THE FOLLOWING IS THE TALE OF A JADED WRITER (ME) who went into an event with one feeling (mostly apathy) about a car company (Saturn) and left with another (fascination).
My epiphany was less dramatic than St. Paul's conversion via a Biblical lightning bolt and far less historic than Bobby Kennedy's change from a seemingly heartless attorney general to a compassionate senator and presidential candidate. But it was a revelation nonetheless. It also contains a lesson for every new-vehicle dealer. Allow me to explain.
Automotive journalists are a spoiled lot. There's no denying that. We often travel to luxurious resorts to be introduced to the best cars and trucks in the world.
We drive sports cars on race tracks and we go off road in vehicles best-equipped for that purpose. We drive luxury cars on the most scenic roads this and other nations have to offer.
We're regularly wined and dined at the best restaurants. Manufacturers spare no expense in hopes of leaving us with good impressions of their companies and their newest products.
Every once in a while, however, you have to earn your paycheck. Occasionally the pampered auto scribe must cover a press conference or attend an event that is either marginal in newsworthiness or just doesn't seem like it will be much fun.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I felt this way when faced with the prospect of spending the last weekend of July in Spring Hill, TN test driving the latest Saturn models and attending the company's second big customer Homecoming celebration on the grounds of its assembly plant.
I did look forward to chatting with Saturn owners. I wanted to understand their reasons for traveling to Tennessee.
I've been to shows for classic-car connoisseurs and weekend-long parties for Corvette enthusiasts. I've talked to people who have attended events celebrating the Dodge Viper and even BMW.
To me these events are understandable. Classic cars, Corvettes, Vipers and BMWs inspire passion either because of their design or their performance.
No matter how reliable they are, Saturn's vehicles will never inspire passion for their design and performance. The loyalty must come from somewhere else. Like I said, I was intrigued.
So, duty called and off I went.
At dinner before the test drive, I asked any Saturn official I could find to explain why customers come to Spring Hill for an event. The answer always was, "it's the service and attention they get at the retailer. It's the Saturn experience."
Fine. Everybody says their dealerships offer customers the best service.
The next morning I drove the refreshed-for-2000 S-Series Saturn. Solid car. Very nice, actually. Then I drove the new L-Series. Again, very solid.
Inspirational? Passion-provoking? Not quite. Then I spent time with some of the Saturn owners at the Homecoming event itself. Their stories are what moved me from apathy to fascination where Saturn is concerned.
One gentleman I spoke with drove 100 miles from his home to the nearest Saturn retailer to buy his vehicle. And he continues to go there for maintenance and service.
Another story I heard was of a woman who was all but ignored at more than one other dealership before being treated with respect at a Saturn store. When something goes wrong with her car, it is taken care of quickly, is washed and a rose placed on the front seat.
"I can't wait for the next problem," she is quoted as saying.
If you aren't a Saturn dealer can you imagine a customer looking forward to their car breaking so they can go back for service? Not going to happen.
Homecoming, you see, is only the culmination of a constant focus on the customer. Dealers host champagne receptions to unveil new models for customers. Regional customer appreciation celebrations take place at amusement parks, water parks, Major League Baseball stadiums and other venues every year.
The bottom line is that some 20,000 Saturn owners drove to Spring Hill from as far away as Seattle, Los Angeles and Boston to revel in the fact that they own a Saturn. They do so not because Saturns are such great cars, but because the retail experience and the ensuing service experience are so awesome.
What is the lesson here for all dealers? If you go the extra mile, treat customers with respect, take care of their needs and make them feel like they're part of a family instead of as a source of profit, you can inspire loyalty and passion.
Oldsmobile tried unsuccessfully to Saturnize under John Rock. Other dealers who hold Saturn franchises have tried to incorporate Saturn-ish philosophies at their other stores with limited success.
The reason Saturn could do what it did, it's argued, is because it had a clean sheet of paper. It could place stores strategically so that one-price selling had a chance.
But one-price selling isn't why customers drive thousands of miles to celebrate owning a Saturn. It's because the people of Saturn - from the factory in Spring Hill to the local retailers - make visiting the stores enjoyable rather than a dread.
There's no reason why all dealers shouldn't be able to do that. If you do you'll inspire loyalty and passion from your customers and impress a pampered automotive journalist.
Tim Keenan is senior editor of Ward's Dealer Business. He can be reached at [email protected]