I recently spent a few days with all the *automobile manufacturers and their dealers and was struck at how different the business has become over the past decade or two. Make no mistake, the product is still king. Always was, and probably always will be. But for many products, the real difference in the next decade is not going to be the product itself butthe process. Having a great product with great quality and the right price will be just the beginning. We will expect that up-front. No ifs and no buts.
We now make our decisions on the entire process of shopping and buying. For manufacturers, that is going to be scary because they rely on retailers to sell their products and, in many cases, to service them as well.
That's going to change the equation for us when we start to shop around for a television set or a major appliance or, certainly, a car. We will really care about how we are treated when we walk into the store. And if our product ever needs service, then we are going to pay particular attention to just how good the service was. Our neighbors are going to know what we think.
Companies also will have to take responsibility for their dealers. In the old days, when you would call a manufacturer with a complaint, you all too often would hear them say they understood the problem, but they knew that the dealer was not doing a good job and would sort of go along with it. Not anymore.
We used a company in St. Louis called the Telephone ``Doctor'' to train our own employees that it is important to treat people correctly on the phone.
Since we have direct-dial numbers, that means that people don't have to go through a switchboard but can get right into the heart of our company with the first call, and that may well be the first contact.
It's been amazing how helpful the Telephone ``Doctor'' has been. But it's only the beginning. We are well aware that we, like most folks, aren't doing it right all the time. But we are trying hard to change our culture. Don't give me the good news or the bad quite yet. We're working on it, but we might have a little ways to go.
Telephone manners are but a small part of the sales and service that customers will expect. It won't be easy to change. But if we don't, our competitors will be more than willing to treat our customers the right way-right away.
Mr. Crain is vice chairman of Crain Communications Inc. and editorial director of Tire Business.