Thursday, February 28, 2008

What Audi Doesn't Understand and Acura Does

One of the core components of brand and corporate reputation is customer service, yet many companies fail to fully provide the level of service to match their high-priced brands. In the auto industry, the issue has often been the distribution relationship between the manufacturer and the dealer which leaves the dealer in charge of the brand in relation to the customer.

My wife leased a 2007 Audi A4 two years ago and almost immediately began having problems with the navigation system. She took the car back to the dealer 5 times and each time they said they had fixed the system, but it still did not work properly. Finally, I wrote to the president of Audi US, who forwarded my letter of complaint to a regional service manager to handle the problem. To say that the regional service manager was a low-level complaint department with no ability or authority to properly deal with the problem would be a bit of an understatement. Having lived much of my adult life in the corporate world, I could tell from my numerous telephone coversations with him that he was unable to solve our problem, even if he were willing to do so. But, because he had so little knowledge of customer relationship management, any appeal to his sense of marketing, brand and reputation management failed to make even a dent.

He suggested that we bring the car into yet another dealer for checking the system. I commented that after 5 tries we were more than a bit frustrated with that route and that the company should replace the system. He refused to do that and said he had no authority to make such an offer. He suggested that we could order a new software package and download it ourselves. We found this offer unsatisfactory. After several very frustrating telephone conversations and letters back and forth, we decided that our best course of action would be to wait out the 2-year lease and get rid of the car.

When my wife finally returned the car to another dealer, she asked if her experience was typical. The gentleman at the dealership said: "I shouldn't be bad-mouthing my company, but this is the way Audi treats customers". He gave us a few other examples in which Audi would not stand behind its product and service was short-changed.

Now, let's juxtipose this against my own personal experience with Acura. I own an MDX, which I bought in 2005. A few months ago, I started to have some problems with my navigation system. I took it in for service. I got a call from the dealer who said that my system was acting up for them as well and that they thought that I should get a new software package installed. The normal cost would be $285, but they had gotten Acura to agree to pick up the cost. Situation solved. Customer happy. Loyalty to the dealer and Acura secured.

After my wife turned in her Audi, she bought a new car. Guess what she bought? She got an 2008 Acura TL from the dealer who had been so good to me.

The morale of this story is so simple that it is amazing to me that every company does not fully understand it. When dealing with high-priced, high-quality brands, one must understand that customer service is an integral part of the total brand experience. Selling a car is not like selling Coke. A can of Coke costs a dollar or two and has a usage life of a few minutes. Cars are expensive and have usage lives of years. The management of the brand cannot, like a Coke, stop at consumption. In fact, even Coke realizes how to enliven the brand experience to create return customers. Audi's customer service and brand management were so poor that they can only serve as illustrations in this blog, to my clients and with my student of what not to do.

A few decades ago, Audi had a problem with its breaking system. At that time, its response was to blame U.S. drivers for not knowing how to drive high-performance European cars. The real fault, it was found, was an engineering problem. I guess the people running Audi still have not learned a sufficient lesson in how to handle customer service and what good brand and reputation management really mean.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Crisis Planning is Not Reputation Management

Whenever communications people talk about reputation management, the talk immediately turns to the subject of crisis management and how important it is to prepare the organization for a crisis.

Crisis managaement is to reputation management as fire fighting is to fire prevention. Crisis management is important and plans should be in place, but it is handling of an already existing problem. Reputation management should be a strategic process that gets everyone in management aligned on how to balance the needs and interests of all stakeholders so that reputation is enhanced and risk is minimized.

A good way to manage reputation in a complex organization is via the use of a Reputation Council. The Council brings together all of those in the organization responsible for "stakeholder relations". The membership would include communications, human resources, marketing, sales, government relations, investor affairs, and any other function that has responsibility for an important stakeholder of the company.

The Council would have as its objective the integration of the company's reputation efforts with regard to employees, customers, investors, media, government agencies, and all other stakeholders. The Council would all work from the same strategic guidelines and would share research, both that already on-hand, as well as that which is needed. It is amazing how often I have found that research done by one organization is not shared with other organizations.

Through such a Council, reputation can be managed as a holistic, strategic company-wide process. Crisis management would then take its rightful place as a tactic within the overall plan.