Tom Doll’s main interest is moving the metal, but that’s not all there is to running an auto company these days.
“We have to learn to be a sales, marketing and technology company,” says the president and chief operating officer of Subaru of America. “You need to know how to handle customer data. I never imagined I’d be running a technology company.”
Information technology helps business, but it only aids the cause so much, he says at a recent automotive conference put on by the National Automobile Dealers Assn. and J.D. Power. “We have to know when enough is enough.”
Humans have changed little in 30,000 years. “We’re still a tribal species, we still like the human touch,” Doll says. “I like online shopping, but I’ve never shaken hands with or gotten a smile from the seller (in an e-commerce transaction).”
Subaru wants its 620 U.S. dealers to use data but not in lieu of true customer engagement.
“People are happiest when they get real time from a real person during a transaction,” Doll says. “That’s why we are asking retailers to give that human touch and be pillars of their communities. Customers want to be greeted by a real person, talk to a service adviser and know a human will fix their car.
Technology, while useful, can make humans feel isolated if taken too far, Doll says. “When I hear some companies talking about technology, they seldom talk about people.
“Our car retailers need people to sell and service cars and provide human care to customers. Our people want to make someone’s day by saying ‘yes.’”
The Japanese automaker’s U.S. unit began a brand transformation a few years ago, focusing on customer lifestyles.
That includes using data management systems to match marketing and promotions to customer interests. For instance, Subaru found most of its buyers own pets. So the company partnered with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dealers hold pet-adoption days at their stores.
Subaru is hot these days. A few years ago, it sold 100,000 units a year in the U.S. Last year, it delivered 513,693, a 20% increase over 2013. April sales represented 41 months of consecutive growth. Pending are capacity expansions at its Indiana plant.
“We could sell more, but we’re constrained by production,” Doll tells WardsAuto.
Jesting in part, he predicts what’s ahead for society. “We’ll be living in megacities and we’ll be driven around by autonomous cars that know everything, including our blood type.”