DEARBORN - The company’s Go Further brand promise is coming to life at Ford and Lincoln dealerships across the country through a revolutionary program designed to elevate the dealer-customer relationship into a world-class consumer experience.
It all began in 2010 when a group of 27 dealers from across the country joined forces with members of Ford’s U.S. Marketing team to brainstorm ways to transform the dealership experience into one that would create loyal and enthusiastic advocates of Ford products and services.
The result is the Consumer Experience Movement (CEM).
“We’re really attacking the customer experience at the dealership in a way that other automakers have not,” said Jim Farley, group vice president, Global Marketing, Sales and Service. “We’re working with our dealers on a personalized customer experience that’s really focused on the engagement of the employees. It’s a perfect example of the kind of initiative that comes out of the Go Further idea that could differentiate our company for decades to come.”
But the initiative faced some inherent challenges from the start. As an industry, car dealerships have not been known for creating great consumer experiences. In fact, a 2010 Microsoft study conducted by Wakefield Research showed that more than half of Millennials – a vital generation of people born in the 80s and early 90s – believe that going to see a car salesman is worse than going to the dentist.
The CEM is designed to change that way of thinking and establish Ford as a leader, says Brett Wheatley, director, Global Market Representation. It is based on the notion that creating a world-class consumer experience hinges on having a world-class employee experience.
“We researched many successful companies to find what they did differently than others and what we discovered was that they created an experience in their business that made employees love to work there,” said Wheatley. “And employees who love their work are the most effective at developing long-lasting relationships with customers.”
The CEM launched with 116 dealers in July of 2011. Since then, 728 Ford and Lincoln dealerships have joined the program for a total of 844.
Dealers who sign up to participate are assigned a professional coach who gets them started on the road to self-discovery with a team member engagement survey designed to elicit honest impressions from both management and staff about the quality of the work environment. Once the survey is complete, the coach meets with managers to discuss the information and develop a plan of action.
“One example of a problem we found at some dealerships is a lack of working together well between people in different departments,” explained Andrew Ashman, manager, CEM. “Some of the coaches manage that through job shadowing. During the course of a month everyone in the dealership has to spend an hour or two watching what another department does. When you have to spend that kind of time with another individual you really get to know them and develop a better understanding and appreciation for what they do.”
The survey results often come as a shock to dealer management.
“My biggest surprise was how much I needed to change to get all my people to change,” said Justin Hansel, general manager, Hansel Ford Lincoln, California. “I don’t view myself as a high-ego individual. I look at myself as a pretty humble leader, but I thought I was a pretty good leader at the same time. There are a lot of things I needed to change about the way I led every day to make this work and I didn’t see that coming.”
Another tool used by the coaches to assess a dealership is a Mystery Shopper Report, which is aimed at evaluating the relationship between dealership employees and customers.
“The coach will send pseudo customers in to ‘mystery shop’ the dealership 15 or 20 times to see how customers are handled and then share that information with the dealership staff,” said Ashman. “The mystery shopper goes through the whole process of sales and service that an actual customer would go through and pays particular attention to things like whether or not the salesperson or service person made eye contact, whether or not he or she was respectful, helpful, and so on.”
Some dealers are initially disheartened by the reports.
“You’ll find things about your dealership, about yourself, your management team and how everybody works that are extremely painful,” said Dan Hay, president, Jim Burke Ford Lincoln, California. “But once you get to the point where you can accept the fact, then you get excited about how to change it and that’s where the fun begins.”
The third tool used by the coaches is the Customer Viewpoint Report, which captures feedback from all customer sales and service encounters at the dealership.
The entire process is designed to give dealers comprehensive insight into their dealership’s leadership, culture and employee engagement.
“I think the big thing we have to keep reminding ourselves is that it takes a long time to change the culture,” said Wheatley. “With that said, however, we’re encouraged by the early results that we’ve seen. We’re definitely getting great feedback from employees at the dealerships. They feel a change within their own stores. They feel like they’re working more as a team and they also have a new mindset when dealing with customers.”
Early metrics comparing dealerships that have participated in the CEM with other geographically similar dealerships that have not, show that customer satisfaction has improved 50 percent faster. New vehicle sales have increased by 1,100 and service visits have increased by 17,000. And 95 percent of dealers say they would recommend the program to another dealership.
“I feel we are definitely working better as a group. I am in awe of how well we have progressed in that we value what we do as a team over and above any individual achievements,” said Chris Savage, general manager, Robinson Brothers Ford Lincoln, Baton Rouge, La. “One of the main goals of any general manager should be to have synergy among the different departments and I believe our consumer Experience training has provided me with a pathway to achieve this that I simply would not have been able to find on my own.”
Wheatley says the CEM is vitally important to the future of Ford because at the end of the day, Ford and Lincoln dealers are the face of the company.
“Our dealers are the front line in our communities and we need to assist them as much as possible because they are as important as everything we do here in Dearborn,” he said. “There isn’t always appreciation of the role that the dealers play in the community, and we’ve got to embrace them as our strength and as a real difference-maker in telling the Ford story.”