April 7, 2020

Total Performance Leadership Blog Post #10: Customer Experience-Focus Groups

By Rob Andrews

In our last post in this series, we promised to dig into how the Sewell Automotive Group gives customers exactly what they want. Sewell assumes nothing. There are no rules that say a call has to be answered within a certain number of rings because rules like that are created by people who claim to know what customers want but don’t. Most conventional wisdom suggests that customers are offended by aggressive salespeople, but Sewell has not found that to be the case. In over 100 years in business, Carl hasn’t heard one complaint because of an overzealous salesperson. While Sewell pays a lot of attention to ensuring the sales process is pleasant, most complaints have to do with the service experience.

Sewell asks three questions when customers pay for service: Are the charges less, the same or more than the estimate? Was your vehicle ready when promised? Is this the second time for the same repair? Sewell believes those three questions get to the heart of every service transaction and can be applied to any business. Getting customers to answer these questions makes it possible for Sewell to respond immediately to unmet customer expectations, and to make things right on the spot. They also leave three lines for customers to add comments, and a small percentage of customers offer commentary. Most of the time Sewell does a pretty good job, and these short surveys provide an opportunity to remind the buying public of that fact without bragging. Surveys at Sewell are purposefully kept very short and are strictly optional so as not to inconvenience busy customers. The three extra lines do illicit comments that allow Sewell to evaluate ways in which they can improve, and where they might have dropped the ball.

Sewell borrowed the idea of longer surveys and focus groups from the supermarket industry, specifically from Stew Leonard’s, the world-renown Connecticut grocery store chain that resides at the very top of the industry’s customer loyalty and sales-per-square- foot list. As a matter of fact, they are in the Top 1/10th of 1%! Carl Sewell believes in management by wandering around (MBWA) as an effective way to keep tabs on things, but with twenty locations, MBWA is hard to scale. Regular and representative focus groups afford an opportunity to take Sewell customers’ temperatures.

Contrary to what many assume, Sewell has discovered that focus groups are pretty simple. Carl or one of the senior leaders assemble a dozen customers in a comfortable room and ask questions around what customers like and don’t like about doing business with them. Sometimes they ask questions about strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes they ask questions lifted from the 49-question service survey (page 108 and 109 in Customers for Life). They usually do four or five focus groups on each subject to ensure they get accurate responses from which to draw important conclusions.

Carl has discovered these simple focus groups are one of the most effective ways to get complete, honest and actionable feedback. It’s also a way to get both sides of the story. For example, when Ford did focus groups on the Taurus, 50% of participants hated the looks. Ford built the Taurus because 50% of the participants loved the looks, and sold 7,519,919 of them, surpassed only by the F-Series, Escort, Model T, and Mustang.

Carl also stresses that it’s important to pay attention to individual comments, even if only one person makes it. On one occasion, one customer made a comment that they couldn’t get a loaner car, which broke one of Sewell’s promises (something customers feel strongly about discovered from an early focus group). When Carl did a little checking, he discovered one of his GMs was telling customers he’d run out of loaners instead of maintaining an adequate fleet. Carl quickly replaced that General Manager and corrected the problem.

So, the checklist is as follows:

1. Don’t guess what customers want. They’re more than willing to tell you.

2. Make it easy for them to tell you. create a short questionnaire – no more than 5 questions, preferably 3 – that focuses on the most important parts of doing business with you from the customer’s point of view.

3. An easy way to get 100% response is to give customers that short survey when they pay. That way, they can fill it our when you total their bill.

4. Don’t pester them. If people don’t want to fill out the survey, that’s fine. Don’t force them to. Don’t start calling them up at night or hassling them when they are in the store. Remember, the whole idea behind asking them questions is to create a place where people are going to be happy doing business with you. If you pester them, they’re not going to be happy.