Magazine article Management Today

Driven by Customer Care

Magazine article Management Today

Driven by Customer Care

Article excerpt

When Ford commissioned independent research a couple of years ago to find out what its fleet customers thought of it, it got some pretty dusty answers. Quite a few respondents thought the company could do a lot better. They weren't dissatisfied with the cars themselves, but with the parts of the package that surrounded them, like after-sales service.

The research had been commissioned against a background of a decline in Ford's share of the UK fleet market. The company had had a buoyant, 45% in the early 1980s but was down to around 30% a decade later. The Japanese had entered the market and European competitors, facing recession and therefore reduced demand in Continental Europe, saw opportunities for compensatory expansion in the UK.

If Ford was to fight back, it had to make sure that its product was as attractive as possible. Which is where the research into customer satisfaction came in. The product that the fleet manager buys is not just the vehicle, it is the vehicle plus the back-up service from manufacturers and dealers, and since there was increasingly little to choose between the cars on offer from the major motor manufacturers in a purely physical and performance sense, service was, and is, a major differentiating factor. Sales might stand or fall not on the car itself but on the service surrounding it.

The research, then, was vital. `It was a simple strengths-and-weaknesses analysis,, says marketing manager, Ford Fleet Operations, Nick Rothwell. `What were we good at? What were we bad at? What could we do that delivered solutions to the customers' needs? You have to bear in mind that for many customers, running vehicles is not a core business activity. We have customers who may buy 7,000 or 8,000 vehicles from us but for most of them it's still a secondary element of their business. They're in construction or banking. The cars are a very significant element of their overall business activity but it's not a core activity, so they've looking for hassle-free motoring.'

The research showed that customers wanted, but felt they didn't always get, easy points of contact at dealerships and at the manufacturers, and simple, quick answers to their questions. They didn't want to spend hours on the phone being passed from pillar to post with nobody at the manufacturers' or dealers? end `owning' the problem. They wanted their problems resolved professionally and quickly. They also wanted information that might be directly useful to them in their businesses, and rewards for being loyal customers.

Having digested all of this, Ford set in train what it calls Ford Business Solutions, which is an umbrella term covering a number of separate, though linked, initiatives aimed at improving customer service and thereby, Ford hopes, differentiating its offer from that of its competitors.

The first Business Solution, aimed largely at what Ford describes as the local business customers (fleet owners operating less than 100 vehicles), was in fact an extension nationwide of a scheme that had already been tried on a more restricted basis for a year or so before the research. Ford has now made it mandatory for all dealers with a Ford franchise to appoint, at their own expense, a so-called local business specialist (LBS). The LBS is, from the fleet owner's perspective, his Mr Fix-it in the dealership. He is the point of contact who gets things done in the dealership on the customer's behalf.

`There's a lot of expertise in a dealership' says Lin Greenfield, manager, business development programmes, fleet marketing. `There's sales, servicing, body repairs and so on. The problem that business customers had was that if they wanted to tap into that expertise they had to talk to each department separately. The LBS now offers them one point of contact.'

The LBSs are more than just conduits into the dealership, however. A large part of their job is getting to know each customer's business, anticipating his needs and taking the worry out of running a fleet. …

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