The tough conditions of the new car market have led to customer retention being one of the most talked-about subjects among carmakers.
One such company is Audi, which has been growing aggressively in recent years and is dependent on its retail network to ensure the customers it has won will stay.
Audi UK’s strategy focuses on becoming the number one premium car brand, and number one for customer satisfaction among competing brands.
This approach is firmly rooted in building satisfaction and loyalty among existing customers, so when they replace their car they buy another Audi, as well as growing new markets.
Achieving this relies in part on two key factors defined by the Audi UK team: delivering excellent customer satisfaction and making Audi the best place to work in order to attract the best quality people, who will deliver that customer experience.
Audi UK’s head of aftersales and service, Paul Sansom, started working on a programme of ‘Staff Experience Improvement’ (SEI) three years ago to gain Audi a 360-degree view of the company, including from the
employees’ point of view.
The aim was to become the best place to work, which would in turn link to delivering a great customer experience.
Audi wanted to create a sustainable programme of change, to precipitate a cultural shift within the organisation that would, ultimately, help the business perform to the best of its ability.
Sansom said: “Great customer experience is usually delivered through human interaction – someone in a centre who goes the extra mile. It’s led by individuals, who excel in the ‘art of the unexpected’.”
In 2009, Sansom began working with Insight Exchange, a consultancy specialising in improving employee and customer experience.
Insight Exchange’s methodology is designed to help brands improve their staff and customer experience, by working with employees at all levels to develop and carry out improvements to the business.
It works on the basis that working with the people at the frontline of the business – those who have the most direct contact with customers – can generate ideas and enthusiasm for improvements that have a real impact on the business.
Since Audi UK’s dealers were invited to work with Insight Exchange on the SEI programme, nearly 50% of the 117-strong network has taken part and more will join this year.
Initially, Audi UK and Insight Exchange worked with the business owners, to learn what initiatives were already in place, and to explain the programme and examine the potential positive impact on business performance by improving the staff experience.
It’s not a case of asking for benchmarking figures, but for employees’ views and suggestions for changes that will improve the business.
Next came an online, anonymous survey of all staff to understand how employees feel about working for the brand and where the business could be improved.
Feedback was analysed by Insight Exchange, which presented a ‘weather chart’ of results to the dealership team to highlight representative comments and common issues.
Next the main focus of the SEI programme – working with Audi employees to develop business improvement initiatives – began.
Insight Exchange worked with the participating centre in off-site workshops for all staff.
At these, employees worked in teams, which mix up people from all areas of the business, to come up with practical, actionable ideas to improve the business.
Inside Exchange then collates this feedback and presents it, warts and all, to the management team of the respective Audi centre for its consideration.
Insight Exchange found that much feedback initially relates to the working environment.
Emotive issues that are immediately important to employees can be very simple to fix, such as improving the staff canteen or providing more parking facilities.
While the point of the programme is about long-term, sustainable change, the ‘quick fixes’ can be a real boost to staff morale, and help to show that management is really committed to change, said Sansom.
Even these environment fixes have a business benefit. At Crawley Audi, part of Inchcape, head of business Toby Burton said: “Our employees could suggest any improvements as long as they had a clear business benefit.
“We found that computer speeds were slow, so we replaced and upgraded the computers, which has a clear benefit.
"Another issue for employees was parking. We agreed to make more parking available to staff, which has had some real benefits.
“Firstly, people can come and go more safely during the winter evenings, and secondly they’re more likely to get to work on time if they drive.”
To start the real work, a business improvement group was created, made up of volunteers from all areas of the business, from field staff to management.
The group meets regularly with the Insight Exchange team to discuss issues and come up with practical, actionable ideas to improve the business.
“There will always be improvements to be made,” said Sansom. “This process represents a cultural and behavioural shift in the business, and isn’t a one-off initiative.”
Examples of these actionable ideas are clearly seen at Crawley Audi.
“We have a series of ‘values weeks’, where we all focus on one of the business values and do things relating to that value,” said Burton.
“The idea is to bring our values to life, and make them part of the business, as well as having some fun with it. People will suggest ways to make the values real.”
The Crawley business improvement group also came up with the initiative to design a new induction scheme for new members of staff, which would embed the company values in anyone joining the company straight away.
All new joiners spend the first two days of their employment with a member of the business improvement group, and are introduced to all departments through the business, get an introduction to the SEI process and learn about Inchcape and Audi.
Audi measures the programme by a reduction in staff turnover, an improvement in customer satisfaction and, ultimately, an improvement in financial performance at dealerships.
“We’ve seen that those centres with improved satisfaction scores and lower staff turnover figures see an increase in profitability,” said Sansom.
“Of course, there are many variables, but we know that the centres that have been through SEI programmes have seen an increase in profitability and performance.”
Keeping feedback positive
Feedback is presented to the Audi centre management team in a way that is positive and constructive. Paul Sansom said: “However well a centre is performing, it can be hard for management to hear criticism, even when it’s constructive.”
He said there was a common cycle that management teams go through when facing criticism:
Denial “A manager’s initial reaction is often ‘It’s not like that here’,” said Sansom. “But the beauty of the Insight Exchange programme is it doesn’t take a single piece of feedback and escalate it, it’s always representative of the general feeling.
Very often it’s the case that feedback from staff at one centre reflects other audits, or general industry issues, so you can say ‘the things we’ve found here are very similar to what we found in X centre’.
No-one is singled out for criticism, this is all about finding ways to improve.”
Guilt “A common response is to say ‘I had no idea they felt like that’, and to want to put it right”, said Sansom. “We focus on why we’re doing the programme, which is to improve the business, not create a blame culture.”
Action The response from business owners has been incredibly positive, said Sansom.
“There is a real desire to change anything that isn’t working, and make the centres great places to work. The next stage in the cycle is to say ‘What can I do to change it and make it better?’”
Customers have their say at Poole
At Poole Audi, head of business Steve Russell worked with Insight Exchange to create a separate initiative to involve customers in the improvement process.
A representative sample of Audi customers who felt they had constructive suggestions for improvements were invited to take part in a filmed workshop.
They discussed issues – positive and negative – about their experiences with Audi, and came up with ideas for change.
Insight Exchange presented a representative short film of customer feedback.
The dealership’s business improvement group was then tasked with coming up with initiatives that would raise the standard to meet the ambition to achieve a ‘brilliant’ (not just ‘satisfying’) customer experience.
The first initiative was to introduce a free oil and screenwash top-up service for customers.
Any Audi driver in the Poole area needing a top-up can now call in without appointment and it’ll be done.
Russell calls this a return to good old fashioned service: “The kind you used to get at filling stations, or the village garage.”
Initial results show that this has created enormous goodwill among customers, and has been really successful in creating loyalty and value.
The second initiative was a change in sales policy. Customers didn’t want to combine the paperwork of a new car with its delivery.
Russell said: “Taking delivery of a new car should be a really exciting and positive experience – a cause for celebration.
“Having to do the paperwork on the day you take delivery of the car tarnished the experience for some people. So we’ve created a system where customers come in two days before they take delivery and do all the paperwork and financing.
"Then when they come back for the car two days later, they can focus on the car, and it’s a real celebration.”
Russell said: “It’s really hard to link staff turnover reduction or increased profitability to SEI. But the bottom line is, you have a choice. If you choose not to engage with your staff or customers, what kind of business are you creating?
“If you engage with staff, they’ll go the extra mile to delight customers. If you engage with customers, they’ll be more loyal.
“Intuitively, this is linked to profitability – creating and building a better business.”