By Andrew McMillan, ex-John Lewis head of customer service and principal partner at consultancy Charteris
So, after 28 years at John Lewis department stores I decide to leave and become a consultant in 2008. Not the best year to have chosen to leave a secure corporate job, but who saw all this economic turmoil coming then?
However, the economic climate forced me to look for work in other sectors outside retail which was a fabulous benefit for me (at least in hindsight) and after working in local government, finance, the NHS, travel and tourism, education, central government and a little retail, I found myself working within the automotive sector, both on the manufacturing and retail sides of the business.
Now, here’s a confession, I hate buying cars. What’s more, a quick straw poll of my non-automotive sector friends revealed that they don’t enjoy it very much either. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t like cars, on the contrary, I have three cars and there are only two drivers in my family, but I hate the buying process – although not all of it.
The sales process
There is a certain pleasure in determining the shortlist of cars for consideration whether that is for business or family transport. There’s also some enjoyment in going to see the shortlisted cars at the local dealerships to refine the list further until only one or two models remain.
Then, when the final choice has been made, the fear and trepidation set in as you have to brace yourself to negotiate for the car you have chosen.
Up to that point the experience has been generally good. You have visited what are usually beautifully appointed showrooms and have sat in some beautifully prepared cars. More than likely you will have been offered fresh coffee and a comfy seat and will have been given an impressive brochure for each of the cars you have been looking at, but now, at the point you have decided to buy something, the sales process starts.
The salesperson will be asking for your name, telephone number and e-mail address even if you haven’t seen the exact car you want to buy yet because this is the start of the process and if they don’t get your details at this point they think they may never see you again. Of course, if you want them to track down a specific model then taking contact details is great customer service, but so often details are requested before the sales person even knows what you want – because there is a process to be followed.
When you actually decide to buy a particular model it gets even worse if you have a car to part-exchange. All the fresh coffee in the beautifully appointed showroom counts for nothing when you realise that you will be paying for it unless you can negotiate harder than the salesperson you are dealing with.
That is bad enough, until you push that salesperson as hard as you can on the price for your car and they have to consult with their manager – who you will never meet. So, you are left sitting in the showroom for anything up to 20 minutes (in my experience) while the salesperson goes to tell the manager that you are trying to negotiate outside his/her limits. At this point in the process you have time to reflect on the fact that the person you are about to give £15,000, £20,000 or £30,000 to isn’t sufficiently trusted by their own employer to finalise the sale on their own.
If you are lucky as a customer (or naive) this process will have been handled in such a way as you still have a sense of pleasure and excitement in buying your new car, but so often customers are left wondering if they could have agreed a better price or a better interest rate on the finance which can take some or all of the pleasure out of the deal.
Time for change
Now, this may read like a rant against the automotive sector, but I promise you it isn’t.
I have been fortunate enough to meet and to work with some very talented people over the last 18 months I have been involved with the sector.
However, I believe the old business models are becoming unsustainable in the longer term and some businesses are already embracing that change whereas others still tread the more familiar path.
Of course, as I have come to understand, it is a complex and challenging business and the retailer is the last link of a production line that starts in Europe or the Far East who have got to maintain volume production, and consequently sales, to keep their economy in balance. However, there are some alternative approaches to the business that have the potential to make the sector more resilient and consequently offer greater security in the current climate.
I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you over the coming months.