Meet my car, Putt-Putt. I love my car. I bought it in 2011 when it was 4 years old. It's now 12 years old - halfway to being considered a classic car in Texas. Driving it gives me a lot of joy. I mean, who doesn't love a convertible, especially a cute little red convertible with racing stripes!
I get my car fixed at a MINI dealership in Dallas. MINI Coopers are basically lite-versions of BMWs that truly require experts to fix. Sure, the repairs can be costly, but they do a great job to keep my mini-driving machine on the road.
The dealership always encourages me to fix my car, which could be seen as a blessing and a curse. When my car was between 7-10 years old, it required a number of repairs and replacement parts, becoming unsustainable to keep. I started wondering if 5+ years of car payment commitment for a new car would have been less than the repair costs each month. But what stopped me short of buying a new car was that I would miss Putt-Putt after a few days of a loaner. Of course I wondered if the dealership liked my car because it generated revenue. We are taught that car dealerships can't be trusted because they always have a motive to make as much money as possible and don't really care about their customers. With this stigma, why should anyone trust them? Especially me because I know so little about how cars work. I may know how IT systems work, but I can't figure out how an engine works for the life of me! If there is a problem with my car, I usually have no idea if it is a legitimate concern--or not. And, sadly, I don't have a lot of people to consult to help determine that.
The auto industry is typically focused on persuading customers to purchase new cars every few years and rarely encourages repairs to keep what we have. We are sold visions of new technology and improvements, not how our current car can work better for us as-is. When my car was aging, some friends and family encouraged me to buy a new car and asked if I was "afraid" of getting rid of my current car. I wasn't. I just liked my car and wanted to keep it. But there is no narrative or story in the auto industry to support that idea or make it a "cool" behavior. Trying to keep an older car working is seen as a fools errand.
Luckily, the dealership I go to for my MINI has a different view and vision about their cars. They are helpful, understanding, and want to do the right thing for their customers. I trusted them, but the dealership stigma was always underlying each conversation I had with them. In a way, I trusted them only so much. What made it worse - I always wondered if they were right because I didn't know about cars enough.
Recently, when my car started making a funny noise, I brought it into the shop and it was diagnosed with a couple of problems - one was that it needed a new gas pump (a problem I thought I fixed, but unfortunately didn't.). The other was what I considered to be "car athritis" - the plastic/rubber padding between the metal joints was wearing down.
I was working with a new customer account manager. What surprised me was that we started the conversation about the repair cost with a candid conversation regarding if it was worthwhile to for me to buy a new car. The repairs were expensive, but I still considered them cheaper than a monthly car payment for 5 years, even for a used car. At that point, I didn't have a major car repair in over 3 years, so all things considered, this wasn't that bad. And I was afraid that I couldn't find a new car like my car.
During the conversation he dropped what I never thought I would hear: my car was in phenomenal shape. Apparently, most people's cars have dials that are yellowed, clogged engines, and convertibles that don't work. He told me that my engine was clean, the body is almost brand new, the convertible works with no damage. It was a great car and I'd be crazy to replace it.
And since we are trained NOT to believe anyone who works at a dealership, I wasn't sure if I should believe him. So I did a little online research, and he was right. Compared to other cars its age, it's in great condition. Then I did a little more research and discovered that a car becomes a classic car in Texas when it is 25 years old. My car is halfway there. So given that it's in great shape, I had my new long-term plan for the car - I was going to keep the car and try to make it a classic rather than buy a new one in a few years because the car was just old. Keeping my car was no longer a "fools errand." It actually wasn't such a bad idea.
Shortly after that repair, my car suddenly wouldn't start. The electricity worked and went on, but the car wouldn't turnover. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. The guys from my boxing class couldn't figure out what was wrong. The towing guy couldn't figure out what was wrong. But what was most disconcerting: the car dealership couldn't figure out what was wrong.
After a week or two, they discovered the problem and fixed the car. I was worried about the cost to fix the problem, but mostly if they could fix it at all. I started looking for a new car, just in case. Needless to say, I couldn't find a replacement. But fortune was on my side and they made sure that the car worked great - better than it ever has before. It was during this last 2 months of repairs that my stigma left and my perspective of them permanently changed. Why?
- They gave me a vision for my car's future - and my future as a customer - besides replacing it with a new car. This was the pivotal point of the switch in my attitude towards them. When I heard that my car was in such good shape that I should keep it, it got me to wonder about making it a classic car. I got a new way to see my car, besides it being old and needing work. I now see it as a gem it is; not an aging dinosaur to be retired.
- Transparency, accountability, and honesty. Multiple transparent discussions to understand what was happening with my car at any point in time made it easier for me to trust them. I knew they were looking out for the best interest. Stigmas are hard to overcome, especially with the auto industry. There is little trust and every transaction is perceived to be a way for a dealership to make money. But if you are getting value for your repairs, it's better to go to the dealership and get the updates done right than have to get them redone later. And if they are honest with you - that helps!
- They cared. This happened with the dealership from day one buying the car. When I would be presented with bad news or notified of delays, the people I worked with were genuine. To be authentic means that they were being themselves, but to be genuine means that they are truly caring and make sure that I knew what they were feeling. Whenever I brought my car into the shop, they truly felt bad about what was happening and wanted to help me as much as possible. This is why I trust them with my car. They truly meant what they were saying.
Not only did they give me a vision for what I want to do with my car beyond buy a new one, they also gave me a vision of the type of relationship I should have with them in the future. It's candid and it's long-term. They helped me see my car's value and why these repairs matter. It's not to further their revenue and keep the stigma of car dealerships alive and well. It's to keep a MINI Cooper that's in good shape on the road longer and keep a happy client who will gladly refer business. That's what's most important.
We'll often undervalue the notion of giving customers a vision of what their purchase will bring them. We'll assume that once they purchase an item, they are in the replacement lifecycle. But there has to be a more meaningful solution than that. What else can a customer aspire to as a vision, a goal? Give that to your customer and you'll get more than loyalty. You'll get a business partner for life.