Consulting Stories: Forgetting Who Your Customer Is

 by Michael Satterfield

Enough time has passed that I feel I can share this story…

I still do a fair amount of consulting, mostly with automotive companies because of my broad background in the industry. I had received an e-mail from a company I had worked with, on and off, for a few years. They wanted me to do some research and come out for a few hours to try to give them a clue as to what they could do to change directions. For the last few years, they had seen major drops in sales and customer retention, they were getting roasted by consumers in online reviews, and new competitors were chipping away at their category dominance. 

We agreed on my fee, booked a date, and I started to do some research on the company, which had been founded in the 1970s, grown to have multiple locations in the US, and had been buying up smaller companies for years. What started as a small family business had been sold over the years to a series of investors, each of which added more product lines to the company before selling it off. 

The latest group of investors was baffled as to why the company had completely stalled after years of growth. They had tried different managers, different sales formats, revamped their website, and spent millions of dollars on social media and content marketing over the last five years, but nothing seemed to slow the decline. 

I went incognito and secret shopped both online and over the phone, researched the content they were creating, and spent time interacting with customers on automotive forums and social media. Within just a few hours the answer to their problem was apparent, they had no idea of what their core business was and no longer were serving their primary demographic. I followed up with some calls to the management team to gain more insights into what the boots on the ground felt was happening, it confirmed what I had suspected, and it wasn’t good.

On the day of the meeting I had prepared a short two page summary for the executive team, the conference room was sparsely decorated and a few members from the investment firm had flown down from New York. The president of the company opened the meeting, introduced me, and asked me to share my thoughts and findings. I introduced myself and then launched into the bullet points on my summary. “The main issue that is hindering sales and customer retention is a fundamental lack of understanding of what it is you are selling. Can someone here explain to me what this company does?” I said. One of the investors spoke up, “We sell replacement parts for classic cars.” His answer was exactly what I had expected, and completely wrong.

In my research leading up to the meeting, I had learned that hardly anyone at the company was a classic car enthusiast, from the investors to the management, to the customer service members answering the phones, there were only a few who were users of their own products. There was very little knowledge about the vehicles they sold parts for or the thousands of parts they carried. They had completely shifted the burden of being an expert to the customer. 

The management team pushed back saying that they didn’t need to have experts, they were going for the “Amazon of classic car parts model.” There was a fundamental lack of understanding that they weren’t selling “replacement parts” they were selling dreams. People who restore cars aren’t doing it because they need to maintain their everyday car to drive to work. They are restoring the car they took their wife out on their first date in it, the truck like the one they drove when they went fishing with grandpa, or the dream car their mom never bought for herself so her kids could go to college. Retail customers who are restoring cars are buying memories, dreams, or a lifestyle, they are not just buying wiper blades because they need them.

The look on the investor's faces said that I may as well have been speaking a different language, they were hoping for a quick fix, an app, or a social media trick that would turn things around. The hard truth was they needed to inject enthusiasm, passion, and expertise if they were going to compete in the marketplace. The shift they needed wasn’t a marketing platform or a training program, the shift would need to be in the mindset of what their core business was and the values that they operated by. To illustrate this, I went over my secret shopping experiences.

Online, I was able to find the parts I was looking for, despite there being a lot of wrong information in the product descriptions. However, when my order arrived, over 50% of it has been pulled wrong. The returns process was cumbersome and required me to call in, explaining to a customer service person who didn’t understand what the difference was between the parts I had ordered and what they had sent since both were technically for a 65 Ford Mustang. I was also told I would have to pay for the return shipping until they could verify that they sent the wrong parts. It wasn’t a very Amazon-like experience at all.

Calling in to place an order was even more painful, not only did the person not know anything about the cars or parts, they didn’t have access to the information so they could at least answer my basic questions. That order arrived with the wrong parts and with two of the five parts arriving damaged. These experiences were not isolated incidents a quick scan of online reviews and classic car forums yielded thousands of angry and frustrated former customers dealing with the same issues.  

The management team made a series of excuses for why I had a bad customer service experience, they blamed new staff, bad vendors, and even the weather. No one in management or a C-Level position seemed bothered by the fact that they were driving away customers because of bad customer service. It was like dealing with teenagers who just assumed everyone was a “hater” instead of reflecting on the feedback and improving. 

Page two of my summary had some possible plans of action, none of which would be cheap, easy, or fast. There wasn’t a clever marking strategy or social media tool that would make up for a bad customer service experience. The best option for a company of their scale would be to hire a team of car experts who would work with the web team and correct the site and intranet documents with the correct data, allowing any customer service person to look up the right information. With extensive training for all customer service staff and new call center scripts, coupled with a social media and web experience that reflected the new company-wide commitment to customer service, and they could turn it around. 

I would like to tell you that they listened, turned the company around, have five-star reviews, and found the path to growth. But instead, they doubled down, not investing in their people and opting to try to spend enough on advertising and fly by night social media marketing companies to suppress their negative image. 

Two years later, the company is still in decline, closing locations, and pulling in one-star reviews from the sales they do make. Contrasting their experience to another company I work with that is thriving and has a backlog of customers waiting for the parts they produce because everyone who works at the company is passionate about what they do. In today’s retail environment business owners must embrace that customer service, expertise, and quality are the only things that will truly set their brand apart from the “Amazon model.” 

Is your business still focused on its core customers, mission statement, and fundamental ideas? Do your branding, customer service, and social media reflect that? Are you getting sidetracked trying to appease everyone while pushing away your primary demographic? These are all questions that business owners, brand managers, and even people with personal brands should be asking themselves on a regular basis.

I hope you found this story helpful, please feel free to reach out with any questions.