Gottlieb Diamler was once quoted as saying ‘The Best or Nothing’ was what he expected from his people, products and organization in general. How would he feel if he could see Mercedes-Benz USA today? In the United States Mercedes-Benz is ranked a disappointing 7th among the 12 luxury auto manufacturers included in the 2012 J.D. Power & Associates Customer Service Index (CSI) Study.
There is no doubt Mercedes-Benz executives cringe when they see a competing luxury brand that was created out of thin air by a marketing firm more than 100 years after they ‘invented’ the automobile (Lexus!) tops the customer satisfaction list year after year.
MBUSA has set its sights squarely on Lexus, but more importantly, the top spot in the J.D. Power and Associates CSI rankings study. In late 2011 Mercedes-Benz USA drafted a comprehensive plan that will involve everyone in the company in this effort, known internally as “Customer One”.
Everyone at MBUSA, from the highest level executives to the regional representatives and product trainers down to front line dealership personnel across the country, from dealer principals to show room sales people to receptionist who answers the phone when you call your local dealer, everyone, from the top down and bottom up who interacts with customers, has a role and is expected to help the company move up through the rankings, one customer at a time.
As a current Mercedes Benz dealership employee I know how serious this effort really is. I recently participated in “Customer One” training along with several hundred other dealership employees from around the country. Over the past 8 months all Mercedes-Benz dealership employees have been attending customer service training in centralized locations around the country, a few hundred at a time. Most Midwestern dealership employees flew to Denver over the course of several weeks in May, 20 – 30 at a time, again, from the people who schedule service appointments on the phone to the sales managers to dealership owners. You flew out on night, had an all-day seminar the next day and flew out after the full day of sessions.
MBUSA spared no expense bringing in expert talent. These one day seminars were hosted by New York Times Best Selling authors. Expert consultants who have counseled companies such as Visa, Carnival Cruise Lines and Hewlett-Packard about customer service and ‘being the best.’
The day began with a high level MBUSA executive addressing the group, explaining how this program was put together for all of us and ultimately, the Mercedes-Benz customer, for without them, we have nothing. Then the presenter came out to rattle off the current J.D. Power and Associates rankings, putting Mercedes-Benz, and all of us as MBUSA employees, solidly in our place… 7th place.
From this low point, a building process began. Using examples from Olympic athletes and sports figures to other companies that are respected around the world for customer service excellence, a road map was unfolded that each and every employee can follow, using common sense and a few general principles to deliver an exceptional customer experience.
Telling the Mercedes-Benz story was a real focus of the entire presentation. Everyone was encouraged to discuss the heritage of Mercedes-Benz and the company’s constant product and systems innovation over its long history.
Most people who walk into a Mercedes-Benz show room don’t know that the company holds more than 80,000 patents, filed over a 125 year history. Do customers know that Mercedes-Benz INVENTED so many of the safety systems that all of our competitors have also adopted (Anti Lock Brakes, Electronic Stability Control (ESP), vehicle crumple zones, and on and on)?
Attendees were encouraged to strive to exceed customer expectations. Using examples of customer service experiences and principles from a number of companies including Nieman Marcus, Disney and yes, even Lexus, the idea was put forth that Mercedes-Benz doesn’t just want to rise to the top of the J.D Power CSI rankings, but be thought of as a brand that presents one of the best luxury experiences anywhere.
The motto “Driven to Delight” was presented in a flashy, well produced Mercedes-Benz video showing an array of MBUSA employees, from top executives flashing by in the new 2013 SL to regular dealership sales people on the lot talking about their customers and how they’re “Driven to Delight” those customers.
Feedback was solicited from all attendees in small individual dealer group sessions regarding what could be done differently at their respective dealerships. We were asked what sorts of things are holding us back? What tools do we need to make things better for the customer? Ideas were written down and compiled by small group facilitators. It’s clear that MBUSA is looking for accountability on all levels to make sure this program is taken seriously and works.
Like so many such corporate training sessions, attendees do come back to work feeling energized, ready to conquer the world. Time will tell if that energy will remain. It will also be interesting to see how the ‘Customer One’ program evolves over time. MBUSA has certainly pulled out all the stops, even going as far as creating a new executive level position in April 2012, “General Manager of Customer Experience”. A “CSI Czar?” Apparently. On the dealership level, each dealership has also appointed a manager in charge of the ‘Customer One’ program.
There are, and will be, the skeptics. Right outside some of the sessions there were some rolling eyes when recounting some of the ideas presented. At most dealerships (Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, wherever) customers are ‘coached’ with a wink and a nod when sales or service employees mention to them that they will be getting a survey via email ‘10s all the way down, that’s the right answer’ ‘Look, I’ll throw in all season mats, but make sure you mark all 10s on the survey’ and this coaching is part of sales training 101 from dealership management! I’ve even seen sales people go as far as to create a fake Gmail or Yahoo email account where they can receive the survey and fill it out themselves. When MBUSA and dealerships tie compensation and bonuses to individual sales person CSI scores they set the stage for such behavior.
In a way the manufacturers do the same thing. They know that people purchasing vehicles during the month of May each year, give or take a few weeks, are the customers that will receive additional CSI surveys from J.D. Power and Associates (the ones that really count). This is why they send out company-wide memos at the beginning of April, telling everyone to really go above and beyond between Mid-April and Mid June. This year, MBUSA even sent special jewelry box like ‘new car key presentation boxes’ so the keys to new cars could be presented to customers in nice, hinged presentation boxes. Don’t expect to get keys to your new Mercedes-Benz in those boxes if you buy it in July once they’re all gone (you won’t be getting a J.D. Power and Associates survey either).
What does this tell us about J.D. Power and Associates’ surveys and the rankings they create in general? Manufacturers believe they’re critical, that much is clear. You’d hope that the best company with the best people and the best service rises to the top. They are right… the choices each and every dealership employee makes when in front of every customer every single day is what really matters. In the end, I think you can have all the processes, pledges and, of course, a great product, but for CSI, it ultimately comes down to people.