’s brand profile and website vs. the experience of a dealer’s website or physical location and staff should be a matter of great concern and enormous opportunity. Here, clear roles or marketing silos have emerged where the manufacturer tends to adopt the product branding responsibility, while the dealer totally excludes it as well as its own brand in the interest of price/product offerings. The irony of this disconnect is that an extremely small percentage of dealer site visitors are actually influenced by the content they find there, least of all price/product. On the manufacturer level, a recent interview with a luxury brand CEO characterized his industries’ reliance on product features and price points over brand experience as “fraught with danger” as brand differentiation among products and retailers becomes increasingly important, but misunderstood.

One extreme example came to me in an article about Uber: GM, the mega car brand manufacturer was investing in Lyft, an Uber like ride service. The article stressed an uncertain future for brands as those consumers who are simply looking for transportation and utility will eventually see the car more as a nameless appliance like an airplane. The article went on to say how brand recognition will go to the service provider (in this case Lyft) and not to the brand of what you are riding in. Why? Because the experience of the product brand had been so homogenized that it played no role in the consumer mindset of how it could feel to get somewhere in it. Think, for instance, Rental Cars.

Now, it’s safe to say that auto manufacturers, even those that sell utility over experience, don’t want to see that day come soon. As a matter of fact, utility could and should be part of the experience. But, ignoring the disconnect between what a manufacturer says they are and what a consumer experiences on a personal level with the product and retailer indicates that CE practitioners have a lot of work to do.

To begin, attention to customer lifecycle or product consideration cycles in any meaningful way is still absent at the retailer level. This is largely because the disconnect I mentioned is a slow motion train wreck years in the making. The industry is caught up in the day to day competitive environment.

Factually, getting to know the customer as soon as possible during consideration has a dramatic effect on relationship outcomes in the form of sales and referrals. Continuing a relationship with the customer throughout the ownership journey is even more important to the retailer’s successful bottom line.

Thankfully, the practice of Customer Journey Mapping begins to construct an end to end detailing of all the experiences a customer could and should have with a brand as well as the emotional responses each might provoke. Then, the overlapping of emotional and rational desires for each suggests creative responses that enrich the experience. In short, knowing what kind of person a customer is helps tailor experiences and produce results over current boiler plate retail operations. One suggestion I’ve often proposed, perhaps before it’s time, is the notion of leveraging events in the customer life cycle. Unfortunately, for most manufacturers or dealers, functions effecting customer experience and contact reside in organizational silos too, each with their own interest. Further, even fewer seek genuine customer feedback, relying on their long-held beliefs of what motivates a transaction and vague praise from solicited 3rd party review sites. When manufacturers and retailers of brand-centric goods realize that the only thing that should never be commoditized is their relationship with the customer, and that the customer’s experience with that brand over the entire ownership cycle, they will shift the mindset of their marketing from one of scarcity to that of generosity. More on that in my upcoming posts.