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Marginal: No Secrets

What is the secret to success? If I had the definitive answer, it wouldn't be a secret. What's more, I'm not so certain that if everyone did have the secret, there would be such a thing as success. It is, after all, a com-parative state of affairs. That is, if everyone was successful, would anyone be successful?

What is the secret to success? If I had the definitive answer, it wouldn't be a secret. What's more, I'm not so certain that if everyone did have the secret, there would be such a thing as success. It is, after all, a com-parative state of affairs. That is, if everyone was successful, would anyone be successful?

But to step back, it seems as though that there isn't a secret to success. It's not that there aren't things that people can do in order to differentiate themselves in a positive way. There are. They are finite. And they are simple. For one thing, there's customer satisfaction. I'll pause for (1) gasps of incredulity and (2) the opportunity for you to write that one down.

In fact, those companies that do an excellent job at customer satisfaction are undoubtedly successful. So why isn't everyone successful? Because satisfying customers isn't simple. Nor is it easy. One of the hardest aspects of customer satisfaction is deciding just who the customer really is. Too many companies want to define their customer base as broadly as possible, thereby assuring themselves (or so they try to assure themselves) of the most capacious buyer group. While this might make some sense for some products, there are probably fewer products that it works for than you might imagine. Take something as simple as toothpaste. Look at the vast array of types of Crest toothpaste on the shelves in your grocery store. Presumably, those who are looking for a toothpaste that provides Dual Action Whitening are not the same who are looking for Multi Care Advanced Cleaning. One type does not accommodate all. Sure, there is the broad category of "toothpaste," but Procter & Gamble knows that there are discrete groups of consumers.

But automobiles aren't toothpaste, you say. Obviously. But that fact doesn't make customer satisfaction any less salient. In fact, if you buy a tube of toothpaste and decide that you're not crazy about it, you can either (1) tough it out and use it until the tube is exhausted or (2) toss it without too much remorse. You may not go back to that brand, but there is a possibility that you will. Chances are, you'll not go far and wide in telling other people that the particular type of toothpaste is anathema. The situation with cars and trucks, of course, is somewhat more complex—to put it mildly. If you buy one that doesn't work as you expected, or if you have trouble with it, you're (1) stuck with it and (2) likely to let everyone you encounter know of your unhappiness. You are not a satisfied customer.

I submit that a key reason why there are companies that are losing market share relates to the fragmentation of the market and because they continue to think that they can appropriately address these manifold needs with a comparatively undifferentiated product. Oh, sure, there are some trim changes here and there, or a higher-level audio system, or a different color palette. But, pretty much, all superficial changes. These changes aren't necessarily enough to convince people—or to satisfy them.

One of the companies that is doing it right is Lexus. This past August was the best sales month that the company has had in its 12 years of existence: it sold 24,123 units. Lexus vehicles don't come inexpensively. You may get into an ES 300 for about $32,000, an RX 300 in the $34K+ vicinity, but it quickly goes up from there to the mid-$55K-and-higher arena. Now while the stock market is an ever-changing thing, the changes in August were, for the most part, for the worse. Yet Lexus racks up these numbers. It didn't do it with 0% financing, or with powertrain warranties that probably engender as much suspicion as they do confidence in the builder. They didn't do it with gimmicks. They did do it with well-engineered vehicles that are closely tailored (for mass produced products, at least) to customer needs.

There's no magic. No secret. Nothing you and your company can't do. So why don't you do it? 

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