LOS ANGELES – Chuck Yaeger describes his job at Lexus as “taking care of people with problems.”
If that sounds stressful, most of the time he’s happy to help the unhappy in his role as national manager of the Toyota luxury brand’s customer-satisfaction department.
But a string of misfortunes put him to the test recently.
Some customers who contact the Lexus equivalent of the complaint desk just want answers to head-scratching technical questions about the operation of their vehicles. Yaeger predicts such queries will increase as cars become more technologically advanced.
Oddballs call now and then. “One woman felt the locator chip in her navigation system was our way of following her,” he says. “That was a 40-minute phone call.”
Lexus debuted 24 years ago dedicated to delivering a supreme customer experience. At its core is a “servant’s heart,” says Yaeger, the head butler of his place.
He has managed to keep his poise during what he calls “the perfect storm” that hit Lexus in waves, starting in late 2008.
First, along with the rest of the auto industry, the Japanese brand watched in horror as the recession shoved sales off a cliff. Lexus U.S. deliveries dropped from 329,177 units in 2007 to 215,975 in 2009, according to WardsAuto data.
Second, Lexus became embroiled in a series of recalls, mostly stemming from sudden-acceleration claims. Eventually deemed as groundless, they unnerved owners nonetheless.
Third, a 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan virtually shut down homeland Lexus production for months.
“Everything seems to happen in threes,” Yaeger says, citing an adage at the 2013 Automotive Customer Centricity Summit put on by the Thought Leadership Summits.
During the height of the sudden-acceleration publicity three years ago, phone calls to his department shot up 35%. “You are not prepared for that many,” he says. “People were saying, ‘Take my car back, my car is a killer.’”
As the panic calls poured in, Yaeger’s unit for the first time had to outsource some of its work. Calls rose to more than 250,000 in 2010, “a horrible year,” he says.
Comprehensive testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., the National Academy of Sciences and others ultimately determined the sudden-acceleration cases primarily involved driver error, misstated claims and improperly placed floor mats that slid over and depressed gas pedals.
For example, a woman who initially claimed her Lexus accelerated on its own later acknowledged the problem was that she put all-weather floormats atop the mats that came with the car.
During the economic hard times, Lexus received a surge of calls from “people who were trying to get their cars fixed for free,” Yaeger says. In the midst of the sudden-acceleration scare, several customers complained about brake failures and cruise-control malfunctions, “things we hadn’t heard before.”
Now, the worst seems over. “Things are calm for us,” Yaeger says. But, careful not to tempt fate, he adds: “I say that quietly.”
The Lexus customer-satisfaction department hears from people in a variety of ways. In addition to phone calls are emails and online chat. “And believe it or not, people still write letters,” Yaeger says. “We get about 100 a month.”
The unit is dabbling in using online social networking, but has found it a tough channel for efficiently resolving customer issues.
Lexus relied on its dealer body to help it through the troubles, particularly the recalls. “Our dealer associates became our secret sauce,” Yaeger says. “Dealers made commitments and did everything they could.”
In these non-crisis times, the brand still depends on its dealers to serve on the front line of customer satisfaction.
“The customer relationship is at the dealership,” Yaeger says. “We want it at that root level, where questions can be answered, especially as cars become equipped with so much technology.”
Lexus wants dealership personnel to serve as technology and delivery specialists, explaining how various features work and answering questions, on the premise that it is impossible to go through a 1,000-page owner’s manual in 15 minutes.
Lexus now is riding the wave of the auto-industry recovery. The brand’s U.S. sales rose to 244,166 in 2012, a 23% increase over 2011. Sales through July of this year are up 9.5% to 118,415, according to WardsAuto.
Once the No.1-selling luxury brand in the U.S., Lexus fell behind BMW and Mercedes-Benz after the troubles began.
Today, Yaeger says, “We’re moving in the right direction” as the brand seeks to elevate the customer experience, amp up the emotional appeal of its products and maximize market impact. “If we do the first two right, the third should readily come.”