Imagine hitting it off so well with a car dealer that you invite him to your daughter's wedding -- or even meet him for lunch from time to time just to catch up. Better yet, imagine a mechanic at the dealership working late because, well, he just promised he would have your car back to you on time. For the average car buyer, such scenarios seem the stuff of fantasy. But relationships -- and sometimes even friendships -- such as these are budding at Audi dealerships throughout the world.
What has endeared Audi's staff to its customers and made it excel at selling cars (worldwide Audi sales reached an all-time high last year of 650,000 cars) is branding. But this is much more than just plastering corporate logos on coffee mugs and mousepads. Audi has transformed branding from a cut-and-dried marketing practice into what Len Hunt, vice president for Audi of America, likes to call "a force that releases and directs human energy." To develop that holistic approach, Audi recruits staff at all levels and skill-sets, whose psychological traits parallel and support the automaker's unique brand values.
"We aren't just looking for good technicians or good salespeople, we are looking for good Audi technicians and salespeople -- employees who empathize with the company's identity and, therefore, empathize with the customer." Such brand ambassadors, says Hunt, not only outperform their peers, but are more likely to stick around: a huge benefit, considering the high cost of employee turnover, both in dollars and in customer service.
The process of identifying exemplary Audi people was borne out of the automaker's branding campaign in the early 1990s, in which it set out to differentiate itself from its parent, Volkswagen. That campaign, which included developing separate Audi sales and maintenance centers, reinstated Audi as a worthy competitor to other European car makers, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The Gallup Organization took the marketing research behind that campaign to help Audi management discern customer attributes: things that distinguish the typical Audi driver from competitors.
"It turned out that the Audi driver is, for one, a relator," says Hunt, "someone who enjoys building one-on-one relationships with the dealers and mechanics. In other words, they like to talk about their cars." Compare that to the profile of the typical BMW driver, who is more likely drawn to BMW's "ultimate driving machine" slogan, and you have two very different customers. "We found through our marketing research that the BMW driver was less interested in building a relationship" and more interested in service, says Hunt. "He wants to pick up his car when it is ready, end of story."
Audi's next logical step was to recruit workers -- from salespeople to mechanics -- whose psychological characteristics matched and supported those of the automaker and its customers. "Just as BMW drivers differ from Audi drivers, so too should Audi salespeople differ from BMW salespeople," explains Hunt. To find such brand-sympathetic employees, Audi enlisted Gallup to interview all 135 Audi dealers in the U.K., comparing in each interview the traits that best defined the top-performing dealers with those that defined the Audi brand and its customers. From that survey, Gallup developed themes -- and questions intended to reveal those themes -- that captured the common characteristics of dealers who best translated the Audi brand into thought and deed.
It was no surprise then that one of the employee themes was Relator, not being afraid to develop a personal relationship with the customer. Another theme: Individualizer, which describes someone who avoids typecasting car buyers. "Individualizers recognize intuitively that each customer has different needs and interests, and they respond to each customer on the basis of his or her individuality," says Hunt. For instance, when someone who reflects the Individualizer theme is asked what closes a deal, he or she might respond by remembering what pleased the customer the most. And they are more inclined to ask the customer about their family and where they go on vacations.
From these themes it was but a short step to extend the project to other positions within the organization, says Hunt. Audi discovered that the prototypical Audi technician, for example, didn't just simply repair cars well; he also liked to work directly with the customers. The theme here: Empathy, especially toward customers who revealed that they were not mechanically inclined or who felt uneasy about not knowing what was wrong with their cars. "An Audi mechanic will come out and explain a problem to the customer," says Hunt. "He might even take the customer for a spin and demonstrate how the customer can avoid the same problem in the future."
Such employee profiling has gone far toward helping the automaker uncover Audi people. And, says Hunt, "If members of our staff work in an environment that matches their personal values, we stand a better chance of keeping them." He admits that every good manager knows that happy employees make happy customers; the difference is that Audi has validated and measured the alignment between human traits and brand values. "We've found that brand-sympathetic staff, whether they are selling new cars, used cars or car parts, have boosted net profits an average of 8% at their dealerships," said Hunt. After all, he says, "this business is about people -- about getting people married to their cars."